A Poll to Revisit LWR’s and a Plan

by Will Davis

A short while back in early November, I decided to conduct a poll on Twitter – that oft-maligned, mostly misunderstood, microblogging site on which instantaneous outreach is seriously tempered by a roughly 19-minute-post-visibility lifetime. Even with the limitations, I thought my first-ever use of the polling tool would produce a pretty predictable result. I was off the mark.

This was the question that I posed: Should the USA spend money to develop and design a quickly constructed but robust large light water reactor nuclear power plant? We’ll get into the vagaries of that highly nuanced question in a moment, but first, the two allowed voting choices: A) Yes, still important and B) No, cede the field. The wording of these was wholly deliberate – the implication being that if we do not take the action delineated in the poll question, we would as a matter of course cede the field to others (which is to say other nations).

The Setup

If you take a look around the nuclear outreach landscape today, you’ll find it heavily loaded with messaging about advanced (or Gen-IV) reactors.  All the buzz today – and indeed the vast majority of funding awards, press announcements, TED talk videos, policy moves, whatever – are about advanced reactors.

The problem is that they’re not ready, and they’re not very close.  None of them are ready to answer the bell if it rings today, tomorrow, or probably next year.  That leaves the existing, established technologies to carry the water (pun intended).

Furthermore, we do see some hand-wringing that the Russians, the Chinese and the Koreans are getting nuclear plant export contracts we should have had.  They’re doing that with light-water reactors (LWR).  Let’s face it:  Tomorrow is tomorrow, or sometime in the future… but today is today, and today still belongs to LWRs.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I’m not lamenting the loss of blacksmithing as a trade here, not wishing for the return of the Conestoga and the trail and the stage stop. I’m not advocating dumping work and research for the future, I’m simply saying that keeping our eye on the horizon isn’t taking care of what’s between here and there. We simply have to hope that what we see on the horizon isn’t a mirage. That means, to my way of thinking, keeping U.S. built LWR nuclear power plants viable as new products both for domestic and for export construction.

A Slight Surprise

The poll only got 45 votes, but the result was much more lopsided than I’d figured given that most of my very active followers are heavily interested in advanced reactors. The result was 84 percent to spend money to develop the specified design, and only 16 percent to cede the field. I had expected a close run and hoped for a slight tilt to keep working on big LWR plants. I was both somewhat surprised by, and pleased by, the result.

So now what’ll we do?  Well, we have to look at the proposition.  I said quickly constructed, but I didn’t say shorter than ever before. What I was driving at was this: My friend and mentor Glenn Williams has pounded into my head the mantra Good, Fast, Cheap; pick two because you can’t have all three. We need to design a plant that is easily constructed, which will lead to it being fairly quickly constructed.  We also need to avoid attempts to drive past inexpensive if possible to cheap as we have decided that since any nuclear plant will already be expensive, we will take good and fast.  An example will help.

Let’s suppose that in order to save on the base cost of a large LWR design, the containment and in fact the whole nuclear island are made absolutely as compact as possible. This will result in a statistical saving of money compared with plants from the first nuclear build; hopefully, the reduction in nuclear concrete volume will also result in less chance for error and required rework. However we discovered much later that when the project is behind, we cannot catch up on work inside the containment because it’s too tight – trades cannot flood in and work in parallel because everyone will be in everyone else’s way. In the old days, with the labor force on the rolling 4-10 shift schedule and seven days’ work a week on-site, catching up was possible for a period during construction, if there was room to flood in workers and components. That’s not possible with our new ‘compact’ design though, and we continue to fall further behind. What’s happened to us is that the attempt to be cheap in the first place is now seriously negatively affecting PROJECT cost – which is what we should have had an eye on in the first place.  It’s project cost that gets the attention of ratepayers, the public service commission, and the media. It’s project cost that kills projects. Designing the plant to be easily built, and not compact, would have been the right move. If that means a much larger containment, then that’s what it should get. There’s no need to be tricky or clever on this kind of engineering approach, either; we don’t need to innovate anything or try to disrupt anything. Keep it simple- then under-promise and over-deliver.

I used the term “robust” in my poll, but frankly that’s only part of today’s picture. While passive safety is a key feature of the plant design being built right now in the USA, it’s also likely that we’ll want to ensure that the plant is, to borrow the new phraseology of Sherrell Greene: “resilient.”  This means that the plant doesn’t trip off at the slightest perturbation – it may mean that it stays up and on the grid even with a loss of offsite power.  Repeating though – safety is of course a key factor that can’t be sacrificed for our desired goals of easy construction and robustness / resiliency.

