Big is better – or so many have believed for decades about atomic fission reactor and the generator sets needed to use the output.  Now Rod Adams from Atomic Insights Blog has entered the Controversy – or more on point – sets out a basis for no controversy.

Realistically, small fission reactors have been used for decades at sea going ship size as in the early submarines, not large either in dimensions or output – but highly efficient.  There hasn’t ever been a solid case for one size ever growing to be the electrical generation answer.  The fact remains – it’s been the environment of finance and regulatory matters that drove to larger designs.  Large in and of itself isn’t bad.  But opportunity lies in small.

I was pleased to see a friend, Gail the Actuary who I had met during the touring of the Canadian Oil Sands area provide Mr. Adams with the Oil Drum’s platform to get his points across. Mr. Adams organized many of his thoughts that have been covered on his site over time into an organized rendition.  Its much shorter and all in one place.

Adams points out in the introduction that the main parties involved can take advantage of greater opportunities to apply lessons learned, take advantage of the engineering and tooling savings possible with higher numbers of units and better meet customer needs in terms of capacity additions and financing.  In short terms – mass production at module-sized parts can be highly advantageous as well.

Adams explains that the providers of the pieces to build generating stations learned in the post war period that large generating stations allowed the capital investment in the power station to be most effectively shared between all customers.  It became the textbook formulae.  Academia cast the notion in concrete – or is it silly putty?

Adam’s salient comment in reviewing the history and the results for consumers to builders and planners contend with today is, “Though accurate cost data is difficult to obtain, it is safe to say that there was no predictable relationship between the size of a nuclear power plant and its cost. . .  It is possible for engineers to make incredibly complex calculations without a single math error that still come up with a wrong answer if they use a model based on incorrect assumptions. That appears to be the case with the “bigger is better” model used by nuclear plant designers and marketers.”  This writer objects in part – big can be good when applied properly.

For those interested, the theme ventures into the concepts of “economy of scale” and the “experience curve”.   Adams explains these two concepts adroitly tying them into the history of the atomic fission power generating industry.

Most everyone reading here will know that the nuclear power business is fraught with risks – but not everyone has realized that the risks are based in the huge sizes involved.  The custom build, with parts so large they must be built on individual construction sites, the very long time periods needed, the regulatory, legal, permitting and activist legal assaults all add up to very risky investing, indeed.

Meanwhile, reason beyond the technical and engineering of nuclear plants has moved on to solving problems that generating companies and ratepayers face – clean power at affordable prices.  During the past five years or so, the names of Hyperion, NuScale and Toshiba 4S have been increasingly frequent terms of discussion as start-ups and some established vendors began designing nuclear fission based systems sized at 10, 25, or 45 MWe.  Babcock & Wilcox has added the mPower 125 MWe reactor engineered, manufactured and licensed in the United States and has joined with Bechtel to engineer the portion of the plant that converts the steam supplied by the reactor into electricity.  This would form an alliance and the lower cost desire to build plants that are carbon copies of each other instead of putting together new teams for every project and bidding for various components.

That should be much, much less expensive.  These reactors from 10 to 125 MWe compare to 1000 MWe (plus) sizes of the AP1000 (Westinghouse), ESBWR (GE-Hitachi), or EPR (Areva).

Major Reactor Output Ratings Chart. Click image for the largest view.

Now the serious background facts.  Babcock & Wilcox has an already existing and ASME ‘N-stamp’ certified US manufacturing base and 50 years worth of experience in building nearly all of the components required for the small, modular light water reactors that power ships and submarines. Bechtel has either built or participated in major renovation projects at 64 of the 104 nuclear plants operating in the United States.  These are the guys with the experience curve.

The NuScale group has selected Kiewit, a major competitor to Bechtel as its engineering, procurement, and construction contractor. Together the two companies have completed a detailed, bottom up price estimate yielding an expected cost of between $4,000 and $4,400 per kilowatt of capacity.  NuScale has informed the NRC that it will be filing its license application in the first half of 2012. Much of its system and safety analysis work is backed up with actual data from the 1/3 scale integrated system loop (with electric heaters to simulate the nuclear core) installed at Oregon State University.

Adams points out another important fact – both NuScale and Babcock & Wilcox mPower have determined that the proposed unit sizes more closely match the capacity currently provided by aging coal plants and might be considered as appropriate replacements once those coal plants reach the end of their life.

The controversy will come as Adam’s basic idea, now some 14 years old, gets to the regulators and into the sights of the anti nuke activists.  One vital part left undone is the Congress getting on the ball and doing its part to support an industry of great U.S. economic importance as well as a potential export generator.  The competition worldwide is huge and intense, but at small sizes the U.S. could be a leader.

Click on over to the Oildrum’s page with Mr. Adams article. It’s not long, Adams writes well and the facts are further explained than the brief review here.  There are hundreds of comments to amuse, abuse and entertain one as well.

The overriding point is that power generation, should electron storage in batteries, capacitors or other ideas come to fruition, for the electrification of personal transport could have lots of clean cheap power if the Congress gets its act together.

But controversy is for certain – lots of the vocal, writing and punditry folks aren’t interested in the common welfare – while they’re not focused yet, they will be.  Lets hope the industry has its PR war plans in research as well.  Every one with a bit o’ common sense hopes so.


