Advanced Nuclear Advances and Retreats

by Will Davis

This week has brought two news items – one positive and one negative – that echo a theme which runs down the history of nuclear energy like a spine.  The story goes that the original, longest-tried technology works while other, theoretically superior but technically vastly more difficult concepts continue to run into roadblocks; that story remains unchanged today, in the face of these new developments.

Integral Light Water Reactor On The Move

It was announced yesterday (September 25, 2018) that NuScale Power had selected BWX Technologies, Inc. to begin the design work to actually fabricate components for NuScale’s small modular reactor design – a design that already has commercial interest (in fact, a buyer) in UAMPS and a site at INL.  According to NuScale’s press release BWX (which comprises the nuclear business of the former Babcock & Wilcox company) will subcontract some of the work to Precision Custom Components, a company based in Pennsylvania.  PCC’s website describes the company as follows (in a press release):

“Precision Custom Components, LLC is a leading manufacturer of custom fabricated heavy pressure vessels (to 600 tons), reactors, casks, and heavy-walled components involving special materials with challenging welding and highly specialized machining, tight tolerances, and robust QA procedures for nuclear, commercial and government applications. PCC was founded at its current location in York, Pennsylvania in 1876 and was then known as the S. Morgan Smith Company. PCC’s facility exceeds 275,000 square feet and is conveniently located to major transportation routes including rail, truck, and deep water access in Baltimore, MD and Philadelphia, PA.”

BWX Technologies was selected as engineering contractor not only because of its history in the business, but, according to NuScale’s release, also because it is a US based company.  The history of the company actually connects to a directly related product; in the 1960’s, Babcock & Wilcox designed the very first integral pressurized water reactor (iPWR) as a response to engineering concerns about the size and weight of nuclear plants for civilian vessels then being designed.  The integral design, which places not just the reactor core but also the steam generators and pumps inside (or, mounted on) a single pressure vessel, not only greatly reduced the size and mass per MWt for shipboard nuclear plant concepts but also improved safety as large break loss of coolant accidents, such as might happen with a sheared main coolant line, were virtually impossible with such a design.  The company provided, through a German subsidiary, the very first operational iPWR which went to sea on the German nuclear powered ship OTTO HAHN at the end of the 1960’s and which operated flawlessly for about a decade until the ship was sidelined for economic – not technical – reasons.

The German nuclear powered ship OTTO HAHN incorporated an integral PWR designed by Babcock & Wilcox in the US and fabricated by B&W's German subsidiary.  The design was a stroke of brilliance, at once shrinking the power plant size and improving safety.  NuScale Power's modern integral PWR builds even further on this practical design by incorporating a containment with each power module and having a multi-reactor, inexpensive power plant design.  Photo in Will Davis collection.

The German nuclear powered ship OTTO HAHN incorporated an integral PWR designed by Babcock & Wilcox in the US and fabricated by B&W’s German subsidiary. The design was a stroke of brilliance, at once shrinking the power plant size and improving safety. NuScale Power’s modern integral PWR builds even further on this practical design by incorporating a containment with each power module and having a multi-reactor, inexpensive power plant design. Photo in Will Davis collection.

According to NuScale, this first engineering development phase involving BWX will run through approximately June 2020.  Shortly after that, in September 2020, NuScale expects to receive design certification for its SMR from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  After that, further manufacturing contracts would be awarded building up to the construction of the first NuScale pilot power plant at the Idaho National Laboratory in the middle 2020’s.  In that plan, ten of the twelve SMR units at the plant when finally completed fully would provide power to UAMPS (Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems) while two would remain in operation as test and experiment units.

Pioneer Quits Well Short of Finish Line

It was also announced on the 25th that Transatomic Power, an early, bright light in the sky from the days not long after the beginning of the anticipated-but-stalling ‘nuclear renaissance,’ was shutting down its operations immediately, many years and over $15 million short of having produced any hardware.  This was a serious blow for advocates of advanced reactors, but was not wholly unexpected in some circles.

