Will The Stars Align for Small Nuclear Reactors?

By MATTHEW L. WALD

A company that wants to build a new kind of nuclear reactor, one small enough that it could be delivered by truck, has found a potential customer.

A rendering of the Westinghouse small modular reactor.WestinghouseA rendering of the Westinghouse small modular reactor.

The Westinghouse Electric Company has lined up Ameren, a St. Louis-based electric company, as a partner for its small modular reactor project. Getting a strong indication of commercial interest is critical because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can review only a few of the many proposed reactor designs and gives priority in the licensing process to those with a stronger chance of getting built.

Some utility analysts have argued that small reactors would be good “drop-in replacements” for 1950s and 1960s-era coal plants that are now being retired, given that that their generating capacity would be about the same. But Ameren is looking at its Callaway nuclear plant near Fulton, Mo.,where it runs one reactor and had hoped to build a second full-size one.

That would be a multibillion-dollar project, however, and the Missouri state legislature refused to allow Ameren to bill customers for construction costs. So now it is now interested in a plant that is supposed to cost far less, although the companies did not give a price estimate in their announcements.

A commercial partner could also give Westinghouse a leg up in seeking aid from the Energy Department, which said in January that it was seeking applications for grants to help develop small modular reactors. President Obama said then that the department would disburse up to $450 million.

Holtec International, a company known in the nuclear industry for manufacturing dry casks that are used to store spent nuclear fuel, said it was seeking money to develop a 160-megawatt reactor that would be about one-sixth the size of a full-scale plant. And NuScale Power of Corvallis, Ore., is seeking money for a 45-megawatt plant at the Savannah River Site, a government-owned nuclear weapons complex near Aiken, S.C.

Gen4 Energy, formerly Hyperion, is also working on a modular design. The Energy Department said in March that it had an agreement with both Holtec and Gen4 to advance the development of their technologies..

The Tennessee Valley Authority meanwhile says it wants to build modular reactors near Oak Ridge, Tenn. But that agency has also promised to hold down the number of nuclear projects it oversees to a manageable level, and it already has one plant under construction and plans to complete a second that has lain dormant for decades.

The underlying logic of modular reactors is that in nuclear power plant construction, there are no economies of scale; in fact, there are dis-economies of scale. Small ones can be built in factories, in serial production if not actual mass production, and this will lower costs, the theory goes.

Whether any actually get built, or any beyond a handful that are heavily subsidized, is not yet clear. Construction of conventional large reactors is predicted far more often than it is achieved.

Still, the small modular reactor might fit a market niche in countries withpower grids that are poorly developed. In such countries, the grid often cannot absorb a new full-size reactor.

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