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Little reactors - a big energy boon

  • Mar 7, 2017
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Virginia would be the perfect place to develop pint-size nuclear reactors for use around the world. These very small modular reactors - known as vSMRs - would avoid the kinds of problems that have held back the construction of large nuclear power plants in the United States.

Because of its advantages as a substitute for fossil fuels, a Defense Science Board task force has envisioned the use of nuclear power at U.S. military bases in remote and forward-operating areas of the world. The task force said in a recently released report that vSMRs producing just 10 megawatts of electricity could serve as the standard source of electrical power at a number of military bases, supplying "reliable, abundant, and continuous energy."

Small reactors could lay the foundation for a new generation of nuclear plants. They would be built in a factory setting and manufactured in series from a standardized design. They would then be shipped to a military base, replacing the use of bulky and polluting diesel generators. A vSMR would be small enough to fit into a shipping container.

If placed in a cluster, vSMRs would also be suitable for larger military bases or even commercial use, since these tiny reactors would provide electricity around the clock at a cost that would match that of natural gas or other renewable energy sources. And inasmuch as they would operate apart from the electric grid, vSMRs would be less prone to cyber-attacks, thus adding a measure of security.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just started the review of the design certification for a small modular reactor that would generate 50 megawatts. Nu Scale, an Oregon-based nuclear company, developed the design for this reactor. The company's plan calls for 12 SMR modules - each would be one-fourth the size of the reactors that power the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers - to be placed alongside one another.

With our large nuclear infrastructure and know-how, Virginia would be ideal for the development of very small nuclear reactors, for both military and commercial use. AREVA and BWX Technologies, both among the world's leading nuclear suppliers, have key facilities in Virginia. Newport News Shipbuilding, the builder of nuclear aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, is located in Newport News. Our state is home to NASA, the nuclear Navy, Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, and Dominion Power, which operates four nuclear reactors that supply almost 40 percent of the state's electricity. Providing a talented and well-prepared workforce for the nuclear complex is Virginia Commonwealth University, the largest public university in Virginia, which has a growing nuclear engineering program, the only one in the state to offer a full suite of nuclear engineering degrees.

Congress needs to address the potential for small modular reactors of various sizes and it should create the policy conditions under which American companies will be allowed to innovate to develop and build new nuclear capacity. When coupled with regulatory stability and a streamlined licensing process, a new generation of small modular reactors could begin producing electricity in a decade or less. The commercial implications are huge.

Nuclear energy facilities in Virginia employ more than 2,100 highly skilled workers with an annual payroll of $144 million, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. Those numbers would increase significantly if Virginia designed and manufactured small reactors for the global market. It is time to take our economic future seriously and place new emphasis on an energy source that is available now: nuclear power. Building small reactors will pay rich dividends in more jobs and revenue sooner than anyone might think.

Sama Bilbao y León is an associate professor and director of nuclear engineering programs at VCU. Contact her at

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