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Will 2020s Be the Decade SMRs Take Off?

If current developments with small modular reactors in first month of 2020 are any indication of interest in this scale of nuclear technology, the 2020s could be the decade that SMRs take off.  Here are six reports of interest in SMRs the U.S. and Europe.

Key success factors include affordability, ease of construction compared to 1000 MWe units, enhanced safety features, and for some, using well-known light water reactors as the design basis, a faster path through the regulatory reviews and thus faster time to market.

GEH Begins US Licensing Process For BWRX-300

(NucNet) US-based GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy announced this week it has officially begun the regulatory licensing process witht he U.S.Nucler Regulatory Commission (NRC) for its BWRX-300 small modular reactor (SMR). The vendor said that the action is a “significant milestone” and predicted that it may be able to commercialize the technology as early as 2028.

GEH said it had submitted a series of licensing topical reports, or LTRs, for the BWRX-300 to the NRC. According to a search in the NRC ADAMS public document library, GEH submitted began discussion of topical reports with the NRC last September.

GEH said it expects the LTRs to serve as a foundation for the development of a preliminary safety analysis report that could potentially be submitted to the NRC by a utility customer. In May 2018 Dominion a nuclear utility in Virginia, announced it was investing in the development of the SMR.

The BWRX-300 is a 300-MW water-cooled, natural circulation SMR with passive safety systems that uses the design and licensing basis of GEH’s US NRC-certified ESBWR (Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor).

GEH said on ite website that it believes that through “dramatic design simplification” the BWRX-300 will require about 60% less capital cost per MW when compared to other water-cooled SMR designs or existing large nuclear reactor designs.

The vendor said it is designed to reduce building volume over the ESBWR by about 50% per MW, which should account for 50% less concrete per MW.

According to GEH the BWRX-300 will make use of the existing ESBWR design certification and licensed nuclear fuel designs, and will incorporate proven components and supply chains. GEH believes this will help make it cost-competitive with power generation from combined cycle gas plants and renewable energy platforms.

Estonia / Fermi Energia To Begin Site Selection
For First SMR

(NucNet) A startup looking at proposals to build a small modular reactor in Estonia by the middle of next decade said this week it is set to begin the process of site selection for a first unit.

Fermi Energia’s founder and chief executive officer Kalev Kallemets said in a television interview that while no decision had been made about a site, that authorities in the municipality of Viru-Nigula, in the north of the country, were interested in offering one.

Mr Kallemets said: “If we do not deal with this discussion and research today, then in 10 years it could be too late and the opportunity will be gone.”

He said Estonia needs to consider new generation SMR technology to maintain energy independence and achieve climate neutrality. He said an “optimistic scenario” provides for the first plant to begin operation in the early 2030s.

In October Fermi Energia and US-based GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy signed an agreementt to collaborate on the potential deployment of GEH’s BWRX-300 SMR in the Baltic country. Bloomberg has reported that Fermi Energia has shortlisted four different SMR technologies for potential deployment. It said they are GEH, Moltex Energy of the UK, Terrestrial Energy of Canada and NuScale of the US.

Bloomberg said Fermi Energia has raised funds from local investors who see potential for the startup to run the reactor without state backing or financial aid from utilities. The country will need the extra source of power to meet more unreliable flows of electricity when Estonia and the rest of Baltic region synchronizes its grids with Europe instead of Russia from 2025.

Fermi Energia, Fortum and Tractebel, who are the key investors, said the companies will focus on researching appropriate licensing models and preliminary research on a small light-water reactor. The companies also agreed to share the results of the studies with one another,

“For us, the greatest value of this cooperation is the initiation of mutual learning through practical work with current nuclear producers. Implementation of nuclear power requires a number of related elements to be thoroughly analyzed and further developed to make this power generation competitive with other alternatives,” Kalev Kallemets, member of the management board and co-founder of Fermi Energia, said.

“The desynchronization of the Baltic states from Russia’s energy grid by 2025, which also means discontinuing the import of electricity there, is fast approaching. Small modular reactors are a way to ensure security of supply of carbon emission free energy in Estonia and the Baltic states in all weather,” Kallemets added.

Fermi Energia is in the process of discussing memorandums of cooperation with two other European nuclear companies on the in-depth analysis of spent nuclear fuel management and the timing and planning of the construction of a small module reactor. All studies are to be carried out by the end of 2020 and published in early 2021.

