“Nuclear is necessary, doable, and the markets are gargantuan.” (Maurice Gunderson of CMEA Ventures)
While the U.S. nuclear industry has been in a holding pattern since the loss-of-cooling accident and partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, European and Asian countries have been growing their nuclear reactor ﬂeet and their nuclear workforce. Recently, construction has begun on more than 40 nuclear plants worldwide, predominantly in Asia.
The Three Mile Island nuclear incident was more of a public relations disaster than a nuclear disaster. But the result was that the U.S. lost the global lead in nuclear power technology as well as a generation of nuclear engineers, which left electrical generation in this country a slave to dirty coal.
Fast-forward to 2009. Pressures to lower carbon dioxide emissions from coal and natural gas power plants have provided the opportunity to reboot the U.S. nuclear industry. Operating nuclear reactors have zero carbon emissions and the technology has grown more reliable and more efﬁcient. In the U.S., reactors now run more than 91 percent of the hours in a year, the highest capacity factor of any energy source.
Can new technology, policy, and thinking usher in the much-heralded “Nuclear Renaissance” or will still-grim economics and difﬁcult regulatory terrain keep the U.S. nuclear market mired in a post Three Mile Island hangover?
Small modular reactors and standardized designs are the potential disruptors and game-changers for the US nuclear power industry. Under the SMR concept, reactors can be built in factories and shipped to the site instead of being expensively and riskily built on-site. Rather than engineer and build reactors capable of producing over 1 GW of electric power, SMRs can produce 10 MW to 350 MW of electricity (or heat).
The move towards modularity and standardization has reportedly already lowered the costs of large-scale LWRs such as GE’s Economic Simpliﬁed Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) and Westinghouse’s AP-1000. Individual SMRs can deliver power to isolated communities or off-grid industrial sites like mines now served by diesel power. Alternatively, they can be combined to scale to large-scale power production. It is anticipated that SMRs will cost about the same to construct per kW as large plants and will produce electricity at the same cost as a conventional nuclear plant (in the 6 to 8 cent/kWh range).
Most cleantech venture capital firms have taken a look at the nuclear space but have avoided investing for a variety of good reasons - enormous capital intensity and immense regualtory and technical risk. But a few brave venture investors have taken the plunge.
“You have to dig into the details,” according to CMEA's Maurice Gunderson, one of the few brave VC investors to make the nuclear bet (He is a lead investor in NuScale). He has said that NuScale's model of focusing on modular nuclear power would shift development away from the “cathedral model” of large-scale, over-budget, ten-year power projects.
He has claimed that the NuScale process, manufacturing modular reactors on a factory assembly line, can cut the time to develop a nuclear plant in half. He argues that incremental modularity eliminates the “single shaft risk” of a conventional plant that must be shut down for maintenance and refueling.
He adds, “The NRC processes have become streamlined in the last few years and can accommodate this model.”
Gunderson said that the reason that most VCs are scared of nuclear is “because they have no experience,” and “are listening to anecdotes in the popular press.” Gunderson verified that NuScale was raising more money and added, “Nuclear is necessary, doable, and the markets are gargantuan.”
The December issue of Greentech Innovations offers an analysis of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors.