- NuScale Power has selected a manufacturer for its small modular reactor (SMR), a milestone the company calls "pivotal" in its efforts to bring to market a more flexible and inexpensive nuclear reactor.
- NuScale tapped Virginia-based BWX Technologies to begin engineering work to manufacture the reactors. Development of new nuclear resources has largely ground to a halt, in large part because the costs continue to rise. SMRs are intended to help reduce construction and engineering costs by replicating a design and doing much of the work at a manufacturing site.
- A recent report from the MIT Energy Initiative warns that nuclear energy is being underutilized worldwide, particularly in the fight against climate change. The use of SMRs and other cost-reduction strategies were among the study's recommendations.
NuScale may have hired a manufacturer, but the company is a long way from sending the first reactor off the assembly line.
A larger milestone was achieved earlier this year, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it completed the first phase in the design certification application (DCA) process for NuScale's reactor. There are five other phases in the certification process — though the company says the first is the most rigorous.
The certification process is on track for completion by September 2020. NuScale says it is competing with Russia, China and other nations in a global race to commercialize SMRs.
While the nuclear industry has struggled to develop new resources, there is hope that a new breed of smaller, cheaper reactors could revive the industry. And NuScale cites data pegging the global SMR market at $100 billion by 2035.
The case for SMRs got a boost earlier this month when the MIT Energy Initiative released a paper titled The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World. The findings argue it is essential for nuclear energy to be a component of worldwide plans to reduce emissions and address climate change — but rising costs and concerns over safety are currently holding back the sector.
Nuclear power currently generates just 5% of the world's energy, and investment has largely stalled, but MIT's analysis concluded efforts at deep decarbonization without nuclear energy will be "significantly" more costly.
MIT's recommendations are designed to be applicable worldwide, but reading the report from a U.S.-based perspective it is easy to see how they apply to two recent and specific projects.
The report's recommendations include a shift away from constructing plants in the field, and a greater reliance on using proven project and construction management practices and supply chains — all of which could have helped in the development of Georgia's Vogtle plant, which is the only nuclear plant under construction in the U.S. and now more than $10 billion over budget.
The four developers of the Vogtle plant, led by Southern Co.'s Georgia Power, just this week voted to continue work on the beleaguered project. Originally expected to cost $14 billion, final costs are now estimated at $27 billion. In South Carolina, Santee Cooper and SCANA Corp. opted to abandon construction when the VC Summer plant's estimated cost hit $25 billion.
Both projects utilized Westinghouse's AP 1000 reactor, which at the time had never been put into commercial use — there was one connected to the grid in China over the summer — and the plans were often completed or reworked in the field, a practice not uncommon in the industry.
The first two recommendations from MIT Energy Initiative's report are to increase focus on using proven project and construction management practices, and to shift away from "primarily field construction of cumbersome, highly site-dependent plants."
"The recent experience of nuclear construction projects in the United States and Europe has demonstrated repeated failures of construction management practices in terms of their ability to deliver products on time and within budget," the report points out.
Instead, the recommendations support the SMR concept the industry has been talking about as a possible lifeline for nuclear.
"Opportunities exist to significantly reduce the capital cost and shorten the construction schedule for new nuclear power plants," MIT concluded, in particular by deploying "multiple, standardized units" at a single site.
The report also points to low productivity at construction sites in the United States and Europe, and recommends expanded use of "factory production to take advantage of the manufacturing sector's higher productivity when it comes to turning out complex systems, structures, and components."