Fortum is a Finnish state-owned energy company with a total nuclear power generation capacity of 2,819 megawatts. Tractebel is an engineering and consulting company providing integrated services.

Fermi Energia is a privately owned company involved in the implementation of a small module reactor and aiming to achieve the first deployment of a small module reactor in the European Union.

Finnish Regulator Prepares for SMR licensing

(WNN) Finland’s Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (Stuk) has published a report discussing the safety assessment and licensing of small modular reactors (SMRs). The regulator says it is preparing for the licensing of such reactors “due to the national and international interest in them.”

Stuk said that a working group set up by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment is looking at the need to develop the country’s laws on atomic energy. One of the areas being discussed is how suitable the current licensing system for nuclear facilities is with regards to licensing SMRs and monitoring their radiation safety.

“We must be able to inform the parties considering the use of nuclear energy of the safety requirements that apply to novel nuclear power plants and must be capable of assessing the safety of the plants as necessary,” said Stuk Director General Petteri Tippana.

“While technology is evolving rapidly, changing the existing licensing system and the instructions that supplement the legislation takes some time. Furthermore, building the necessary expertise does not happen in an instant. We are preparing for the future to ensure that the safety of SMRs will be at least at the same level as that of the existing nuclear power plants. Good operating practices as an authority also requires that our expectations and requirements towards the operators are as transparent as possible and can be taken into account proactively.”

Stuk is involved in international cooperation where the national authorities consider the rules for the licensing and safety of SMRs.

“The significance of international cooperation and a common set of rules is further emphasized by the fact the plant providers designing SMRs expect that a single reactor design could be built in as many countries as possible,” Tippana said.

Energy Northwest Considers SMR at
Columbia Generating Plant Site Near Richland, WA

Energy Northwest is reported to be considering whether there is a need and regional interest for adding a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) system near the Tri-Cities.

It plans to spend up to $2M to assess the feasibility of small modular reactors that might located be added near its existing reactor. The advantages of such a plan is that the SMR could take advantage of a sit that is already used for electricity generation such as having access to the grid via an installed switchyard.

Demand for Electricity will Determine Need for SMRs

Demand for electricity over the long term in the utility’s service area will be a key factor in making a decision in the future. The study will look at the electricity that will be needed in the Northwest in coming decades.

Greg Cullen, Energy Northwest’s general manager of energy services and development told the Tru-Cities Herald, “We want to make sure that the utilities agree there is a need for this (and) that the politicians and the public believe this is something they want, because they care enough about the climate and carbon that they want this as a solution,”

Cullen emphasized to the Tri-City Herald that Energy Northwest is exploring all options to meet future electricity demand, and if its electric utility members want more wind turbines, for example, it would also be open to that.

The interest in a small modular reactor system comes as the Washington Legislature has passed the Clean Energy Transformation Act, which sets new clean energy standards that will build to 100 percent carbon-free electricity use in the state by 2045. Also, Energy Northwest is signed up to be the utility operator of a planned 60 MWe SMR to be built by NuScale for UAMPS, a consortium of Utah customers, at a site in Idaho.

Energy Northwest hired Energy + Environmental Economics, a San Francisco-based consulting group, to study the best ways to achieve deep reductions in carbon emissions in the Pacific Northwest while maintaining economical and reliable electricity generation.

Energy Northwest is particularly interested in what role nuclear could play, given its unique experience in commercial nuclear generation in the Northwest. The study notes that deep CO2 emission reductions in the Northwest were doable at reasonable costs, if enough on-demand capacity, including the Northwest’s existing nuclear plant, is available.

The study also said that if all electricity supplied to customers in Washington must be carbon free, small modular reactor generation would cost $8 billion per year less than generating electricity through what Energy Northwest called “a large overbuild of renewables.”

Energy Northwest has already publicly discussed the possibility of applying to extend the 1983 license of the Columbia Generating Station for a second time, with no decision made.

Its current extension will expire after 2043, just as the Clean Energy Transformation Act takes full effect.

Eskom Seeks to Sell Its interest in PBMR
via RFP for Commercialization

(WNN) South African utility Eskom has published a request for an Expression of Interest in reviving all or parts of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project. It is seeking investors to take stakes in PBMR Ltd, the development and deployment of the reactor design, and in TRISO fuel manufacturing.

