A Nuclear Energy Company Wants to Build America’s First Small Modular Reactor

It's the first time a commercial power plant has submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a small modular reactor.

The traditional concept of the nuclear power plant conjures images of massive cooling towers, spent fuel pools, cavernous underground tunnels and worst-case scenarios. But it doesn't have to be that way. This week, a U.S. nuclear power company submitted formal plans to build pre-assembled mini-reactors in the United States that are small enough to be transported by boat or on the back of trucks.

NuScale Power, with corporate offices in Portland, Ore., submitted their plans and an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It's the first time a commercial power company has applied to NRC for permission to a build a small modular reactor, marking a significant milestone for the energy industry.

The modular design allows for the actual reactors to be built off-site at a factory, then transported to the power plant site by boat, rail or even truck. Constructing the major components off-site at a central facility saves both time and money, according to NuScale, and makes feasible an entirely new approach to building nuclear power plants. The modular design also eliminates the need for the massive cooling systems required by traditional nuclear power plants.

On-site assembly will be faster and cheaper as well, since it's much less complex than building reactors from the ground up (and down). Once on site, the 76-foot tall reactor is lowered into an underground containment vessel, itself submerged in water within a vertical, steel-and-concrete reactor pool. The entire underground structure is then capped with a shield cover, with the power plant facility constructed on top.

This kind of modular power plant development has many advantages, according to NuScale. For one thing, each mini-reactor contains much less uranium than a conventional reactor, which not only limits potential damage in the case of any accident, but also reduces the risk of a meltdown in the first place. The NuScale design also features multiple redundant safety features. In the event of a power outage or facility malfunction, the reactor automatically shuts off and cools down on its own, with no need for electricity, extra water or even operator input.

According to figures released by NuScale, a typical mini-reactor would have a 50-megawatt output at peak performance. For comparison, consider that the smallest conventional power plants have a generating capacity of around 500 megawatts. The really big ones use multiple reactors to ramp up to 4,000 megawatts. But according to NuScale's plan, building small reactors and then linking them together to power a city is faster and more efficient than constructing a new large-scale nuclear power plant.

So why hasn't somebody thought of this before? Well, the concept of smaller nuclear power plants isn't new. The core technology that underlies all nuclear reactors is essentially scaleable. They can be built big or small. But conventional reactors have typically been, to use technical industry jargon, frickin' ginormous. Big reactors depend on economy of scale principles to put out more energy per facility.

NuScale's approach takes advantage of new material science technologies and construction processes that even out the playing field, according to the company. Multiple mini-reactors also allow for better on-the-fly calibration of energy output. The NuScale system is designed to work with other nearby zero-carbon energy facilities, too, managing output on a minute-to-minute basis, depending on what's being produced by local solar or wind energy utilities.

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Interest in nuclear power is spiking now, thanks to statements from President Trump about federal investment in the technology. Optimism about the future of the industry has even boosted uranium stocks, which are up nearly 40 percent since Election Day.

The surge is also benefiting other energy companies looking to find a new twist on traditional nuclear power plants. For instance, the Massachusetts-based Transatomic Power Corporation is reviving an updated version of the molten salt reactor, first developed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s. This reactor actually runs on spent fuel and could go a long way toward dealing with the radioactive waste that has piled up at facilities including the Hanford Site, a decommissioned nuclear production plant.

So what comes next for the mini reactor initiative? The NRC certification process is likely to take three years or so. If all goes according to plan, NuScale will start building the first commercial 12-module power plant on the site of the Idaho National Laboratory - a nuclear power research and development hub - with a target operation date of 2026.

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