By William Tucker
Last April, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu sounded an optimistic note in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. While the U.S. is challenged in the manufacturing of full-sized reactors market, he said, an opportunity was opening in small modular reactors in the range of 75 to 150 megawatts.
“Small modular reactors . . have compact designs and could be made in factories and transported to sites by truck or rail. SMRs would be ready to "plug and play" upon arrival. . . . Their small size makes them suitable to small electric grids so they are a good option for locations that cannot accommodate large-scale plants . . .. If we can develop this technology in the U.S. and build these reactors with American workers, we will have a key competitive edge.”
The article caused a flurry of excitement in the nuclear industry where a bevy of companies — ranging from established competitors Babcock & Wilcox (B&W), GE, Westinghouse and General Atomics to emerging companies such as NuScale and Hyperion — were advancing new SMR initiatives. The government was becoming a proponent for serious nuclear energy innovation. Legislation was introduced in the Congress to spur development and $40 million proposed in the President’s FY2011 budget request. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission followed suit projecting approval of a design as early as 2017. TVA announced its interest in SMR deployment. Experienced manufacturers such as Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman were at the ready. And this week, Bechtel jumped on board the SMR express.
Notwithstanding the U.S. awakening in this arena, the rest of the world is moving ahead rapidly. Toshiba has a 10-MW “4S” (Super Safe, Small and Simple) reactor it offering to give to Galena, an isolated Alaskan village, as a demonstration. Russia has a modular reactor it is floating into Siberian villages on barges. Two weeks ago the Koreans announced they are entering the field as well.
Ironically we’ve been building “small modular reactors” for 50 years. They go on U.S. Navy nuclear submarines. The reason B&W has a technical domain in SMRs — and related U.S. manufacturers have expertise in this market — is because it already has a business supplying them to the Navy.
But at the current pace of NRC design and licensing approval, it may be the better part of a decade before anybody can get something out the door in the U.S. By that time, agile Japanese and Korean competitors may have moved out front in the global market.
So is it realistic to think America can compete in this field international? And if not, what can we do about it?