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South Carolina, DOE Advance Mini-Nuke Development

The Department of Energy approved two programs to advance the next generation of nuclear energy technology.

South Carolina and its Savannah River Site (SRS), located in Aiken, along with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced three public-private partnerships to develop small, modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) technologies at the SRS facility in an effort to advance the next generation of nuclear energy technology. The agreement will "help leverage Savannah River's land assets, energy facilities and nuclear expertise to support potential private sector development, testing and licensing of prototype SMR technologies," the DOE said in a released statement.

Helen Belencan, the DOE’s deputy assistant manager for Infrastructure and Environmental Stewardship at the Savannah River Site, said the goal is “to apply the nuclear knowledge and expertise that we have from over 60 years of supporting the nation in its defense-type operation in nuclear material production and help these companies develop the technology and manufacturing capability in the United States so that the United States can take on a leadership role in the manufacturing of these small modular reactors.”

Ultimately, it is up to the private sector to develop both the technology and build the manufacturing capability, she says, and then to grow that market domestically and internationally.

At this time, the Savannah River Site is offering an opportunity to use its land assets to site a facility.  It is not funding any development, Belencan said. The project occurring at the SRS also will provide a framework for land use and site services agreements that might advance these efforts. Those kinds of memorandums of agreements do not in any way constitute federal funding commitments; the DOE envisioned private-sector funding would be used to develop any potential projects on SRS land.

In the future, the DOE will focus on advancing SMRs in the United States. About $450 million "will be made available to support first-of-its-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for up to two SMR designs over five years, subject to congressional appropriations,” according to the DOE.

The proposals for this funding were received in May, and are now going through the merit review process to see which ones will most likely meet the objectives of being licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and achieving commercial operation by 2022. The DOE plans to announce the recipients later this year.

This funding is one of the first steps in building a domestic manufacturing capability in the U.S., and getting the design, engineering, certification and licensing with NRC done to move forward with the variety of possibilities this technology has.

“For utilities, SMRs present the possibility of a new financial model for nuclear power plant deployment,” said Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner William Magwood before the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development last July. “For vendors, SMRs are technologies that could be manufactured in U.S. facilities at lower and more predictable cost than is typical of conventional nuclear reactors … For many government officials, SMRs provide a means to support the revitalization of the nation’s heavy manufacturing base, providing thousands of well-paid, skilled jobs, and reducing U.S. reliance on overseas suppliers for vital energy technologies.”

Together, these two programs have the potential to allow states to replace coal-fired plants with SMRs and significantly reduce their carbon footprints, said Ron Schroder, SMR Program Manager and the Savannah River National Laboratory.

Small modular reactors are approximately one-third the size of current nuclear plants, and they can be built at a fraction of the cost of large reactors at a central location, and then transported to wherever they’re needed, according to The News & Observer in Raleigh.

Thomas Sander, associate laboratory director for the Clean Energy Initiative and the Savannah River National Laboratory, said the first SMR built at the Savannah River Site will likely cost about $1 billion for about 100 to 150 megawatts, but that will drop down the line. “If you are talking about the 100th, my expectation is that cost is going to be reduced significantly as a result of advance factory manufacturing and just a learning process and the licensing process.”

The unique factor, Belencan said, is that these reactors will be manufactured in a factory, “So as you develop that factory output and you have that factory able to produce these units that need these license certifications and you are producing many of them, your cost will go down,” she says. “Once a factory is up and producing for a market of 100 of these or more, then your cost is going to go down into the $500,000, $600,000 range -- at least about half the cost.”

A traditional single-unit nuclear reactor with 1100 megawatt capacity costs roughly $8 billion to build, Sander said, and that number jumps to $14 billion for twin reactors that offer 2200 megawatts of energy.

Although at first glance SMRs produce only a fraction of the energy produced by traditional nuclear reactors, they still product plenty of energy -- enough to power factories, small cities or remote areas.

SMRs’ overall power output can be modified based on where it will live. “If you are going after the old coal replacement market, you are looking at 150 to 200 megawatts on average,” Sander said, “but if you are looking at the Alaskan market for small cities or island market or export market for developing countries, you are talking 45 to 100 megawatts.”

The cost savings of nuclear compared to the way we currently power our cities is dependent upon lifecycle cost, Schroder said, -- but it’s ultimately hard to predict. “You look at the cost of fuel over a life cycle, and you compare that to other fields and other plants. Natural gas plants will be much cheaper from a capital perspective but predicting the price of gas over 40-, 50-, 60-year time frame is pretty hard,” he said.

So what economists usually do, he noted, is look back over the last 60 years or so at the price of oil, coal and uranium, and factor those in. So the cost per unit electricity will be dependent on the stability of fuel prices after the capital costs have been advertised and taken care of. “We do know the cost our uranium will be quite stable over that period of time,” he said, adding that the cost of coal, depending on global warming, taxes and the cost of gas, are somewhat unpredictable.

For the DOE, small modular reactors are the next generation of nuclear energy technology. “They are more flexible and scalable, and they have a variety of application potentials,” said DOE spokeswoman Niketa Kumar. “Manufacturing domestically can offer the United States the ability to compete globally in the nuclear energy technology market and advance our nations competitive edge in manufacturing future clean energy technology.”

Former deputy associate director of the Office of Management and Budget
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