Category Archives: Small modular reactors

Nuclear Video Matinee: NuScale and TerraPower at CERAWeek

ICOSA Media caught up with NuScale chief executive officer Chris Colbert and TerraPower CEO John Gilleland at the recent CERAWeek energy conference in Houston, Tex. The two leaders of these innovative nuclear energy companies discuss the how’s and why’s of their small and beautiful reactor designs—the NuScale Small Modular reactor and the TerraPower Traveling Wave reactor.

NuScale and TerraPower are no strangers to ANS Nuclear Cafe—for more details see Bill Gates: “I Love Nuclear”, Bill Gates on Nuclear Energy and TerraPower, and SMRs Get Further Push with Western Initiative for Nuclear.

Thanks to ICOSA Media on YouTube for sharing this video.

nuscale barge

 

Small Modular Reactors—US Capabilities and the Global Market

By Rod Adams

On March 31–April 1, Nuclear Energy Insider held its 4th Annual Small Modular Reactor (SMR) conference in Charlotte, NC (following on the 2nd ANS SMR Conference in November 2013—for notes and report from that embedded topical meeting, see here).

You can find a report of the first day of talks, presentations, and hallway conversations at SMRs—Why Not Now? Then When? That first day was focused almost exclusively on the US domestic market—the second day included some talks about US capabilities, but it was mainly focused on information useful to people interested in developing non-US markets.

Before I describe the specifics, I want to take the opportunity to compliment Nuclear Energy Insider for its well-organized meeting. Siobhan O’Meara did an admirable job putting together an informative agenda with capable speakers and keeping the event on schedule.

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Westinghouse SMR

Robin Rickman, director of the SMR Project Office for Westinghouse Electric Company, provided a brief update on his company’s SMR effort and the status of its development. He then focused much of his talk on describing the mutual challenges faced by the SMR industry and the incredible array of commercial opportunities that he sees developing if the industry successfully addresses the challenges together.In early February, Danny Roderick, chief executive officer of Westinghouse, announced that his company was shifting engineering and licensing resources away from SMR development toward providing enhanced support for efforts to refine and complete the eight AP1000 construction projects in progress around the world.

Rickman explained this decision and its overall impact on SMR development. He told us that Westinghouse remains committed to the SMR industry and to resolving the mutual challenges that currently inhibit SMR development. His project office has retained a core group of licensing experts and design engineers and is fully supporting all industry efforts. The SMR design is at a stage of completion that enables the company to continue to engage with both customers and regulators based on a mature conceptual design.

The company, however, does not want to get ahead of potential customers and invest hundreds of millions of dollars into completing a design certification if there are no committed customers. Rickman didn’t say it, but Westinghouse has a corporate memory from the AP600 project of completing the process of getting a design certification in January 1999 without ever building a single unit. It’s not an experience that they have any desire to repeat.

Westinghouse determined that its resources could be best invested in making sure that the AP1000 is successful and enables others to succeed in attracting financing and additional interest in nuclear energy.

For SMRs, Westinghouse has a business model that indicates a need for a minimum order book of 30–50 units before it would make financial sense to invest in the detailed design and the modular manufacturing infrastructure required to build a competitive product. Rickman emphasized that all of the plant modules must be assembled in a factory and delivered to the site ready to be joined together in order to achieve the capital cost and delivery schedule needed to make SMRs competitive.

That model requires a substantial investment in the factories that will produce the components and the various modules that make up the completed plant. He told us that the state of Missouri is already investing in creating such an infrastructure with the support of all of its major universities, every electricity supplier, a large contingent of qualified manufacturing enterprises, both political parties, and the governor’s office.

He told the audience that Missouri’s efforts are not limited to supporting a single reactor vendor; it is building an infrastructure that will be able to support all of the proposed light water reactor designs including NuScale, mPower, and Holtec.

Rickman included a heartfelt plea for everyone to recognize the importance of creating a new clean energy alternative in a world where billions of people do not have access to light at the flip of a switch or clean water by opening a simple tap.

In what was a surprise to most attendees, the FBI had a table in the expo hall and gave a talk about its interest in the safety and security of nuclear materials. I will reveal my own skepticism about the notion that nuclear power plants are especially vulnerable or attractive targets for people with nefarious intent. It is hard to imagine anyone making off with nuclear fuel assemblies or being able to do anything especially dangerous with them in the highly unlikely event that they did manage to figure out how to get them out of a facility.

Bryan Hernadez, a refreshingly young engineer, gave an excellent presentation about the super heavy forging capabilities available in the United States at Lehigh Heavy Forge in Bethlehem, Pa. That facility is a legacy of what formerly was the Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s massive integrated steel mill. It has the capacity to forge essentially every component that would be required to produce any of the proposed light water SMR designs.

The presentation included a number of photos that must have warmed the heart of anyone in the audience who likes learning about massive equipment designed to produce high quality goods with tight tolerances that weigh several hundred tons.

In a presentation that would have pleased several of my former bosses, Dr. Ben Amaba, a worldwide sales executive from IBM, talked about the importance of approaching complex designs with a system engineering approach and modern information tools capable of managing interrelated requirements. That is especially important in a highly regulated environment with a globally integrated supply chain.

Jonathan Hinze, senior vice president of Ux Consulting, provided an overview of both national and international markets and described those places that his company believes have the most pressing interest in machines with the characteristics being designed into SMRs.

He reminded the audience that US suppliers are not the only players in the market and that they are not even the current market leaders. He noted the fact that Russia is installing two KLT-40 power plants (light water reactors derived from established icebreaker power plants) onto a barge and that those reactors should be operating in a couple of years. He pointed to the Chinese HTR-PM, which is a power plant with two helium–cooled pebble bed reactors producing 250 MW of thermal power producing steam and feeding a common 210-MWe steam turbine power plant. He also mentioned that Argentina had recently announced that it had broken ground on a 25-MWe CAREM light water reactor.

Douglass Miller, acting director of New Major Facilities Division of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, described his organization’s performance-based approach to nuclear plant licensing. He noted that the commission does not have a design certification process and that each project needs to develop its safety case individually to present to the regulator. It appears that the process is not as prescribed or as time-consuming as the existing process in the United States.

Tony Irwin, technical director for SMR Nuclear Technology Pty Ltd, told us that Australia is moving ever closer to accepting the idea that nuclear energy could play a role in its energy supply system. Currently, the only reactor operating in Australia is a research and isotope production reactor built by INVAP of Argentina. He described the large power requirements for mining operations in places not served by the grid and the fact that his country has widely distributed settlements that are not well-integrated in a large power grid. He believes that SMRs are well suited to meeting Australia’s needs.

Unfortunately, I had to get on the road to avoid traffic and get home at a reasonable hour, so I missed the last two presentations of the day. I probably should have stayed to hear about the cost benefits of advanced, non-light water reactors and about Sweden’s efforts to develop a 3-MWe lead–cooled fast reactor for deployment to Canadian arctic communities.

As I was finalizing this post, I noted that Marv Fertel has just published a guest post at NEI Nuclear Notes titled Why DOE Should Back SMR Development. I recommend that anyone interested in SMRs go and read Fertel’s thoughts on the important role that SMRs can play in meeting future energy needs.

SMR on trailer courtesy NuScale Power

SMR on trailer – courtesy NuScale Power

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Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

Argentina carries torch for SMR construction

CAREM 25 Prototype Plant; illustration courtesy CNEA

CAREM 25 Prototype Plant; illustration courtesy CNEA

By Will Davis

News came out this week that the first concrete had been poured at the construction site for the world’s first small modular reactor (SMR) project—and it wasn’t for a Generation mPower SMR at the former Clinch River site, or for a SMART SMR (which was the first type in the world to receive governmental design certification) at a site in South Korea.

Instead, this milestone event occurred in Argentina, at a site adjacent to the Atucha nuclear station (which hosts one operating pressurized heavy water reactor [PHWR] and a second long-delayed PHWR under renewed construction and expected to be completed this year).

The SMR under construction is called the CAREM 25, which is not only an indigenous Argentinian design, but also the first-ever indigenous Argentinian power reactor design.  (The PHWR units were designed by the German firm KWU—later Siemens/KWU—and Argentina had previously only designed and built its own research and test reactors.)

CAREM section, courtesy CNEA.  From top, clockwise: Integral pressurizer volume; control rod drive mechanisms; control rods; core; steam generators.

CAREM 25 section, courtesy CNEA. From top, clockwise: Integral pressurizer volume; control rod drive mechanisms; control rods; core; steam generators.

The design chosen for this first prototype plant construction is a 100-MWt/27-MWe reactor in the classic “integrated pressurized water reactor” (iPWR) format with steam generators, reactor core, control rod drive, and pressurization all internal to the reactor vessel. An interesting feature of the CAREM 25 is that it does not include primary (reactor) coolant pumps; coolant flow on the primary side is entirely by natural circulation (natural circulation primary flow is also a feature of the NuScale Power SMR that recently won US Department of Energy cost-sharing funding, and a lightwater iPWR SMR under research by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries). The design includes 12 identical helical tube steam generators, each of which is piped to a common connection flange (seen ringing the reactor vessel in the illustration above) that includes concentric piping for feedwater inlet (radial connection) and steam outlet (vertical connection, seen better in next illustration.) These feed and steam connections are piped to large circular common headers that surround the reactor vessel.

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CAREM 25 SMR, courtesy CNEA. 1) Control rod drive mechanisms. 2) Chimney 3) Water level 4) Steam generator 5) Feedwater 6) Steam outlet 7) Control rod 8) Fuel element 9) Core 10 ) Core support structure

The CAREM 25 prototype will be built in a completely new facility, on the site of a former heavy water research facility that is adjacent to the Atucha station but which, according to the website of the Argentinian National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA), will include facilities for training operators and performing other research. Below, an illustration from the CNEA website shows the location of the CAREM 25 construction on the overall site.

CAREM site adjacent to ATUCHA NPP; courtesy CNEA.

CAREM 25 site adjacent to ATUCHA NPP; courtesy CNEA.

The CAREM 25 nuclear plant will include three “modules” or sections, the design of which has evolved over time. Largest will be the “reactor module” that includes the SMR itself, a pool-type pressure suppression containment roughly like that of a MkIII boiling water reactor, the spent fuel pools, and emergency cooling equipment (among many other items). The “BOP module” or balance-of-plant module contains the turbine generator, condenser, and feed and feed treatment systems. A third structure contains control and administration. See illustration below for latest planned configuration of the plant.

The once-through steam generators are promised by CNEA to deliver steam at 4.7 Mpa (about 680 psi) and are also promised to give about 30 ºC (86 ºF) of superheat.

CAREM 25 nuclear plant final design, courtesy CNEA.  The largest building is the reactor building; the turbine or BOP building is to the left.

CAREM 25 nuclear plant final design, courtesy CNEA. The largest building is the reactor building; the turbine or BOP building is to the left.

History of the CAREM project

The CAREM 25 development started in about 1980, was first announced in 1984, and was among the very earliest of the iPWR designs now in the construction pipeline to be developed. It was preceded only by the Babcock & Wilcox CNSG series that was developed in 1962, a version of which powered the German-built ship Otto Hahn in the 1970s. The CAREM 25 project continued at various paces, with a marked reduction in effort in the early 2000s. According to CNEA’s news release, nuclear development in Argentina was “re-launched” in 2003, leading to revitalizing this project. A major change came in 2006 when, by governmental decree (actually, an executive order), the CAREM 25 program was made a national priority—a priority that was bolstered in 2008 when, by second executive order, the development of the project was made directly responsible to president of Argentina.

A key decision in the process to license and build the CAREM 25 was made in 2009 when it was legislated that the plant be licensed as a prototype and not as a conventional commercial power reactor, according to CNEA’s website.

The plant has an aggressive completion schedule, with electrical equipment installation coming in the first half of 2015, hot testing (without fuel) in the first half of 2016, and fuel loading in the second half of 2017.

Safety and containment

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CAREM 25 containment structure with safety systems. From top right, clockwise; Containment; Residual Heat Removal System tank; Safety Injection System Tanks; Suppression Pool (two labels, actually a circumferential tank); Control Rods (Safety shutdown rods); Secondary Shutdown System (borated water); Safety valves, which vent into the suppression pool water. Illustration courtesy CNEA.

Safety of the CAREM 25 prototype, according to the CNEA website, will be assured by both passive and active systems (as a backup). The reactor includes “safety shut down” control rods that will always be fully withdrawn during operation but which will scram when required for shutdown; these are backed up by borated water injection in an emergency shutdown system that has two tanks, either of which can shut down the reactor. A passive residual heat removal system is incorporated in the reactor building, and external safety injection systems are also included.

CNEA has reported that the CAREM 25 design has been reviewed in light of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, with consideration given to seismic requirements, and extended blackout/loss of heat sink scenarios.

CAREM 25 fuel element, already tested in the RA-6 reactor.  There will be 61 of these in the CAREM 25, with an enrichment of 3.1%.  Photo courtesy CNEA.

CAREM 25 fuel element, already tested in the RA-6 reactor. There will be 61 of these in the CAREM 25, with an enrichment of 3.1percent. Photo courtesy CNEA.

The future

CNEA has already announced that it will build another a 100-MWe CAREM 25 reactor near Formosa in Argentina, should the prototype at Atucha prove successful; further, it has announced a larger 300-MWe version that appears destined to be pushed for export. This ultimate version differs somewhat from the CAREM 25, particularly in a conversion to forced coolant flow using axial flow pumps driven electrically. The pump motors will be mounted below the reactor vessel, on long extensions well below the level of the lower head; the axial flow pumps themselves will be inside the radius of the lower head.

CNEA’s CAREM 25 project manager, Osvaldo Calzetta Larrieu, stated in a presentation to the International Atomic Energy Agency in late 2013 that key benefits of the CAREM 25 program include “recovery of CNEA expertise, and development of the ability to construct large projects”—a matter of not only national prestige, but practical applicability and economic sense, given the early start the Argentinians have and the expected demand for SMRs in regions where nuclear power is not already established.

Clearly, Argentina has a program of which it can be proud—especially considering its first construction of an SMR plant in a competitive universe rife with press releases, but devoid of new concrete. The fact of the matter is that CNEA, its contractors, and Argentina have far more to be proud of than this, because its program has both local applications (reliable and affordable energy) as well as national and international implications (building a local industry, exporting nuclear plants, and reducing carbon footprint) that should be a role model for everyone.

Further illustration of the CAREM 25 prototype plant, final version.  Courtesy CNEA.

Further illustration of the CAREM 25 prototype plant, final version. Courtesy CNEA.

For further information:

Click here to see a video about the CAREM-25 (Spanish narration)

Small Modular Reactors at ANS 2013 Winter Meeting

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WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016.  In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is Secretary of the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.  Davis is an avid typewriter collector in his spare time, and both speaks and writes Spanish – although not often!

Small Modular Reactors at ANS 2013 Winter Meeting

by Will Davis

Small Modular Reactors in the US definition are below 300 MWe output, and typically have all components concentrated within the reactor vessel or attached directly to it - as with the South Korean SMART SMR design seen here.

Small Modular Reactors are below 300 MWe output and typically have all components located within the reactor vessel or attached directly to it, as with the South Korean SMART SMR design here

2nd American Nuclear Society SMR Conference

As Topical Meeting Chair Tom Sanders noted at the conference opening plenary this morning, Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) have been a part of ANS Meetings for five years – signaling the importance of these reactors to the industry and to the future of nuclear energy.  Talks this morning further showed the promise of the SMR as a ‘game changer’ – and in some ways, warned of some perils to be avoided lest the concept die on the vine.

Dr. Sanders explained that a lucrative field in fuel sales to foreign nations which had purchased US-built SMR’s could develop, if buy-burn-return contracting were included.  Such contracts could also alleviate proliferation or spent nuclear fuel concerns.  Sanders added that it’s up to the industry to convince the United States government that SMR’s are worthwhile – and noted the difficulty of the US ensuring safety control or proliferation resistance regarding reactors built overseas which did not come from the US.

Peter Lyons, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the US Department of Energy stated unequivocally that the SMR could truly usher in a new paradigm for how we build nuclear plants, but he added that this would not obviate the need for large, gigawatt class reactors in the field of power generation.  Lyons pointed out that 99% of the coal plants in the US that are older than 50 years are below 300 MWe – placing their capacity and replacement solidly in the SMR output range.  Lyons gave DOE expected figures for SMR plant costs at roughly $4700 to $6000 per KWe, or about $900M to $1200M total for a 200 MWe plant; he compared this to a total cost of about $5B to $7B for a gigawatt class nuclear plant.

In an interesting observation, Lyons said that he believes that eventually the economies of mass production for SMRs may roughly equal in importance the economies of scale which drive utilities toward very large, powerful reactors.  While the first few orders for SMR plants would not be enough to convince a vendor to construct and operate an automated factory for building these plants, SMRs will be built with present or expanded resources and facilities until orders of ‘several plants per year’ are on the books, at which point large dedicated facilities would be built, to realize the full economies of SMRs.

Lyons observed that in the United States we’ll need about 50 GWe of new generating capacity just to replace coal plants alone in the decades to come (hinting at openings for SMR plants), and that the Executive Order for DoD sites to reduce carbon footprint might also open the door for government/DoD ownership of SMR plants somewhere down the line.

As always, Bruce Lacy of Lacy Consulting gave an excellent, detailed talk – this time on the economics of nuclear power in general, as well as SMR plants specifically, as viewed by actual investors on Wall Street.  Lacy’s remarks, far too voluminous to reprint here, contained great pieces of information for those interested in SMR plants – and for those who wish to build them.

Lacy made it clear that in the vast majority of cases, Wall Street investors aren’t against nuclear power – however, they are against impractical or risky investments.  Lacy said “they’re against giant projects that are a large percentage of a company’s balance sheet, have an open-ended completion time, and are faced with regulatory uncertainty.”  He pointed out that investors looking at a company that wishes to build a plant would “like to see a balance sheet at least five times the cost of the nuclear plant project.”  This rules out very many companies for large gigawatt class plants.  What all of this means, of course, is that investors may well be interested in SMR’s which will have, in theory, vastly lower costs per unit.

Lacy pointed out that Wall Street views government funding not as a guarantee that a project will launch and continue, but rather as a fleeting resource which can disappear at any time.  While government lends to solar and renewables now, if and when the funding is taken away, Wall Street will still invest money somewhere else.  It’s here that nuclear in the form of SMRs or, perhaps for large utilities or utility groups, large commercial plants, has an opportunity.

Lacy made a number of points about prospects in the coming years for the SMR market, and while some were familiar (for example, the concept that SMRs must be viewed, right out of the box, as a truly global industry), one stood out above all: avoid hype.  The nuclear industry should “under-commit and over-perform” to retain credibility with investors, who are familiar enough with overruns and cancellations in the 1980′s to run at the sound of hype.  Incidentally, Lyons reported that an announcement on a 2nd round of SMR R&D funding would be “soon.”

The opening speeches at the SMR topical meeting once again showed that the door is in fact open to SMRs as a concept.  Progress remains slow – painfully slow for some of us.  Much work remains to be done, but in measured ways, all signs still remain “go” from just about every perspective – which, during this current season of nuclear rollbacks, cancellations, and even plant closures, is good enough news for now.

For further information:

SMR plants have been discussed, as noted above, for use as direct replacements for coal-fired plants.  Small nuclear plants were already built, many years ago, that were actually added on to existing steam plants.  Read an extensive ANS Nuclear Cafe piece on such plants

SMRs were discussed in-depth at an ANS Winter Meeting last year in San Diego.  Read about that event by clicking here

WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016.  In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is Secretary of the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.  He’s also an avid typewriter collector in his spare time.

