DESPITE SMALL REACTOR OPTIMISM, INDUSTRY LEADERS WONDER IF THEY CAN RUN THE NRC GANTLET
Small modular reactors – anything from 25 to 150 megawatts – have created tremendous excitement in the nuclear industry. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu has said they offer the best opportunity for America to regain the lead in technology internationally.
Yet building small modular reactors (SMRs) in this country will require threading them through the licensing and review process at the, the gigantic Washington Beltway bureaucracy that sits atop the American nuclear industry. So far, according to perspectives offered at a Washington SMR symposium this week, the NRC has responded at a glacial pace.
Can America become a center for international innovation again? Or will homegrown SMR developers be forced to go abroad in order to bypass the logjam at the NRC – as some are already starting to contemplate? That was the question discussed for three days at the Small Modular Reactor conference in Washington this week, sponsored by Infocast.
Overall, the mood of the conference was one of excitement at the opportunity that SMR technology represents. “We’ve reached our debt limit and we’re not going to be building any more large reactors for awhile,” said Jack A. Bailey, vice president for nuclear generation development at the. “So small reactors are going to be important to us. For one thing it allows us to spread the wealth. Nuclear jobs pay $125,000 but it’s all concentrated in one community. Now we could distribute them throughout the region.”
David Mohre, executive director at the National Rural Electrical Cooperative Association, was equally enthusiastic. “SMR’s make a lot of sense to our members. Eighty percent of our generation is from coal and the EPA is about to come at them. They don’t have enough customers to absorb a largebut small ones would fit just fine.”
One entire panel dealt with the possibilities of introducing SMRs to remote populations or isolated industrial enterprises.
“I was up in Yellow Knife recently,’ said Jay Harris, of the Canadian Nuclear Society, referring to the remote capital of the Northwest Territories that now subsists on diamond mining. “I tell, you, if I had had some SMRs with me, I could have sold them off the back of the truck. Those people are desperate for energy sources.”
The ferment of innovation in the industry was often compared to Silicon Valley in the 1990s. “Every great era of innovation has produced a bubble,” said Matthew Nordan, of Venrock, the venture capital firm. “We had a railroad bubble, we had a computer bubble, we had an Internet bubble. They all burst eventually but when they do there are a lot of good businesses left standing. Right now people in the SMR business are asking me, `How can we get one of those bubbles?’”
Companies have had their ups and downs. The “Traveling Wave” reactor, investigated by TerraPower, the Bill-Gates-funded firm, has not panned out as yet. “They haven’t been able to achieve what they wanted,” said Irfan Ali, president of Advanced Reactor Concepts. The scalable down to small size, recently fizzled in South Africa. “”They never had a customer,” said Jeffrey Harper, manager of the SMR program at Westinghouse.
But there have been successes as well. Hyperion, whose 25-MW Power Module was born out of Los Alamos, recently signed a memorandum of understanding to build a prototype at the Savannah River Nuclear Fuel Site. “Savannah River was a big win for all of us,” said Deborah Deal-Blackwell, vice president of Hyperion. And Babcock & Wilcox has a similar MoU with the Tennessee Valley Authority for its 125-MW mPower SMR.
One question that emerged from the discussion was whether small reactors and conventional big reactors are rivals. “I believe if the nuclear industry is going to succeed, we have to succeed as a whole,” said Gary Barbour, senior advisor for regulatory affairs at NuScale Power, which has a 45-MW reactor developed at Oregon State. Most panelists agreed that overcoming public fear and opposition to nuclear was much more important and would benefit both.
Despite the excitement, there was a lingering sense that the nuclear industry is stagnating in this country and that all the action is shifting abroad. “There’s more excitement in emerging markets right now,” said Ali, of Advanced Reactor Concepts. “Nuclear is sexy right now in India and . That isn’t happening here.”
“How are we going to compete with China if we don’t innovate in this country,” asked Dr. Robert Schleicher, project manager of General Atomics’ EM2, a 240-MW reactor that runs on spent fuel. “The tradition of the U.S. is innovation. New reactors are important to this.”
To some surprise, venture capitalists on the Wednesday panel seemed very enthusiastic about nuclear. “Most of our investments have been in biotech and nuclear seems much less risky to me than biotech,” said Richard Kreger, senior managing director at the Source Capital Group.
“Only one out of 100 drug properties ever make it through the FDA approval process. To me a nuclear reactor with a license is a much better risk.”
Yet it was the licensing issue that hung like a cloud over the three-day proceedings.
“The NRC is the gold standard,” said Ali, of Advanced Reactor Concepts, in a comment often repeated throughout the week. But the question remained whether the U.S. would get stuck on a decade-long quest for gold while the rest of the world moves ahead with silver and bronze.
“The FDA is a `Yes, if’ organization,” said Nordan, of Venrock. “They try to help you through the process. The NRC is a `No, because’ agency. You get the feeling they’re not concerned whether you make it or not. The words `generating electricity’ do not appear in the NRC’s mission statement.”
Representatives from several SMR companies said they are already looking abroad as a way of risk-managing the NRC licensing process. “”We’re exploring licensing in Britain,” said Deal-Blackwell, of Hyperion. “We may be dealing with Canada before the U.S.,” said Paul Farrell, president of Radix Power and Energy, an outgrowth of Brookhaven National Laboratory. “There’s a big need for isolated power up there.”
Ifran Ali, of Advanced Reactor Concepts, complained that his company’s sodium-cooled SMR had been virtually eliminated from the competition because the NRC can only deal with . “The regulatory process is making decisions," he said. "Already we’ve been moved to the back of the line without having the chance to demonstrate our technology. These decisions should be made by the market, not the bureaucracy.”
Perhaps the most dramatic confrontation of the conference came when William A. Macon, Jr., of the Department of Energy, tired of hearing criticisms of the government, pronounced, “Nobody is going to bypass the NRC.”
“I disagree,” responded Hawaii State Senator Fred Hemmings, a big supporter of nuclear, who also sat on the panel. “If Congress decides the NRC is holding up progress, it should change the law. This country is run by Congress, not by the NRC. ”