Small Modular Reactors and the Northwest

Post by Meredith Angwin

Washington state is going to be looking at the best places to site a small modular reactor. According to the recent budget agreement signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council is allocated $176,000 to conduct a study of the siting of SMRs. (The state’s Nuclear Energy Task Force also received funding to continue its work).

Gov. Jay Inslee signs two-year budget for state of Washington. Photo courtesy AP.

Gov. Jay Inslee signs two-year budget for state of Washington. Photo courtesy AP.

The siting study is due to the legislature and governor by Dec. 1. The language also provides the opportunity for EFSEC to hire consultants for the purpose of performing this study.

It is clear from the bi-partisan support for this measure, and other nuclear energy related bills, that there is much support for Washington state as a center for small modular reactor construction. Washington is the home of many nuclear research facilities (in the Tri-Cities area) and the home of Boeing Aircraft. (Boeing builds an important and complex modular product. See our earlier post).

Washington state is well qualified to be the state that builds modular reactors.

NuScale Power

Energy Northwest has a teaming agreement with one of the most promising of the SMR companies: NuScale Power.

  • NuScale’s reactor design is based on a concept pioneered at Oregon State       University.
  • NuScale has funding from the Department of Energy and from Fluor.
  • NuScale has an agreement with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to build a set of reactors somewhere in the West, quite possibly within the Idaho National Laboratory complex.
  • Energy Northwest will operate the NuScale reactors, once they are built.

NuScale and licensing

Developing a new type of small reactor is only part of the battle. There are many small reactors on naval ships, all over the world. Most people would say that the hard part of SMR development is getting a design certification and operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC is famously conservative. Receiving a license for a new type of reactor is not a trivial matter.

However, the NuScale reactor is based on well-understood Pressurized Water Reactor designs, but smaller and with passive-safety features.

A NuScale reactor module. Photo courtesy NRC.

A NuScale reactor module. Photo courtesy NRC.

This will ensure a safe, practical and economic reactor. This blend of old and new should also aid in the licensing process.

NuScale recently released its planned licensing schedule:

  • Design certification application to the NRC by the end of 2016
  • Combined Operating and Licensing application to the NRC by the end of the first quarter of 2018

Clearly, NuScale has an aggressive but achievable schedule for getting the applications to the NRC. But what happens after they submit the applications? When can NuScale reasonably expect the NRC to act on the license?

I learned more about this at a recent meeting in Boston.

Bloomberg and Nuclear Matters and NuScale

Bloomberg BNA (part of the huge business-information group) and Nuclear Matters (a pro-nuclear advocacy group) have teamed up to give a series of events called Nuclear Going Forward. These events cover the issues and the promises for current and planned reactors.

I personally love this unified approach, and I am so glad to see these two institutions doing whole-industry seminars. In my experience, people who operate existing reactors can be scornful of new types of reactors (“paper reactors”) while people developing new types of reactors can speak of well-functioning older reactors with equal scorn. In a blog post several years ago, I suggested that the two groups might actually consider talking to each other (and listening to each other) instead of jumping to conclusions.

The latest Nuclear Going Forward meeting was in Boston in late June, and I was happy to attend. You can see videos of the entire meeting at this website.

The Boston meeting and NuScale

Jay Surina of NuScale was one of the speakers at the Boston meeting, and I recommend you watch the video of the second panel at the Boston meeting.

Licensing was a main subject of the discussion.

A panel discussion at the Nuclear Going Forward meeting in Boston.

A panel discussion at the Nuclear Going Forward meeting in Boston.

In a way, the panelists ranged from “innovative, but not that different from current reactors” to “really different from current reactors” (molten salt, or natural-gas-nuclear-reactor hybrids.) Briefly:

  • Lightbridge proposes a new, metallic fuel for existing reactors or new reactors
  • NuScale proposes a SMR based on existing light water reactor technology
  • Terrestrial Energy proposes a reactor based on Molten Salt technology
  • MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle project proposes a natural-gas-hybrid reactor

Licensing the reactors

Each of these companies assessed their coming interactions with the NRC, and how likely they were to be licensed in a timely fashion.

Lightbridge is confident of being approved by the NRC in a relatively short time frame: They are making a safer, more efficient type of fuel that can be used in existing reactors. They are working with several utilities that would like to use their fuel.

NuScale technology is also similar to existing technologies, and they are also working with two utilities (Energy Northwest and UAMPS). They expect reasonably fast licensing, with a first plant to come on-line in the 2023-24 time frame.

Terrestrial Energy considers its technology “too different” to be worth attempting an NRC license. They plan to be licensed through the Canadian regulatory system, which is principled-based rather than rules-based (36 minutes into the video).

Similarly, MIT considers that NRC is only set up to license light-water reactors. Their own reactor is at such an early stage of development that it not clear what path they will choose for licensing it.

NuScale for the future

When I left the Nuclear Going Forward meeting, I had concluded that NuScale was indeed in a sweet spot for obtaining its license. The reactor is innovative, but not TOO different from existing reactors. The company has strong backing from its parent (Fluor) and the Department of Energy, as well as initial agreements with utilities.

In other words, with the NuScale plans for reactors in the West, it is reasonable that the Washington legislature may well encourage building SMRs in Washington state. Broad state support could sweeten the sweet spot in new reactor design, and bring the manufacturing to Washington state.

Extra reading: Two blog posts on the Nuclear Going Forward meeting:

Yes Vermont Yankee

Atomic Insights

1 thought on “Small Modular Reactors and the Northwest

  1. Please consider the downstream effects in more depth with your NRC application and the potential game changer for this new venture. I am focusing on wind type energy for the outside. plus the possibility of spent fuel storage areas as well that could produce enough heat exchange to possibly supply even more less significant energy if economically feasible.


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