2nd ANS Small Modular Reactor Conference, Nov 12-14, Washington DC

The American Nuclear Society’s Operations and Power Division will host the 2nd ANS Small Modular Reactor Conference during the ANS Winter Meeting on November 12–14, 2013, in Washington, DC.  The Opening Plenary for the Conference will begin on Tuesday, November 12, at 8:00 a.m. at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.

Speakers at the Opening Plenary include:

Donald Hoffman, ANS President and President and CEO, EXCEL Services Corporation;

Thomas Sanders, Associate Laboratory Director, Savannah River National Laboratory;

Philip Moor, Vice President, High Bridge Associates;

Peter B. Lyons, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, US Department of Energy;

Ron S. Faibish, Science Fellow, Senate Committee on Energy and National Resources;

Bruce Lacy, President, Lacy Consulting Group

In addition, the Conference will feature three days of technical sessions covering all aspects of small modular reactors design and development:

  • SMR iPWR Refueling Designs and Operations
  • SMR Research and Development
  • SMR Nonproliferation and Security
  • SMR Emergency Planning and Execution
  • Plenary II: SMR iPWR Owner-Operator Nth of a Kind Vision
  • Plenary II: SMR iPWR Licensing-Generic Issues-Siting-Construction
  • SMR Site Suitability
  • SMR Research and Development—II
  • SMR Codes and Standards
  • Department of Energy Investments in Advanced Nuclear Power
  • SMR PRA Advances and Challenges
  • US Government Stewardship of Public Lands/Hosting of SMR /Energy Security Services
  • SMR Simulators/Control Room Design/Staffing and Human Factors
  • SMR Manufacturing/Modular Construction Processes
  • International SMR Development

Interest in small modular reactors continues to grow as an option for future power generation and energy security.  Modularized construction of smaller reactors holds the promise of reduced costs and construction times, as well as enhanced siting flexibility and improved safety and performance.

All ANS members are invited and encouraged to attend this topical meeting.

If you have questions or need additional information, feel free to contact General Chair Thomas Sanders, Assistant Chair Philip Moor, Technical Program Chair Vince Gilbert, or Assistant Technical Program Chair Mark Campagna.

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Realistic look at Small Modular Reactors in Idaho

By Rod Adams

From October 30 through November 1, 2013, a group of about 150 people with questioning attitudes about small, modular reactors (SMRs) met in Idaho Falls, Idaho.  They were treated to a number of presentations that described the technical progress that has been made so far and also provided a realistic, sobering look at the long, challenging development path that must be traversed to allow the technology to begin contributing to the world’s energy security.

A wide variety of organizations sponsored the meeting; there were reactor vendors, several supplier companies, and a couple of focused development organizations from Missouri.  (Come to think of it, the active involvement from the “Show Me” state might have had something to do with the fact that the meeting addressed a lot of hard questions with open-ended answers rather than being dominated by optimistic sales pitches.)

Though the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) was not a conference sponsor, it was an active participant.  On the first day of the event, the Lab provided a tour of several of its historical and operating facilities, including the EBR-I, the Advanced Test Reactor, and the Hot Fuels Examination Facility.

smr tour inside ebr 1 control room - first nuclear power plant to generate electricity, in 1951

SMR tour in the EBR-1 control room – first nuclear reactor to generate electricity, in 1951

First devices powered by electricity from nuclear were four 200-watt light bulbs

First devices powered by electricity from nuclear were four 200-watt light bulbs

The INL facilities tour also included several in-town labs in Idaho Falls that perform research that does not require the isolation of INL’s desert facilities.  One of the most impressive facilities on that tour was the Human Systems Simulation Laboratory (HSSL).  It is a fully reconfigurable, digital representation of a nuclear power plant control room with impressive fidelity.

According to the technicians supporting the tour, it is possible to shift the HSSL from one plant’s control room to another in approximately 30 minutes.  As a national lab, INL has been able to develop agreements and relationships with a number of different simulator vendors and utilities.  INL is a trusted agent that has shown that it can help distribute important operating experience that should be shared and protect intellectual property that should not be shared.

Our tour guides “took the fifth” with a chuckle on a question about the ability of the HSSL system to display commercial high-definition TV (there was a World Series game scheduled on the day of our visit).

John Grossenbacher, the Director of the Idaho National Laboratory, gave a talk that identified several important contributions that the national labs, his own in particular, can make to the development of small modular reactor technology.  He reminded the attendees that there is plenty of space within the 860 square miles of lab property to site first-of-a-kind reactors if needed.  Several INL scientists participated in the conference, including Dr. Piyush Sabharwall, who was recently featured in an ANS Nuclear Cafe post about his selection as the 2013 Young Member Excellence Award recipient.

