Sandia National Laboratory’s team has announced their new reactor design. The output is projected to be in the range of 100 to 300 megawatts of thermal power sized at “about the size of half a fairly large office building,” as the press release puts it.

Sandia has now joined the market for the small factory production reactor market with a smaller scale, economically efficient nuclear reactor that could be mass-assembled in factories and supply power for a medium-size city.

Tom Sanders leads the Sandia research team, whose goal is an exportable, proliferation-resistant “right-sized reactor.”  The small reactor concept is now developed to an integrated design that incorporates intrinsic safeguards, security and safety.  The proposal offers a way for possible export sales of the reactor to developing countries that do not have the infrastructure to support large power generation. The smaller reactor design decreases the potential need for a country to develop an advanced nuclear regulatory framework.

Gary Rochau, a Sandia team member explains the reactor design includes an integrated monitoring system that provides the exporters of such technologies a means of assuring the safe, secure, and legitimate use of nuclear technology.

The reactor system is built around a small uranium core submerged in a tank of liquid sodium. The liquid sodium is piped through the core to carry the heat away to a heat exchanger, which is also submerged in the tank of sodium. In the Sandia system, the reactor heat is transferred to a very efficient supercritical CO2 turbine to produce electricity.  This form of heat management is considered “passive” in as much as a meltdown isn’t chemically practical.

The Sandia “right-sized” reactors are breeder reactors, meaning they generate their own fuel as they operate.  Thus they are designed to have an extended operational life and only need to be refueled once every couple of decades, which also helps alleviate proliferation concerns.

Sanders says, ‘[The reactor core is replaced as a unit and] in effect is a cartridge core for which any intrusion attempt is easily monitored and detected.”  The reactor system has no need for operator fuel handling.

The reactor technology needed for the smaller fission machines has been demonstrated through 50 years of operating experimental breeder reactors in Idaho.  Sanders points out, “Sandia operates one of three nuclear reactors and the only fuel-critical test facility remaining in the DOE complex. It is the nation’s lead laboratory for the development of all radiation-hardened semiconductor components as well as the lead lab for testing these components in extreme radiation environments.”

Team member Steve Wright is doing research using internal Sandia Laboratory Directed Research and Development program funding. The “right-sized” reactor is expected to operate at efficiencies greater than any current designs, ultimately giving the reactor the greatest return on investment.

About 85 percent of the design efforts are completed for the reactor core. The team is seeking an industry partner through a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA). The CRADA team will be able to complete the reactor design and enhance the plant side, which is responsible for turning the steam into electricity.

The lure is “It could also be a more practical means to implement nuclear base load capacity comparable to natural gas-fired generating stations and with more manageable financial demands than a conventional power plant,” says Sanders.  The cost projections suggest the cost could get down to $250 million once in factory type production.

Small rectors must be on the minds of utility managers.  Los Alamos and now Sandia have designs competed and nearing completion.  But, the experienced gorilla is Babcock & Wilcox with their mini reactor design.

Sandia is one of a group in the hunt for a reactor approval by the regulators.  One competitor, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. knows as Rod Adams says, “Our biggest hurdle, [is] the multi-year licensing effort with the NRC that requires the applicant to pay approximately $60-100 million in fees to the US government.”  A barrier to development, or a solid wall, it’s a fee that begs justification and serious Congressional review.  Such a fee structure distorts research in massive ways, leaving ideas, skills, and education littering the field.

Hyperion Power Generation was the first to publicly discuss its technology, which licensed the technology out of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  They’re building the hot tub-sized reactors that can generate about 27 megawatts of power and/or 72 megawatts of heat. The reactors are designed for outlying communities, but could be assembled into arrays.  Report have it that Hyperion might just go outside the U.S. for manufacturing, due to that fee problem taking the scientific, management careers, production jobs, cash flow, taxes and plant construction investment elsewhere.  One can hardly blame them.

NuScale has a prototype reactor that relies on electricity (rather than nuclear fuel) to heat a passively cooled water-filled envelope.  Backed by in part by venture capital firm CMEA, NuScale currently is preparing its application for design certification. It probably won’t submit the application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency until mid-2011 and it will take about three years for the agency to review it.  NuScale’s idea is to build 45-megawatt modular reactors and then assemble them in arrays to construct plants that can provide 1 gigawatt of power, about the upper limit for existing transmission connections.

Former Microsoft scientist Nathan Myhrvold, operator of the “think tank-like” company Intellectual Ventures has spin out a company called TerraPower that will develop nuclear reactors ranging in size from a few megawatts to a gigawatt. TerraPower says it can load its reactor with un-enriched fuel and seal it up for 30 to 60 years. Of late TerraPower wants to experiment with thorium instead of uranium.

