December 2009: Small Modular Nuclear Reactors - The Economies of Small


While the U.S. nuclear industry has been in a stagnant 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?

The December issue of Greentech Innovations offers an analysis of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors. (SMRs).

Modular reactors and standardized designs are the potential disruptors and game- changers for the 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 with approximate costs of $1 to $2 billion per GW installed.

Individual SMRs can deliver power to isolated communities or off-grid industrial sites like mines now served by diesel generators. 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).

This report aims to:

  • Examine the more prominent Small Modular Reactor (SMR) designs
  • Explore their technology and advantages
  • Analyze the case for SMRs in the U.S.
  • Probe the regulatory challenges facing these new designs

The report also analyzes what needs to be done by these firms as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy (DOE) to move these reactors to market.

Lastly, the report surveys a number of greentech venture firms to investigate if there is a role for venture capital in this most capital-intensive of industries.

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