Now What?

“We” is an easy word to use. “We” should do this or that.  Who is “we” in this case?  Well, I should think that since we as U.S. citizens live in a free-market, we’ll need government policy incentives to set this in motion on the part of that market. Perhaps the importance of holding the gap should be pushed far harder than ever – and then, perhaps, a grant-funded industry effort not unlike that taken in Japan to develop the ABWR and APWR should be started, seeing various industry and utility companies coming together.  And when I say “coming together,” I mean to maximize the effort, not kill the idea by committee. (Think more Apollo than EPR.)  If and when FERC decides to provide real compensation for plants that run in the base load region of system demand, we might see a connection between industry desire for relatively steady cost nuclear power and this drive to develop a realistically buildable large LWR plant.  If that happens, we’ll have filled the gap until Gen-IV can arrive.

(This article is absolutely NOT intended to be the end of this discussion, it’s the beginning only.  Please let me know what thoughts you have that would contribute to such a concept – bearing in mind that the poll was 84 percent to 16 percent, in other words heavily in favor of pursuing the concept.)


Will DavisWill Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He is a consultant to the Global America Business Institute, a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.  His popular Twitter account is @atomicnews.

16 thoughts on “A Poll to Revisit LWR’s and a Plan

  1. Sherrell Greene


    I’m convinced an “inconvenient truth” is that the societal value proposition (affordable, reliable baseload electricity) that spawned the adoption and deployment of nuclear power over the past five decades, is no longer compelling in the U.S. and throughout much of the remainder of the world in the 21st century. We can deny this truth, bemoan this truth, surrender, or find a way to enhance nuclear power’s 21st century value proposition. I salute you, Will, for wading into these waters. Those of us in the nuclear energy community must learn to “think different” about nuclear energy and technology if we are to harness its promise to meet the needs of 7B+ inhabitants of this small blue planet.


  2. JB Lewis P.E.

    The concept of ” it stays up and on the grid even with a loss of offsite power. ” is an oxymoron. When you are “up and on the grid” , the synchronizing breaker is closed. This is a case of it either is or is not (think being pregnant…). If you loose offsite power, there is no grid, so you can’t connect to it. If you mean don’t SCRAM when you loose offsite power, this was done as early as Millstone 1, but the design was deemed not to be cost effective as the larger condenser, additional piping, additional bypass valves and control schemes were costly and increased both project cost and maintenance expense.
    I’m not sure you need only look at project costs. Bus bar costs are what prompt plants to be prematurely retired. These are “all in” costs including security, O&M, fuel, AFUDC, etc.

  3. David Phegley

    Will – I think you are on the mark here. I believe by actively keeping the US in the ring, building “current technology” LWRs here and abroad is very important. I would add to the listed reasons this is important. I believe if we do not work hard now to become an industry that can build a proven product on budget and on schedule – there will not be many interested in giving us the chance to build new-technology reactors in the future where the $$ risk to the utility customer (the public) is higher. Another item that staying in the build business will achieve will be to maintain our pool of talent in the US for building and operating nuclear reactors. I have been working in the nuclear power industry for over 20 years now and I see every day how important our nuclear skilled staff is to making our industry viable. As INOP says – nuclear power is special – and I believe it requires special people dedicated to learning special skills and practicing them carefully and consistently to keep nuclear power successful. Employee populations like this are not created overnight.
    Bottom line – I we choose to stay competitive in the LWR market of today, I think we will be severely reducing our chances of success in winning in tomorrow’s market.

  4. VNP Anghel

    Well there is a problem here. Almost any reactor I know of was starting from a nuclear sub, version.which is OK in most instances (may run without too much supervision and so on).
    Trouble is, a plant is a different animal, subject to different human pressures: we have to make the nuclear plant manager proof. Chernobyl managers wanted dearly to report a success on 1srt of May. while the Fukushima builders did not want to go too deep into history of Japan. Another plant builder in Japan paid a historian to look and that historian found some reference: the builder built a higher seawall and as far as I know the plant is OK today even if it was of the same design and it too saw a tsunami
    You are right to choose two out of three but at this moment we are not free to choose….