In short Eskom wants to sell the development rights to the technology since it cannot on its own obtain the financing to build a next generation of nuclear reactors in South Africa.

The state-owned electric utility has been hobbled by a lack of funding from rate revenues as successive political leaders have used low rates to win votes in elections. The utility has not had enough electric generation capacity to keep some of the nation’s heavy industry running which has impacted South Africa’s GDP and employment.

The PBMR was to have been a small-scale high-temperature reactor using graphite-coated spherical uranium oxycarbide tristructural isotropic (TRISO) fuel, with helium as the coolant, able to supply process heat as well as generating electricity.

South Africa had been working on the PBMR project since 1993, and PBMR Ltd was established in 1999 with the intention of developing and marketing the reactor. However, in 2010 the government formally announced its decision no longer to invest in the project, which was then placed under ‘care and maintenance’ to protect its intellectual property and assets. PBMR Ltd was reincorporated into Eskom, its sole shareholder, in 2012.

History of the PBMR

The history of the South African nuclear R&D program is that it couldn’t make the pebble bed design work. It asn’t efficient enough to be cost effective in generating electricity.

Eskom overspent on the PBMR  project to the point that the government washed its hands of the whole effort. It hadn’t solved problems, especially with regard to materials capable of handing the high temperatures, related to efficient heat transfer, and the design seemed better suited for process heat applications for industry than for power generation of electricity for general use.

Even the U.S. was not impressed by South Africa’s work on the PBMR. A delegation of scientists and engineers from the Idaho National lab, led by then U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, went to South Africa a few years ago to see if there was anything worth saving. The idea was if there was to transfer it to the Idaho lab. Except for ongoing work on testing the pebble bed TRISO fuel, not much came out of the visit.

Some of the key personnel from the PBMR project have since gone to work for X-Energy which is working in the U.S. with several partners, including Southern, a nuclear utility, to develop a TRISO fueled reactor using helium as a heat transfer mechanism fr multiple purposes including electricity generation, process heat, and desalinization.

Recovering Past Investments in PBMR R&D

Eskom said that, at the time the PBMR project was placed in care and maintenance, it was in the process of manufacturing the reactor pressure vessel, the core barrel assembly and reactor graphite internals for a demonstration 400 MWt/165 MWe plant. A smaller 200 MWe model – an indirect cycle design – of the PBMR was also in the concept design phase.

Eskom has now issued a request for an Expression of Interest for the “commercialization of Pebble Bed Modular Reactor SOC Ltd (PBMR Ltd), design, development, manufacturing and construction of small modular reactors and supply of TRISO coated particle fuel for various reactor designs.”

“Given the products created and preserved, PBMR remains capable of re-starting within a relatively short period of time, or alternatively its technology being taken over by a third party in its configured state and utilized elsewhere,” Eskom said in the document.

It added, “The company seeks to take PBMR out of care and maintenance and commercialize the business. Companies interested in investing in PBMR reactor technology or fuel technology, securing an equity stake in PBMR Ltd, buying PBMR technology or products or embarking on other potential relationships or transactions, are invited to submit an Expression of Interest detailing proposals.”

US / Wyoming Legislator Introduces Proposal
to Replace Gas And Coal With SMRs

(NucNet) A Wyoming legislator has introduced legislation that would allow power plants in the US state to replace their natural gas and coal-fired generators with small modular nuclear reactors that have similar output.

Republican David Miller, a member of the Wyoming House of Representatives and the bill’s primary sponsor, said the legislation would help keep several Wyoming power plants open as their conventional generators are taken offline in the coming years.

“The infrastructure is all still there – powerlines, cooling, roads, office buildings – how about replacing them with this fifth-generation nuclear reactor design?” Mr Miller said. “This will hopefully will spur the utilities that operate in Wyoming to think a little bit.

“They need something that actually can generate electricity when the wind’s not blowing and the sun’s not shining. This is a way to do it and keep the grid stable as they take the generators offline.”

Mr Miller’s proposed law includes a provision to tax power generated from SMRs at a rate of $5 per MWh. He said this would counter a decline in state revenue from taxes from the minerals industry.

He said the proposal would keep people employed at Wyoming’s power plants as they transition out of coal.

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Dan Yurman's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 3, 2020 5:13 am GMT

Dan, in your opinion would you consider NuScale the US manufacturer best-poised to be the first to put an SMR online?

