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WILLIAM TUCKER: Forget Pyramids, Just Build Crypts

By William Tucker

When people ask, “Why can’t we build nuclear reactors anymore,” I often point to the Ancient Egyptians and their Pyramids.  Egyptian civilization lasted 2500 years but the Pyramids, for which they are most famous, were all built within in the first 500.   There seems to be something about a maturing civilization that eventually makes such colossal efforts impossible.  

But that didn’t mean the Egyptians stopped building tombs for their Pharaohs, which was the whole purpose.  Instead, they settled for more modest crypts like King Tut’s Tomb in the Valley of the Tombs long after Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure had been laid to rest.  

That may end up being the story of our nuclear effort.  Except for a few outliers such as Vogtle and Summer, we may never end up building the huge 1,000- MW colossi that we managed to erect in the 1970s and 1980s.  But it may not matter.  Because the future of nuclear may be in the small modular reactor revolution that is quietly taking shape around the country.

SMRs have been around almost since the dawn of the nuclear era.  As advocates love to point out, we’ve been building small reactors for the U.S. Navy since the 1950s.  At the height of the Cold War we had 400 nuclear submarines prowling the ocean, many of them operating for five years without refueling.  Today we only have 70 left but we have added 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, each one the equivalent of a small city.  Now the Department of Energy has decided to prime the pump by offering $400 million for the construction of one or two SMR prototypes among the many models that are now circulating.

You could call to this another instance of government research and investment paving the way for private enterprise – “You didn’t build that.  Somebody else made it happen” and all that.  But somehow with all the government money that has been spent of Navy reactors, the transfer has never taken place.  Now the race is on.    

Savannah River National Laboratory has signed agreements with NuScale, of Corvallis, Oregon, Gen-4 (formerly Hyperion) and Holtec International to develop prototype of their products at the South Carolina facility.  NuScale has just completed the world’s first simulated control room for a complex of 12 of its 45-MW units that form a 540-MW generating station.  

Babcock & Wilcox is pushing ahead with its mPower model, launching a fuel technology center in Lynchburg, Virginia that will fabricate and test key fuel components.   B&W has also signed an agreement with Akron-based FirstEnergy to explore deploying SMRs across the merchant company’s service territory, which stretches from Ohio to the Atlantic Coast in Maryland.  Ohio politicians are talking enthusiastically about making their state the center of SMR development.  

And Missouri politicians are gushing over the possibility of making the Callaway site near Fulton the proving grounds for Westinghouse’s 200-MW SMR, a scaled-down version of the AP1000.  Westinghouse has partnered with Ameren, which operates Callaway, and the Missouri Electric Alliance to explore siting SMRs throughout the state.  It has also formed the NextStart Alliance, which has enlisted FirstEnergy, Exelon, Dominion Virginia, the Tampa Electric Company, the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation and Savannah River to the project.  Two weeks ago Missouri Governor Jay Nixon formed a local government task force to assist Westinghouse and Ameren in competing for the DOE grant.  

Only one or possibly two of these applications will win the DOE prize but that’s not the point.  Once these projects are in motion they may be able to attract funding from other sources.  At some point Wall Street may overcome its aversion to nuclear energy once the economic potential comes into focus.  Both Ohio and Missouri officials are talking about selling SMRs all over the world.

It’s a still a long, long road ahead.  Just to illustrate, Savannah River touts one of its contributions as helping the Nuclear Regulatory Commission develop protocols for licensing SMRs.  Right now there’s nothing in the NRC’s playbook for even considering applications.  But the promise is there for a long, long nuclear future.   After all, once the Egyptians stopped building pyramids they still went on for another 2000 years.