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Obama Administration Quietly Seeks Extra Boost for Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

Stephen Lacey's picture
Greentech Media

Stephen Lacey is a Senior Editor at Greentech Media, where he focuses primarily on energy efficiency. He has extensive experience reporting on the business and politics of cleantech. He was...

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  • Mar 26, 2015

obama smrs

Can an executive order for government clean energy procurement help next-generation nuclear?

President Obama is using his executive authority to encourage the government to invest in next-generation nuclear technologies.

Last week, the president issued an executive order mandating a 40 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions across government agencies. Buried in the list of qualifying clean energy technologies was a reference to small modular nuclear technologies — a new breed of reactors that are smaller, safer and less capital-intensive than traditional light water reactors.

As part of the targets, government agencies must get 30 percent of energy from “alternative” technologies by 2025. Those include conventional renewables, conventional fossil fuels with carbon capture, and small modular nuclear reactors. The mention of nuclear was first reported by Matthew Bandyk of SNL.

The Obama administration has long expressed its support for the nuclear industry. Both of the administration’s energy secretaries, Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, have been stalwart advocates of the industry.

“If we want to make a serious dent in carbon dioxide emissions — not to mention having cleaner air and cleaner water — then nuclear power has to be on the table,” wrote former secretary Chu on his official Facebook page in 2010.

Last February, the Department of Energy finalized a $6.5 billion loan guarantee for two 1,100-megawatt reactors at the Vogtle nuclear site being developed by Southern Company. (The reactors, which are the first developed in the U.S. in 30 years, are billions of dollars over budget and nearly two years behind schedule.)

With the remaining funds for loan guarantees, the Department of Energy made $12.5 billion available last December for advanced reactor designs or enrichment processes. 

There’s a growing list of technologies being supported by the feds. But President Obama’s executive order is the first time small modular nuclear has been designated for government procurement. The executive order does not necessarily mean that federal agencies will buy electricity from next-generation nuclear facilities; however, it does add an extra incentive for the military or government labs to enter into contracts — assuming technologies are ready within the next decade.

American companies working on advanced designs include NuScale Power, TerraPower, Transatomic Power, Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox.

Although more money is trickling in from the government and venture capitalists for these firms, they still have many years of testing and permitting to go through before approaching commercial scale. Supporters of the industry have called for additional federal funds to test new reactor designs, as well as an overhaul of permitting processes at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to speed up deployment when those designs are ready.

The Obama administration’s new rules for federal facilities won’t help in those needed areas. But they may provide startups with a first customer when they’re ready to commercialize.

Speaking to SNL, NuScale’s Chief Commercial Officer, Mike McGough, said that adding small modular nuclear to government clean energy targets “absolutely will nudge folks closer” to purchasing electricity from one of its early projects.

Photo Credit: White House Boosting SMRs/shutterstock

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Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 27, 2015

It would seem imperitive to rapidly develop molten salt SMRs. They require a direct hit (by a far more devastating nuclear warhead) to do any conceivable damage, whereas, the light water SMRs still require large amounts of water which seems more easily breachable, perhaps even by simple terrorist means.

I don’t think the LWR SMRs actually house a volume 1,000x as large as the water in case of steam explosion.

A Carrington event might cause meltdowns from existing large LWRs since it could severely cripple the grid. If such an EMP type scenario happens, lack of necessary infrastructure (and the resulting social chaos) might impede the ability to “bucket brigade” any LWR’s core and recent spent fuel cooling, especially if multiple reactors are involved.

I believe that Mr. Weinberg did not want LWRs for civilian even though he helped to invent them.

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 28, 2015

Poor Holtec always gets forgotten 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 28, 2015

I never heard of them but like the concept.

Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on Mar 28, 2015


Do you know where Holtec’s application to DOE (now two years old) stands?  What are the reasons for it being forgotten? Technical?  Lack of clout?  Or just bad luck?

SMR-160 looks good in principle on the website. 160MWe is a bit light–but then we are talking “Small”.

Where are the generators? Presumably above ground, but the .pdf on the website only shows the reactor. Could there be a safety issue with the generators?

I love the underground concept with passive safety, but the usual detractors such as UCS allege its safety features are exaggerated.


Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on Mar 28, 2015


Molten salt reactors (sodium, anyway) have their own problems quite apart from terrorist attacks. There is a long litany of accidents in James Mahaffey’s Atomic Accidents (2014, pp. 189-226).