10 Comments so far

  1. Rod Adams on July 22, 2010 10:16 AM

    Thank you for the kind words about my piece on The Oil Drum. There was an interesting ensuing discussion that ran up to almost 400 comments – admittedly, a fairly significant number of those were my responses to questions and comments.

    I did want to make it clear that I do not dispute the fact that there are some economies that come from building large plants, especially if you can build multiple copies of the plant on the same site with some significant work force continuity. All I really mean to say is that nuclear is not unlike all other technologies – there is a “right size” for the specific application or market.

    With regard to the PR issue, I never hesitate to take the opportunity to point out that many of the people who benefit the most from slowing nuclear plant development are the people who sell the competitive fuels. Sure, there are vocal folks out in front who claim to have other motives, but I am cynical enough about the motives of the very wealthy to spend a lot of time following the money. If you are interested in supporting evidence stories visit Atomic Insights and do a search for “smoking gun”.

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

  2. Matt Musson on July 22, 2010 11:24 AM

    We all know the AEC has not approved a commercial nuclear design in 35 years. It is not about to start under this President.

    I believe that there are only two concepts that stand a chance against the tree huggers and bureaucrats: Molten Salt Liquid THorium and Sub-Critical Nuclear Reactors.

    MSLT’s because they don’t use uranium.
    SCNR’s because they burn up nuclear waste.

    Also, remember that the small ocean going reactors are using highly enriched uranium. The military can get away with that. Commerical enterprises never will.

  3. Rod Adams on July 22, 2010 12:08 PM

    Matt – we have not had an “AEC” since 1974. That organization was split into two parts – the NRC and what is now a part of the Department of Energy.

    Our current President has appointed three very well qualified Commissioners to the NRC. The last President was responsible for appointing the only anti-nuclear commissioner – Greg Jaczko.

    The “tree huggers” are not as big of an obstacle as the fossil fuel pushers who see nuclear energy as a serious threat to their market share and the profits that are driven by a mis perception of energy scarcity.

    The NS Savannah, the first ocean going commercial nuclear power plant in the US, used low enriched fuel. All of the small modular reactors that I discussed in my article also use LEU. Two of the designs – NuScale and Generation mPower – use fuel that is essentially identical to commercial nuclear fuel assemblies except that the rods are about half as long.

  4. Matt Musson on July 23, 2010 10:31 AM


    I remember when President Carter aggressively pushed nuclear energy and failed.

    Perhaps we will have better luck now. But, remember the only constant in the universe is the bureaucratic mentality. And, the NRC has never approved a commercial reactor design.
    and I don’t see it suddenly changing it’s spots.

  5. Rod Adams on July 23, 2010 11:20 AM

    Matt – your memory is faulty. During his campaign, President Carter and his handlers aggressively promoted his nuclear knowledge. Almost immediately upon taking office, he proceeded to make it illegal to recycle used nuclear fuel in the US, putting a facility that private industry had spent several billion dollars building out of business before it even started up.

    He then did all he could to kill the Clinch River Fast Breeder Reactor program and discouraged new construction. He was promoting the expansion of coal and Synthetic fuels as a response to the oil crisis driven by the Iranian Hostage situation.

    I did some detailed research on Carter’s claim of nuclear expertise. It turns out that he received a humanitarian discharge from the Navy in October of 1953 after his father passed away so that he could go home and take care of the family farm.

    The first nuclear powered ship in the Navy did not go to sea until January 17, 1955, so Carter could not possibly have served on an operating nuclear submarine. I tapped some additional information and found out that Carter started nuclear power training in March 1953, so he was discharged before finishing the initial classroom training portion of the 12 month long Navy Nuclear Power training pipeline.

    During his campaign, Carter hosted Ralph Nader in Plains for a two day meeting. Right after that meeting, Nader endorsed Jimmy. I believe that had something to do with Carter’s emphasis of his nuclear knowledge and his anti-nuclear actions.

  6. Rod Adams on July 23, 2010 11:23 AM

    Matt – one more thing – I was a professional bureaucrat for about 9 years as a staff officer in DC. Believe it or not, there are some good people in government service and quite a few of them are currently employed in Rockville at the NRC headquarters. They are conservative, but working hard to approve new reactor facilities.

    You may not know this, but a new fuel enrichment facility recently received an NRC license and that organization has issued 59 license extensions for existing plants. Spots are already changing.

  7. Matt Musson on July 24, 2010 6:16 AM


    I hope you are right. I believe building next generation nuclear power stations is the best thing that could happen to this country from both a power and technology perspective.

    I worked with a bunch of folks from the Savannah River and they top flight folks.

  8. Gail Tverberg on July 24, 2010 6:30 AM

    Thanks for the nice post. I had contacted Rod Adams about a year ago about the possibility of an article such as this. I was happy when his schedule cleared out, and he wrote back saying he would finally have time to write such an article.

  9. hills fan on August 3, 2010 8:03 PM

    Great blog! much appreciated.

    Sent via Blackberry

  10. uZH2 on August 3, 2013 9:08 AM

    421083 129263As I internet site possessor I believe the topic material here is rattling amazing , appreciate it for your efforts. 916380

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind