Pocket Power: The Future of Nuclear is Small Scale and Modular
For all the talk of an ever-imminent nuclear renaissance, it’s easy to forget that the last nuke plants to come online in the United States were built in the 1970s. Sure, we get roughly 20-percent of our nation’s electricity from nuclear plants, but the glowing (ahem) promises of atomic energy (“Clean, safe, too cheap to meter”) have remained but promises. So why has this so-called renaissance stalled out for the past three decades? Well, there was that not insignificant incident at Three Mile Island that gave many pause. But, really, it’s cost. To build a utility-scale nuclear power plant to the safety standards demanded today is just damn expensive. How expensive? Try over $10 billion each for the most recent plans that have been given any serious consideration. So much for “too cheap to meter”—without any private banks or investors willing to underwrite the projects, none of these are any closer to construction.
So what’s the flailing industry to do? It’s downsizing. In a literal sense. The new, new nuclear renaissance is going small, as in “small modular reactors” (which the insider types like to call SMRs).
The sales pitch sounds pretty strong: they're small enough to be sited pretty much anywhere—in a city neighborhood, on town land, or right on site at a factory; they can be linked together ("Lego-like" is how David Biello described them) to fulfill whatever the local power demands are; and they can be built in a factory for (relatively) cheap and shipped anywhere on a flatbed truck like it's a prefab home.
There are as many designs as there are companies developing the SMR tech, and that’s about a dozen. One design, by NuScale in Oregon, looks like a 50-foot tall thermos, which sits in a pool of water. (At the first sign of meltdown, the whole reactor is flooded with water to shut things down.) Another, by mPower will look more like a 5-story office building.
Sounds good. But before we start firing up these SMRs in neighborhoods and factories around the country, you and every reasonable person out there should be wondering, what about a meltdown? The industry folks say they're safer than large-scale reactors. All the guts and gears of the reactor are sealed into a tight steel container. Runaway chain reactions (the heart of a meltdown) can still occur, but the control rods can better, well, control these smaller reactions. In theory, the risk of a meltdown is pretty low compared to, say, Indian Point. Or Fukushima, for that matter.
We have to say “in theory” because so far we only have simulated reactions to look at.
Optimists in the industry say that the safety of the systems will be well established and we’ll soon be plugging these in around the country by the hundreds.
A pretty hilarious point-counterpoint captured in a recent Morning Edition story, however, captures the uneasy relationship between speed, affordability, mass-production, and safety. The president of mPower, Chris Mowry, said:
MPower is not going to be measured in terms of success in terms of building tens of these things, but in terms of hundreds of these things…We're not trying to build a Rolls Royce; we're trying to build a Ford.\n
Ed Lyman, a nuclear physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, countered:
My feeling is that if you're going to have a nuclear power plant, it'd better be a Rolls Royce.\n
Risk aside, the radioactive elephant still sitting in the room is waste. These SMRs would still produce the same spent fuel rods that large-scale reactors do, albeit at a much smaller volume. And there is still no plan whatsoever for what to do with these spent fuel rods once they’re pulled out of a retired reactor.
Still, the federal government wants to see more. Last fall, the Obama administration announced that it would fund half the costs of construction the country’s first SMR, a 180-Megawatt project by mPower, a part of Babcock & Wilcox, which has been churning out nukes on all scales—from massive 1000-Megawatt plants to nuclear submarine engines—for decades.
This first-of-a-kind project is to be built for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and they hope to have the unit plugged in by 2022. Somehow, the nuclear renaissance always seems to be “just a decade away.”
For a bit more background, see the Department of Energy's page on SMRs and see Energy Now!'s primer on small nukes:
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