Advanced small modular reactors (SMR) could be the answer to many of the nuclear industry's current problems, Rich Powell, executive director of ClearPath told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) at Thursday's public meeting.
Smaller, more advanced reactors offer many advantages over current gigawatt-sized nuclear power plants, such as reduced capital costs, he said. That could tackle one of the industry's key issues: price competitiveness with cheaper gas and renewable resources.
The first U.S. SMR is expected to be operational by the mid-2020s. A bipartisan group of House members introduced earlier this month their copy of an advanced nuclear energy development bill in the Senate, which would require at least two advanced nuclear reactor demonstration projects by Dec. 21, 2025.
Nuclear power, once hailed as the answer to many of the world's energy questions, is facing increased economic challenges that make it almost impossible for large-scale nuclear to compete with cheaper resources. And while the public's perception of nuclear energy has been tainted by disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, experts continue to believe that nuclear energy will play a role in America's power grid of the future.
"There is a tremendous pressure to decarbonize the U.S power system, and all of the modeling is showing that you need a diverse mix of technologies in order to do that affordably," Powell told Utility Dive following Thursday's NRC meeting.
The relatively small size of SMRs and consequent reduced capital investment required to build them solves that price tag problem, Powell said.
The United States' largest nuclear power plant by net generation, the 3.3 GW Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona, had a construction cost of $5.9 billion in 1986. The owners of America’s only under-construction nuclear plant, Georgia Vogtle, last year reached a deal to limit further cost increases for the nearly $28 billion project.
"The industry is heading toward smaller, cheaper, faster-to-build designs," Power said.
In addition to a significant cost reduction, SMRs have more siting options than larger plants. Furthermore, the latest generation of small reactors offers distinct safeguards, security and nonproliferation advantages, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
"Advanced SMRs range in size up to 300 megawatts electrical (MWe), employ modular construction techniques, ship major components from factory fabrication locations to the plant site by rail or truck, and include designs that simplify plant site activities required for plant assembly," the department said on its website.
SMRs can also be used to process heat, desalination or for other industrial uses, according to DOE.
Conservative estimates value the global SMR market at C$150 billion (roughly $115 billion USD) between 2025 and 2040, a recent report by the Canadian Nuclear Association showed.
Powell, described Thursday's NRC meeting as encouraging, saying the nuclear industry "is in transition."