  5. Will Davis

    What if the move to modular construction is seen as an entire order of magnitude more difficult to get right than a conventional design, given the thirty year gap in builds and the total loss of the feedback loop of design-and-build? Viewed in that light, overcomplicating the design by moving to attempt modular construction was exactly the WRONG move.

  6. Dennis Mosebey

    Oh and Carl Landstrom is corect-it was stupid to retire San Onofre 2 and 3 but utility no longer wanted to hassle regulator intervenor game so they said crap on it!

  7. Dennis Mosebey

    The large PWR is over as a new build The AP 1000’s touting modular construction as a big cost savings have not come to be. The reactor of the future will be SMR. The Rolls Royces are giving way to the smaller Triumph TR6

  8. John Tanner

    We need to figure out why we can’t build traditional reactors, that we could build in five years long ago.

  9. Will Davis

    Thank you, James; I never implied or intended for anyone to think that this was any more than a sort of exercise, and wasn’t intended to be scientific. What’s interesting to me is that most of my interactive followers seem heavily in favor of advanced reactors and frankly I’ve had a number of interactions wherein my suggestion we not forget the LWR has met with some scorn. So, in context, this non-scientific “conversation starter” came out as a bit of a surprise. There’d be no article here, more than likely, if the poll had come out so heavily the other way however – it surely did spur me to pursue thinking beyond “somebody ought to do something,” which itself is rarely helpful!

  10. James R Fancher

    Not addressing the underlying idea, nor the probability of success; but just the ‘poll’. (FYI, my graduate degree was aimed at market research: I know a lot about polling.) Your poll may be suggestive, but it is a long way from any kind of scientific representation. The real question is, who responds to that kind of Twitterpoll? If they are people who follow you regularly (as I tend to, on Nuclear Cafe), they will likely support your proposition. But they are not the (great unwashed, and scientifically ignorant) “public”… I too would like to see that kind of project, and I understand the argument. But it may be unrealistic to expect public support. Especially if opposition develops to government support…

  11. Carl Landstrom

    Over the life of commercial nuclear power generation, we have gone from building a turnkey unit in a few years to not being able to complete a unit because even the so called simplified ones are too complicated and expensive. It is unbelievable to me that we would scrap a multibillion dollar facility because defective steam generators were installed. We in this country need some serious regulatory reform before we continue building LWRs. Common parts must be only somewhat more expensive than their non-Q equivalents instead of 7x or more and they need to be stocked. And maybe a government or industry funded, private, non-profit organization staffed with experts to help utilities get their units back in operation when they get overwhelmed with technical challenges on otherwise good units (think SONGS and Crystal River) would be useful also. How can we think about building new ones when as a society we walk away from broken ones. I also think we should revisit older abandoned technologies that held promise but failed due to material shortcomings. MHD and HTGR come to mind.

  12. Eric Denison

    There’s another issue besides material cost and ease of construction to consider with respect to compactness. I’ve been an observer of NRC inspections at NPP’s for several years, and I’ve heard repeated comments and complaints about how certain areas of certain plants were resized to save construction money without regard to operational costs and efficiencies. Trading reduced construction cost for increased operational and maintenance costs and increased on-line and outage worker dose is a bad deal for the corporations and workers alike.

  13. CJ Milmoe

    Thanks, Will for shining a light on the construction project cost issue. Existing LWR designs have proven safe and effective. We have paid too much attention to design improvements to improve safety and performance, and not enough to improve affordability. Our customers in the electric power market want more affordable reactors.

  14. fastedd603

    You have defined all the attributes that distinguish the NuScale design capabilities from all others. It is the only viable “bridge to the future” today. A national effort to build the first one at INL as fast as possible is needed. That includes regulatory speed, supply chain speed, advanced manufacturing to lower costs (think lots of 3D printed components), and advanced construction methods for structures. If the US wants to lead again, now is the time for a national effort committed to speed and low cost on all fronts to realize this even safer LWR design asap. This is what every competing nation is doing. The passive, modular design already provides robustness and resiliency beyond most imaginations. Why not the U.S.? Business as usual will cede the lead for generations.
    Another ex-Nuke

  15. Boganboy

    As an Australian, to me what the US decides to do is its’ own business. However from an Aussie point of view, if we ever decide to build nukes (fat chance!!), I’d want us to build standard, well-proven designs that’ll come in on time and at the anticipated cost.

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