Jeff Sayer, the Director of the Idaho Department of Commerce and Chairman of the Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission 2.0, served as the master of ceremonies for the conference.  Throughout the event, he reiterated his home state’s long history in nuclear energy development, its record of having been the site for more than 50 first-of-a-kind small reactors, and its interest in continued involvement in nuclear energy development.

Brad Little, the Lieutenant Governor of Idaho, provided a luncheon address that reinforced what Mr. Sayer had been telling us.  Unlike many politicians when invited to a technical conference, he attended the entire day’s sessions and incorporated some of what he heard in the morning in his enthusiastic and engaging talk.

Based on the number of references by other speakers after she gave her talk, Andrea Jennetta, the publisher of Fuel Cycle Week, certainly made a lasting impression.  Her talk was titled “Industry Observer, Provocateur – Uranium Saves Lives… And Other Shocking Truths about the Science and Politics of Nuclear Power.”  Among her many memorable points was an admonition to nuclear technology promoters to remember that there is “no ‘R’ in safe.”  That is, she asked people to stop trying to sell their systems based on the idea that they are “safer” than the existing systems – that have not exposed anyone to dangerous radiation doses in 50 years.

Aside:  Jennetta has several more people to convince, including the NRC and the scientists that recently wrote a pronuclear letter titled To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear PowerEnd Aside.

She also made the bold statement that nuclear energy’s ONLY obstacle was POLITICS.  Several later speakers stated that they believed that economics was an equally important obstacle, but Andrea insisted that most of the most difficult economic challenges have been imposed by political processes.

Paul Genoa, Senior Director of Policy Development for the Nuclear Energy Institute, described the importance of improving the dysfunctional markets that have resulted in the recent decision to close two, relatively small, existing reactors.  He agreed with many of the motivations for building smaller, simpler, factory-produced power plants, while also offering a warning that there might not be a market if we all do not work together.  He recommended action to fix the way that existing market rules place little or no monetary value on important characteristics like voltage support, steady baseload, and ultra low emissions, all of which are strengths of nuclear energy.

Finis Southwirth, the Chief Technical Officer for AREVA, described his company’s expertise in supplying a wide variety of nuclear fuel for existing power plants and offered the somewhat surprising fact that qualifying a slightly modified light water reactor fuel might cost $100 to $200 million, while qualifying a brand new fuel for a different kind of coolant might require $1 billion and at least 10-15 years worth of lead time.  That explains why all of the SMR projects that are planning to have commercial offerings before 2025 are light water reactors using only slightly modified fuel.

Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) had three representatives at the event.  Bob Granata, Vice President, Operations and Technology Development, informed the power plant vendors that shipbuilders have been manufacturing and assembling modular nuclear systems for many years.  He described how the current process for building Virginia class submarines has some modules of the ship being made by Electric Boat Company in New England and others being manufactured by NNS in Virginia.  The key to the program’s success is design and processes that ensure that those modules fit together.  The shipyard is ready for orders to “bend metal” whenever the vendors have finished their designs and found power plant customers.

Mike McGough, Chief Commercial Officer of NuScale Power, described his company’s history and unique technology.  The NuScale concept of building a 540 MWe power plant from a collection of twelve identical, independently contained, natural circulation 45 MWe reactors, each with its own power turbine is quite different from any of the other proposed systems.  As McGough reminded everyone, NuScale opened up its initial licensing dialog with the NRC in 2008.  McGough claimed to have been happy that NuScale was later joined in the race to commercialization by B&W and Westinghouse as they each recognized the potential value of the smaller reactor market.

Throughout the event, it was apparent that the state of Missouri is very interested in the potential of SMRs as a statewide development effort.  It was difficult to join any small group conversation without it including someone from a Missouri organization; there were representatives there from the state economic development office, from several universities, from Ameren, and from several potential suppliers.

Missouri has formed a strong, bipartisan coalition with those groups plus support from a Republican legislature, a Democratic governor, and the public power cooperatives.  The state has selected Westinghouse as its partnering vendor; everyone I talked to is eagerly awaiting the announcement of the selection for the second Department of Energy SMR Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), believing they have made a very strong case.

One of the best things about the event was the opportunity to engage in frank discussions with experienced people who understand that major new developments do not happen quickly in the nuclear energy industry, but who also understand the importance of making steady progress.  The vendors all acknowledged that their systems will be tough sells in the US under conditions of current natural gas prices, but a number of attendees reminded everyone that no one really knows what natural gas prices will be in the 2022 to 2025 time frame when the first SMRs will begin commercial operations.  Even more importantly, no one knows what the prices will be during an SMR’s 60-year lifetime.

As some speakers pointed out, natural gas prices in Europe, parts of South America, and the Far East are already high enough to encourage a reasonably high level of excitement about SMR development.  With ongoing concern about climate change, it is always worthwhile to invest in a zero emission power source that can compete with methane (aka natural gas).  That fuel’s climate-related boast is that it is… only half as dirty as coal.