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Feb 3, 2020 1:47 pm GMT

Yes. NuScale will complete its safety design review at the NRC this year. NuScale’s first customer, UAMPS, plans to commence site preparation in 2021.  Nuclear construction (i.e., first safety related concrete) will commence in 2023 with the first module operational by late 2026. The full 12-module plant will be operational by 2027. See my interview with NuScale CTO Jose Reyes here for details.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 3, 2020 1:52 pm GMT

Key success factors include affordability, ease of construction compared to 1000 MWe units, enhanced safety features, and for some, using well-known light water reactors as the design basis, a faster path through the regulatory reviews and thus faster time to market.

Much of the inertia preventing new nuclear build out is the fears from the public about safety-- will these enhanced safety features be the type that might convince skeptics about the value and potential of nuclear for a clean energy future?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 3, 2020 6:03 pm GMT

Matt, hard to say what will convince nuclear skeptics (believe me, I've talked to more than my share).

The development of small modular reactors actually was a result of marketing forces, not safety. When the U.S. government failed to endorse nuclear wholeheartedly the second time around, venture capitalists realized there was no way to secure investment in a $20-billion project that wouldn't be profitable for at least a decade. By making reactors smaller in a modular configuration, where capacity could be added incrementally, manufacturers could use mass production techniques to lower not only capital cost but investor risk.

Each has its own proprietary reactor design. NuScale's, though a traditional pressurized-water reactor (PWR), generates electricity at lower pressure and temperature - think of it as a nuclear Crock-Pot, vs. a pressure cooker - driving down the likelihood of material failures. It also uses a pump-free cooling system that renders the reactor "walk-away" safe - it will shut itself down. Other features enhance reliability and security (hoping Dan will correct me where my description is lacking).

The truth, however, is that U.S. nuclear has always been safe, and Three Mile Island is a perfect example. A fire burning out of control and the spread of radioactive material across Pennsylvania was averted by a containment vessel made of 6 feet of reinforced concrete - one which performed exactly as it was designed to perform.

The biggest hurdle facing adoption of nuclear energy is not a lack of safe technology, but overcoming public fear.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 3, 2020 5:24 pm GMT

The biggest hurdle facing adoption of nuclear energy is not safe technology, but overcoming public fear.

I hear you here, which is why I'm wondering if on a soft level the use of SMRs presents some sort of opportunity for the nuclear industry. It might be hard to convince the public the existing nuclear plants they're used to are perfectly safe, but if the new safety benefits of these smaller reactors are pounded and touted I wonder if that will convince some people

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 3, 2020 5:52 pm GMT

Agree, Matt. The flip side of that coin is that the promise of "new safe nuclear" is being used to close existing plants ("if safer nuclear is coming, why are we keeping 'unsafe' older plants open?"). Lawsuits and regulatory ratcheting are simultaneously employed to ensure new plants remain ten years away, indefinitely.

In 2018 Jerry Brown signed CA Senate Bill 100 into law, after state senators had vehemently argued for nuclear's inclusion in the state Renewable Portfolio Standard, even though it's not generally considered "renewable". Finally, renewable and natural gas interests relented, but only after 2030. Why? Diablo Canyon, without an operating license after 2025, would be forced to shut down.

Driven by irrational fear, anti-nuclear activists are unmatched in their singleminded, pigheaded determination to doom the most promising weapon for fighting climate change. Now they're being met head-on, and not a moment too soon.

Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Feb 7, 2020 4:53 pm GMT

Fear is a big factor that must be overcome.   The first couple of sites in the US, both mentioned here, look to be areas with a long history of nuclear energy - Idaho National Labs and Hanford.  An additional nominal 500 MWe SMR plant will not change the site nuclear waste profile and there are 100,000 of acres of surrounding land under government control.  Let's hope for technical/safety/commercial success to keep this base load carbon free technology in the US mix.  

We need to continue to accurately and politely articulate the actual nuclear energy history vs. the alternatives of no base load carbon free generation.  

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 7, 2020 5:19 pm GMT

The first couple of sites in the US, both mentioned here, look to be areas with a long history of nuclear energy - Idaho National Labs and Hanford. 

That's a great point, Gary-- focusing on building on and proving the test cases in areas with less historical opposition is a great idea and will hopefully be enough to start swaying skeptics 

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