Two general problems with sodium salt cooled reactors are the high reactivity of sodium with water (including water vapor), and the plumbing. Those two factors account for most of the accidents Mahaffey discusses.

Given the overall safety record of water cooled reactors, the body of knowledge of how they work and how to fix what has gone wrong, and the low cost of uranium, it seems reasonable to me, given our AGW time frame, to build as many water cooled reactors as possible while research progresses on the alternatives.

Of course reason cannot prevail as long as the anti-nuke propaganda juggernaut keeps up its momentum, and the only cure is education (not just about radiation, but about the scientific approach in general).  Here we see the great weakness of a democracy:  somewhat-enlightened despots in China can build nuclear power plants at a furious pace, while in the West we squander resources on the fantasy of 100% renewable electricity.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Mar 28, 2015

Mark, sodium is not the only metal useable. There is Lead and Lead/bismuth eutectics. Theres is also the optio for using Flibe as a coolant.

The reason for molten salt reactors are the compact size,  meltdown proofness, and lower cost of the MSR.

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Mar 28, 2015


Mark, sodium is not a salt. I strongly support MSR technology because they have the potential to produce very cheap, safe, clean reliable energy, and I cannot see any way a well designed MSR could release a large quantity of fission products.

Liquid sodium cooled reactors are in a class I call solid fuel fast neutron reactors. I think they should be shutdown and defueled until they are proven safe against high energy criticality accidents. See my comments below this essay.



Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on Mar 29, 2015


Thanks for the correction.   I was getting my apples and oranges mixed up, i.e. fuel mixture with external coolant.  As I understand it, liquid sodium is proposed as a secondary coolant for MSRs, and it could bring with it the historical problems with sodium.  Has that idea been discarded, and/or Is there a more appropriate secondary coolant?

I assumed (and read somewhere) in the fuel mixture itself there may be some sodium flouride, but not much since lithium flouride is the molten salt of choice?  Anyway, the sodium in the sodium in the sodium flouride would certainly have a hard time breaking the grip of the flourine.

I’m for MSRs in principle, I’m just fearful of the time to be taken in testing and commercializing them when we have a useful, time-tested if clunky alternative.  It’s good that the government is coming through with some stimulus for MSRs; obviously a bigger boost would be money well spent.


Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Mar 29, 2015

I assume the materials can withstand the salts for at least four years (which was the longevity of the MSRE at ORNL until shutdown for political reasons). Salts are less reactive than sodium. If any problems, simply swap and recycle, as per the standardized plan (every four years anyways) according to the following They believe in “no new tech, do it now” and would swap old with new via overhead crane.

The problem is in the politics, as evidenced in this hearing.  I don’t really know how the incompetent guy “answers” all the questions got in there…

I can’t yet find the more interesting parts of it, but might (and now have) edit to include them.

There’s MANY testimonies concerning the promotion of advanced and molten salt reactors as well! I still have to find the part where that Lyons guy says “no MSRs on the agenda.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 29, 2015

Mark, molten-salt reactors are unrelated to sodium-cooled reactors like Terrestrial Energy’s Traveling Wave Reactor, which uses elemental sodium (not a salt) to conduct heat energy from a solid fuel block.

In MSRs, radioactive fuel is dissolved in a molten salt mixture. Fluoride salts like lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride are preferable to sodium chloride (table salt) because fluorine has only one stable isotope, is a better moderator, and doesn’t easily become radioactive under neutron bombardment.

David Hess's picture
David Hess on Mar 29, 2015

That’s a lot of questions Mark. I don’t know the answer to any of them. To best of my knowledge Holtec is still taking the design forward

Mark Heinicke's picture
Mark Heinicke on Apr 1, 2015


Yes, thanks.  But I am still wondering if liquid sodium is being proposed as a secondary coolant for MSRs.  I read so a while ago, although I can’t find the source again, so perhaps I misunderstood or maybe the idea has been dropped.  My question still is, what secondary coolant is best for an MSR? 

Less importantly, why is sodium fluoride (such as is found in toothpaste, and was once used for fluoridation in public water supplies) inferior to lithium and beryllium fluoride in the MSR? 


Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Apr 1, 2015


Mark, there is generally an intermediate heat exchanger that transfers heat to clean non radioactive salt. It operates at low pressure and contains no flamable materials.

The high temperature available with the MSR allows high thermal effeciency despite the modest delta T’s in the heat exchanger.

Stephen Lacey's picture
Thank Stephen for the Post!
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