World Nuclear News is reporting that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is to help push forward the manufacture of small modular nuclear reactors.

This contrasts with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) standing record of never approving a new reactor design.  The December 2011 “approval” by the NRC of the Westinghouse AP1000 is not a new reactor at all; rather it’s a next generation design of existing technology.

Clearly U.S. Federal government is working at cross-purposes.  A fine, expensive and consumer and industrial damaging mess is sure to ensue.

The DOE has new cost-sharing arrangements with private industry to support design and licensing activities.  With considerable astonishment, taxpayers are going to be funding one agency to pay the fees of another.  Make that Astounded.

Small Modular Reactor Samples. Click image for the largest view.

The good news, aside from the circumstances is the DOE intends ultimately to fund up to two designs for small modular reactors (SMR) through a cost-shared partnership, which will support first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification and licensing.  The draft Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) is now out to solicit input from the industry for preparing a full FOA that’s aiming at a reactor deployment date about 2022.

The DOE’s FOA seeks applications for two grants, estimated to total $452 million over five years. The funding anticipates paying up to half the cost of developing and deploying perhaps two small modular reactor designs.

The tooth gnashing fact is that’s not going to be enough money and it leaves all but the chosen one or two designs at a major disadvantage.  This after the Solyndra debacle and others has thoughtful observers realizing that bureaucrats are picking the winners before the competition starts.  That is a terrible policy; a huge waste of resources and the best design is sure to be left out when historic experience is considered.  It will be a lobbyist’s game any moment now.

At issue are small, compact reactors of around 300 MWe and lower in capacity, a third or less of the size of the typical commercial nuclear power plant built so far.  These kinds of plants could potentially offer a range of features in terms of safety, construction and siting as well as potential economic benefits.  But if only one or two are chosen the circumstances for users will be limited or force excess costs to make a mandated choice instead of an optimal one for the situation.

At this size reactors are modular or have a ‘plug and play’ nature, which means they could be made in factories and transported to generation sites.  That manufacturing approach over a custom build method offers economies of scale reducing both capital costs and construction times. The small size could make them suitable for small electric grids and markets that cannot support large reactors costs, production or regulatory expense.

Bravely, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu described the funding as a “significant step” in designing, manufacturing, and exporting small modular reactors.  It takes courage to come out with what is obviously a poorly thought out policy.  Yet, the bravery may be driven by the Congress abandoning its responsibility to organize the law in a fashion that resembles common sense.

Chu is bright enough and has enough outside the beltway experience to understand and say, “America’s choice is clear – we can either develop the next generation of clean energy technologies, which will help create thousands of new jobs and export opportunities here in America, or we can wait for other countries to take the lead.”

Meanwhile – the NRC remains embroiled in a managerial mess.  The commissioners and the Chairman are still at odds, and the oversight of the media has disappeared, the Congress along with it. There is no reasonable expectation anything of consequence is going to happen any time soon, and it’s an election year as well.

There is a lot at stake if such a plan proceeds.  Westinghouse is developing its own 200 MWe SMR, and the information has escaped that Westinghouse’s approved AP1000 nuclear reactor design was supported through a cost-shared agreement with DOE.  This information leads one to suspect that Westinghouse may be looking for a quick taxpayer funded catch up.

There is a long list of technologies with potential. (See Brian Wang’s page at NextBigFuture.)

NuScale Power Inc’s 45 MWe NuScale reactor and Babcock & Wilcox’s 160 MWe mPower should both be eligible, too. The NRC is currently involved in pre-application activities on both designs in anticipation of a design certification application for the NuScale reactor in the first months of 2012, followed by one for the mPower design towards the end of 2013.  These one should think, are the leaders.

The list of good ideas out there is grand, covering three major technologies.  The light water reactors list includes Babcock & Wilcox, NuScale Power Inc., Westinghouse and Holtec’s Inherently Safe Modular Underground Reactor at 140 MWe.

The high temperature gas-cooled reactors are coming from AREVA’s Antares, General Atomics model called Gas Turbine Modular Helium Reactor and Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Ltd.’s reactor named conveniently, the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor.

The liquid metal cooled and fast reactor list is equally impressive.  Here are GE Hitachi’s Nuclear Power Reactor Innovative Small Module, Hyperion Power Generation’s Hyperion Power Module and Toshiba’s – Toshiba 4S for Super Small, Safe and Simple.

That’s 10, add in a couple of thorium fueled ones and that would be a dozen.  The Feds expect to give one or two 40% of a billion dollars head start.  How is that going to work out for the country?

Wouldn’t it be better to just completely revamp the NRC?

Admittedly the DOE must be under stress from the machinations over at the NRC.  And from a government mind, that plan might seem great.  For the rest of us it looks like a waste from the start and a market distortion for decades, perhaps centuries to come.



5 Comments so far

  1. Al Fin on January 27, 2012 3:29 AM

    The US government is a bloated and somewhat consolidated — but antagonistic — block of catering services, which prepare US taxpayers and private concerns to be eaten by fat, unscrupulous, and well-connected party-goers of the lifelong vulture persuasion.

    One does not expect either competence or benevolence from such entities. One merely tries not to be utterly consumed before one is dead.

  2. Brian Westenhaus on January 27, 2012 7:29 AM

    Al, very well said. Accurate, concise and and on point. Permission to repeat, please? That is high art of the language and deserves to be heard by millions.


  3. Matt Musson on January 27, 2012 9:09 AM

    Look for the DOD to push small reactor deployment. They can install them on military bases or war zones and do not dragged down by the OGAs.

    Meanwhile – wave goodbye to the Nuclear industry as it sales out of the USA – probably headed for China.

  4. Al Fin on January 27, 2012 11:15 AM

    Permission granted, Brian. Thanks.

    From the movie Blade Runner: “Either you’re cop or you’re little people.” (Only two types of people)

    But in today’s world either you’re government, government connected, or little people. This way we have three types of people, an altogether more diverse society.

  5. Fred on February 16, 2012 8:19 PM

    Somehow I naively thought Secretary Chu might resolve this issue.

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