But the surest player today is Babcock & Wilcox (Robert Bryce interviews Chris Mowry of Babcock & WilcoxAbout Modular Reactors) whose reactor is in the Sandia size range as well.  They are one of the most prominent contractors in the nuclear business.  We’ve looked at their design before, and it’s sure to be in any buyer’s list.

All this is backdropped by the fusion people.  Pushing the Congress, regulators and the market with hard data for designs is the thorium fuel groups.  But the problem isn’t money, customers, designs, fuel, radiation or proliferation.

It’s that damnable fee plugging up an entire research, development, construction and production industry offering the lowest priced power of any source on earth.


17 Comments so far

  1. Matt on September 3, 2009 6:09 AM

    Unfortunately, it costs as much to obtain regulatory approval for a small reactor as a large one.

  2. Steve on September 3, 2009 12:42 PM

    So, the main problem in realizing a revolution in the supply of inexpensive, emissions free power is political. Considering how much fossil fuel interests own government (look no further than Bush / Cheney for evidence), I would say this regulatory barrier-to-entry is a feature and not a bug. Fission power is being held down by a political order beholden to Big Oil(and Gas), and King Coal. This is completely outrageous when one considers the economic and environmental disasters unfolding before us due to fossil fuel use.

    WAKE.UP.PEOPLE. – especially so-called greens! Next generation nuclear is the most responsible path forward for humanity: socially, economically and environmentally. We need to marshall as much political support as possible to defeat the fossil-fuel interests embedded in government.

  3. Rod Adams on September 4, 2009 1:03 AM

    I am not so sure that it will require as large a fee to license a small reactor as a large one – the initial application fee is $250,000, for all power reactors (larger than 10 MW thermal), but the majority of the fee is paying the $257 per regulator hour to review the license. It would be logical to assume that a small, simple, passively cooled plant design could be thoroughly reviewed in less time than one that is, by necessity, more complex with more components, more drawings and more computer codes.

    However, logic breaks a bit when the new design uses technology that is not new, but is not familiar to the regulators. Essentially all of the education and experience in the NRC is focused on traditional light water technology using UO2 pellets in zirconium tubes formed into bundles. That technology requires running certain kinds of codes that are well documented and certified to prove safety in all accident scenarios. Those codes do not necessarily work for sodium cooled breeders, nitrogen cooled pebble beds, or uranium hydride moderated reactors. By current rules, the applicant is responsible for the $257 per hour fee even if the regulator’s time is spent in classes and in other forms of training to learn enough about the not new, but different technologies proposed.

    NuScale and B&W have taken a logical approach. Their plants have some great refinements that will allow them to be manufactured in a factory and delivered almost complete to a site, but they are both light water cooled and moderated reactors using a core that is assembled from UO2 pellets in zircalloy tubes bundled together into assemblies that look almost exactly like the ones that the NRC knows and that the codes support. The only real difference is that the assemblies are less than half of the length of traditional reactor assemblies (which are 12-15 feet long).

    Those two companies SHOULD be able to obtain construction and operating licenses for a lower total NRC fee than projects requiring much large facilities. It might take the same calendar time, but there should be fewer regulators spending less time in the review process. If the NRC does not adjust the resources applied, there will be a LOT of bored people.

    B&W has other advantages over the rest of us –
    – They have established manufacturing facilities that already have N-stamps and can make all of the components themselves.
    – They have built reactors before.
    – They have been deeply involved in continued reactor component production and plant manufacturing in the US for 50 years. The hiatus in commercial plant construction has not stopped their Navy business.
    – They have licensed several facilities over the years and understand the process.
    – They even have fuel manufacturing capability and capacity.

    In other words, even though some might consider them to be our “competitor”, I believe that they will be a trailblazer that opens up a whole new branch of fission power applications, just like pioneers like Commodore, Tandy, Apple, and then IBM helped to expand computing applications.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
    Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
    P. S. Our current focus is to apply the Kobayashi Maru strategy to the nearly insurmountable challenge of obtaining permission to build our simple, safe machines to compete against large diesel engines and combustion turbines.

  4. Dan Yurman on September 4, 2009 4:33 AM

    Congress can change the NRC rule for cost recovery for small reactors, less than 500 MW. This is my proposal for how to do it.

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  6. Al Fin on September 4, 2009 5:48 AM

    The $100 million required for new reactor approval appears to be nothing more than a fine levied against new innovation.