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Adams

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

SMRs Get Further Push with Western Initiative for Nuclear

hauling NuScale 502x200

NuScale SMR on trailer; courtesy NuScale Power

by Will Davis

In the wake of the Department of Energy’s first funding award to Generation mPower for construction of small modular reactor (SMR) plants at the Clinch River Site earlier this year, other groups have begun to form to bolster the position of other SMR technologies—namely, the Westinghouse SMR, the Holtec SMR-160, and the NuScale Power SMR.

On the first day of July, the NuScale–centered effort became exponentially larger as that firm joined with Energy Northwest and UAMPS (Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems) to explore the complete design, construction, and demonstration operation of NuScale SMR reactors at the Idaho National Laboratory. The effort is named the “Western Initiative for Nuclear,” or WIN for short.

According to statements by NuScale Power chief commercial officer Mike McGough during a July 1 teleconference, the beginnings of WIN stretch back over two years to a Western Governors’ Association policy statement that brought new nuclear energy into focus and priority status. A primary goal of WIN is to “accelerate SMR’s to the marketplace,” according to McGough. Inclusion of Energy Northwest in the WIN consortium brings direct operating experience with nuclear energy to the effort (in the form of Columbia Generating Station, a General Electric boiling water reactor-5 that entered commercial service in 1984), with the direct expectation that Energy Northwest would operate the SMRs when built.

Ted Rampton of UAMPS (which has 45 member companies) noted during the teleconference that the UAMPS involvement is plainly because “members do need future baseload generating capacity,” and because UAMPS’ “Smart Energy Initiative” guides it to examine multiple kinds of resource alternatives. UAMPS’s considerations in backing the NuScale SMR design involved considerations of “size, configurable to fit requirements, economy and safety.” Rampton, during Q&A, noted that at this time his company’s involvement is “investigatory in nature only,” with no immediate monies involved and no capital expenditure presently projected as yet.

Utilities aren’t the only interested party in this effort, either. Rob Simmons, representing the office of the governor of Utah, was present at the teleconference and expressed the governor’s office’s interest in the project as a very direct and real matter. According to Simmons, the advantages to prioritizing such a project for Utah include “flexibility, and integration opportunities in a rapidly changing energy environment,” which might be taken as a hint that load-following SMRs (which the NuScale surely is) would be a good fit on grids with substantial renewable (solar, wind) inputs.

Siting

McGough clearly stated that the Idaho National Laboratory is NuScale’s “preferred startup location” for its design, saying that there is “no better place” to locate this initial effort. The plant itself would be owned, it is expected, by a consortium of utilities, while being operated by one of the owners with nuclear experience or else by a “qualified third party operator”—either of which almost surely will be Energy Northwest. He described the siting at INL as “the best, most feasible first step;” later, during the Q&A session, it was noted that there is in fact expected future energy demand in the area and that the plant (expected to comprise six to 12 reactors, and rated between 270 and 540 MWe) could commercially sell power, due to the fact that there are coal-fired generating assets in that area that are expected to be retired.

Of course, the Idaho National Laboratory has hosted very many prototype and development reactors. Known for many years as the National Reactor Testing Station, the site hosted many well known early nuclear prototypes such as the Experimental Breeder Reactor and EBR-II, the Special Power Excursion Reactor Test, BORAX (Boiling Water Reactor Experiment), and the U.S. Navy STR S1W (S = submarine platform, 1 = first generation core designed by the contractor, W = Westinghouse was the contracted designer), A1W (A = aircraft carrier), and S5G (G = GE) plants. According to McGough, the site has “hosted over 50 reactors over a span of 60 years.”

According to McGough, the plan is to have the first reactor operational in the 2024 time frame. NuScale had submitted the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) request to the DOE over the previous weekend (as had Westinghouse and Holtec); McGough expects to apply to the NRC for design certification in two years, describing that certification as “the long pole in the tent.”

Initiative leads to incentive

In the Energy Northwest press release, the company’s CEO Mark Reddemann is quoted as saying that the successful completion of the WIN effort at INL “could act as a catalyst for development of additional SMR projects with NuScale and others.” He added that “building one somewhere in the Northwest today may lead to building elsewhere tomorrow.” Energy Northwest had initially intended for a NuScale SMR to be built at its Columbia Generating Station—in a way, a direct parallel to the competitor Westinghouse SMR, which according to present plan may well be built first at Ameren Missouri’s Callaway Energy Center alongside Callaway-1, a very late Westinghouse pressurized water reactor plant that was part of the SNUPPS (Standardized Nuclear Unit Power Plant System) program. While the new WIN effort has shifted initial focus to INL, Reddemann points out that development of that project still has very significant positive implications for Energy Northwest’s customers, since, as he said, “if NuScale secures DOE funding, this effort will be an important step toward bringing new nuclear to Washington state when we need it… when that day comes, we’ll have the right people with the right expertise in the right place to make it happen.”