Nuclear and environmental proponents Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie joined with Ray Rothrock and others to form Transatomic Power in 2011 with the goal of developing a molten salt reactor that would not just be inexpensive but which would actually burn “waste” – which is to say, reprocessed nuclear fuel simply sitting around from our present open-cycle light water reactor fleet.  Not only would the Transatomic reactor thus contribute to decarbonizing the grid, it would also then itself help solve the long term storage problem by burning the offending material as fuel – a true technological solution to a political problem which, normally, is impossible.  The company signed on Founders Fund, Venrock, Acadia Woods and Armada Investment for venture capital and launched what initially appeared to be a decisive drive toward advanced nuclear technology.

Following several years of great publicity for the company and its founders, a rather surprising development became public in February 2017.  At that time, MIT Technology Review published an article stating that Transatomic Power’s reactor design calculations were seriously flawed.  The company was forced to retract a claim it had made about the amount of energy the design would generate from a given mass of (mined) uranium, but worse, it was also forced to concede that the design could not operate with spent fuel material and thus would not assist in any way with reducing the burden of spent nuclear fuel slowly piling up around the country.  This factor – the burning of spent fuel – had in fact been a key consideration for many, perhaps including investors.

The time period after this rather public but coolly diplomatic exchange between Transatomic and MIT (as published in Technology Review) saw Transatomic practically disappear from the public relations stage, with the exception of the movie “The New Fire” now entering general release.  The company made the occasional statement, but the quiet after the furor was ominous.

And so, we found ourselves with the unfortunate revelation earlier in the week that Transatomic had been unable to acquire the added monies needed to push its (heavily revised) reactor concept through to the licensing and hardware stages; the company, the release said, was shutting down.  However, in an attempt to preserve its work, the company did state that it would “open source” its work so that whoever wished to build on it or consult it in the development of a similar concept could do so.  A magnanimous, and gracious, end to a well known startup, all in all.

The Immediate Future Looks Like Yesterday

Where are we now?  Well, the time-tested but recently seriously maligned light water reactor has, as a general concept, won another day.  It came to pass more than once during the “bright future” days of the first nuclear era that a need emerged and what was ready to answer the call was light water, and not any of the more exotic concepts.  While organic cooled, sodium cooled, gas cooled and other designs eventually did operate commercially (that is to say, on the grid) they all lost out to the practicality (and experience base) of the pressurized water and boiling water designs that constituted the bulk of the US nuclear commercial fleet and all of the Navy’s operational nuclear fleet.  This is not to say that the advanced reactors don’t still hold all the promise they did back then; they do, and perhaps very much more given the new societal challenges that today’s developers are working ever more diligently to meet and, hopefully, conquer.  In a practical engineering sense, it is not in the end illogical that a light water design continues to move toward commercial operation while a highly advanced design fails and, exceedingly unfortunately, takes a company with it.  In an emotional sense, however, the net balance of this week’s developments are murkier – hopefully, the several dozen other nuclear startups will redouble their efforts so that advanced reactors can be on the table in this country (and for export from it) before the competition overseas can catch up.  For today, though, NuScale, once itself considered an upstart, is beginning to look more like a juggernaut.

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, @atomicnews is mostly devoted to nuclear energy.

Feel free to leave a constructive remark or question for the author in the comment section below.

4 thoughts on “Advanced Nuclear Advances and Retreats

  1. Dr. Harry Lawroski

    I tried to get a decent descriptive cross section of the NuScale reactor but was told it was proprietary. I want to look at the maintainability of the system. Putting a reactor with leaking fuel into a large pool will contaminate every thing. Putting leaking fuel into the storage pool at the Chemical Processing Plant at the Idaho Nuclear Laboratory ended up in a very expensive operation.

  2. Ed Pheil

    The integral reactor in a ship puts the heat exchanger and pressurized up very high. This high mass makes the ship a less stable, top heavy, easier to role over. A modular configuration concept with pumps and heat exchangers hung off the sides of the vessel, lowers the center of gravity helping ship stability. The side mounted Heat exchangers a few so double as shielding, reducing the overall mass and and shield size (less surface area of gamma shielding, by many tonnes of the propulsion plant versus an integral reactor, so more mass margin available for cargo.

  3. James R Fancher

    Will: “…other designs did operate commercially…”

    I didn’t think the MSRE at ORNL ever supplied power to the grid; my recollection was that the power was ‘dumped’ to a radiator, i.e., thermal discharge…

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