    Steve: You may have missed the last election, friend. We have a president, an EPA, a Dept. of Interior, and a congress that are strongly anti-oil and anti-coal. Your intuition may need a slight overhaul.

  7. Steve on September 4, 2009 8:37 AM

    @Al: my intuition says that politicians typically offer up window dressings to play to their base, but in actual fact serve other masters that work behind the scenes. Those masters are a multiplicity of monied interests vested in the current order, and they don’t go away with elections. It is the job of responsible citizens to watch their representatives like hawks for signs of creeping corruption and the undue influence of big money. The work of democracy should happen not just once every 4 years. Don’t believe what the President, EPA, Dept. of Interior secretaries say. Believe only their actions. When it comes right down to policies that affect the powerful in substantial ways, both parties work for the same corporate interests.

    When I see *legislation enacted* that runs counter to the interests of Big Oil, Gas, Coal; when I see the monster that is the Military-Industrial-Complex getting a haircut; when I see the crooked moneychangers on Wall St. held accountable (fraud changes, jail time, firing of top CEOs, regulatory reform that HURTS… not just window dressing); when I see Big Pharma and the insurance companies cut down to size… when I see the green light given to nuclear innovation, then I’ll overhaul my intuition. But not before. Eternal vigilance my friend!

  8. Dr. Dan Ulseth on September 4, 2009 10:37 AM

    @Al: One troubling aspect of the past election is that there are elements in the current majority that are as virulently anti-nuclear as there are elements in the minority that could be accused of being compliantly pro-oil and pro-coal.

    Looking at the electoral map, there are MOC’s on both sides of the aisle who represent states that produce both of those commodities. I’d say, however, that there are more MOC’s influenced by the radical environmental movement on the Dem side. Few Repubs could be accused of being in the pocket of environmentalists.

    As for the EPA, the Dept of Interior and the congressional majority, they appear more smitten by inherently unreliable and more costly “renewables” than the minority party, which is often smeared with accepting (even promoting, for purely selfish financial reasons) dirty air, water and the general environment. As if they don’t care about their children or grandchildrens’ health.

    Correct me if I am wrong in this assessment.

  9. Rod Adams on September 4, 2009 4:17 PM

    @Dan – Here’s a radical thought – what if the mainstream anti-nuclear “Environmental” groups are really the ones who are in the pay of the fossil fuel interests?

    Think about it carefully – who makes the most money if there is a focused effort to keep competitors out of the market and even to keep the supply of a valued commodity suppressed by fighting against new production in areas like ANWAR?

    For those who have always associated the “Environmental” movement with left leaning organizations, take a hard look at the economic history of the Soviet Union and now Russia. What was/is their single largest source of “hard currency”?

    Please understand, I am not at all discussing some kind of secret conspiracy – the organized effort against the use of nuclear energy has been quite open and discussed since Nader brought the Critical Mass Energy Project together in the early 1970s. What I am suggesting is that it takes real money to keep a non-profit movement together for 4 decades and that the established energy interests have read the same books on tactics and strategy that I have as a military officer.

    The enemy of my enemy is my friend and the enemy of all commodity producers (corn, wheat, coal, natural gas, etc.) is unrestrained production from a low cost competitor. The law of supply and demand is not a passive law; it is one that is constantly manipulated to maximize profits.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, The Atomic Show

    PS – Steve – I think you and I would enjoy a conversation about the establishment over a cold one.

  10. Al Fin on September 5, 2009 10:34 AM

    Rod, the radical left has access to a huge amount of funds. And the left hates the west and understands that the best way to undercut western civ is by choking its energy supplies.

    I tend to agree with you on that point, Dan. Leftists have been well financed over the past several decades in an apparently concerted attempt to destroy the energy infrastructure of the western world.

    The carbon catastrophe crusade is far more political than scientific at this point.

  11. Rod Adams on September 5, 2009 11:04 AM

    Al – where do you think the “huge amount” of funds come from?

    I have proposed a rather logical relationship; I believe that at least some of them, and perhaps most of them, come from the individuals, governments (many of which are quite leftist in their governing philosophies) and companies who profit when energy prices are higher than they should be because of a perception of scarcity when there is none. (E=MC^2. M might be fairly small as the potential mass defect of uranium, thorium and plutonium when fissioned, but C is incredibly large, especially when squared.)

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  14. Susanne on May 27, 2010 11:25 AM

    The smaller the reactor the higher the percentage of overhead costs. Operators will be needed as well as security. Also, highly radioactive fission products will have to be reprocesssed, buried or stored onsite (only the latter of which is presently available and is not popular with the nuclear utilities).

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