Competition

The competition has not been idle. Perhaps the Westinghouse – Ameren – Missouri collaboration has received the most notice, but Holtec just yesterday (July 10) announced that it has brought South Carolina Electric and Gas, and Chicago Bridge & Iron (who will act as architect-engineer for the plant, which is planned for construction at the Savannah River Site) into partnership with its own local economic development organization, NuHub. NuHub had previously worked with NuScale, but shifted its selected design to the Holtec SMR-160 earlier this year, according to Nuclear Street News.

The field of competitors to win the second round of DOE funding is certainly deepening, with reactor vendors now lined up with utilities and local economic development groups in the hope of presenting the best possible likelihood of completion before the DOE’s FOA process is really begun. One thing is certain—the number of utilities and organizations who believe in the SMR concept is growing continuously, which is a good thing for nuclear energy in the United States.

For more information

The present DOE offering is for funding and assistance through design licensing only. Click here to see the DOE page for the program.

S1WatNRTSJan201954

STR Mark 1, later known as S1W, pictured at National Reactor Testing Station, January 20, 1954. NRTS, now known as Idaho National Laboratory, has long been known for siting “first of a kind” or prototype reactor plants. It has remote location and existing infrastructure ideal for such projects. Wirephoto in Will Davis collection.

WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013-2016.  In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, is Secretary of the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.  He’s also an avid typewriter collector in his spare time.

Energy Northwest joins SMR initiative

Press release from Energy Northwest

NuScale's containment vessel showing the reactor pressure vessel (Graphic: NuScale Power)

NuScale’s containment vessel showing the reactor pressure vessel (Graphic: NuScale Power)

RICHLAND, Wash. – Energy Northwest is teaming with NuScale Power and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems as part of the Western Initiative for Nuclear collaboration to study the demonstration of a commercial, small modular reactor project, potentially in southeastern Idaho, by 2024. If NuScale receives federal development funding, Energy Northwest will have first right of offer to operate such a project and, by doing so, become one of the industry experts for small modular reactor operation.

NuScale’s recent funding application to the Department of Energy responds to a federal initiative designed to speed the nation’s transition to sustainable, clean sources of energy by bringing SMRs to market in the United States.

“NuScale’s SMR technology will provide reliable, affordable and carbon-free energy within the next 10 to 15 years,” said Dale Atkinson, Energy Northwest vice president. “This project would provide us with the opportunity to assess the potential future contributions of this technology to the Washington State energy mix, including helping to integrate with renewable sources.”

NuScale and partners are exploring a six- to 12-module facility to be located at a site such as the Idaho National Laboratory. Designed to generate between 270 and 540 megawatts of electricity, the project would also serve to prove the feasibility of future SMR development.

Although both the Tri-Cities and INL boast a long history of reactor research, testing, and operation, NuScale chose INL as its initial preferred location.

Energy Northwest CEO Mark Reddemann recently asked the DOE to strongly consider NuScale’s application for matching development funds under the federal Funding Opportunity Announcement program. He also affirmed Energy Northwest’s support for bringing SMR technology to the Northwest.

“In an era in the Northwest of slow growing electricity demand, small modular reactor technology offers utilities and consumers the opportunity to invest incrementally, on an as-needed basis, in clean, cost-effective power,” Reddemann wrote in a letter to Dr. Peter Lyons, the DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy.

Energy Northwest first endorsed the NuScale SMR design in 2011 after two years of rigorous study of various SMR technologies by the Energy Northwest SMR Working Group. The group was formed by Energy Northwest in 2009 and is comprised of 10 public and investor-owned Northwest utilities. Like the Western Initiative for Nuclear, the group recognizes the important carbon-free power contributions SMRs can provide to the western energy mix.

About Energy Northwest

Energy Northwest develops, owns, and operates a diverse mix of electricity generating resources, including hydro, solar, and wind projects—and the Northwest’s only nuclear generating facility. These projects provide enough reliable, affordable, and environmentally respon­sible energy to power more than a million homes each year, and that carbon-free electricity is provided at the cost of generation. As a Washington state, not-for-profit joint operating agency, Energy Northwest comprises 27 public power member utilities from across the state serving more than 1.5 million ratepayers. The agency continually explores new generation projects to meet its members’ needs.
Energy Northwest – www.energy-northwest.com

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Nuclear Matinee: Taylor Wilson’s radical plan for small nuclear fission reactors

A video was uploaded recently at TED Talks that has caused a bit of a stir around the internet. Nuclear scientist Taylor Wilson, 19 years of age, enthusiastically sets out to solve the problem that underlies all others: Energy.

In this video, Wilson announces his variation of a Molten Salt Small Modular Reactor, and explains some of the anticipated advantages of this version of “factory-produced” nuclear power—such as an ability to burn up stockpiles of nuclear weapons materials, less leftover waste, and a sealed system requiring no refueling. The system would feature inherent, passive safety due to operation at atmospheric pressure—and such a reactor could provide a compact source of enormous power that would revolutionize space exploration.

The general ideas presented are not entirely new. In fact, the first molten salt reactor was built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory decades ago, and several entities around the world are currently researching and developing molten salt reactors (for example, Transatomic Power, Flibe Energy, Terrestrial Energy). We shall see what the future holds—in the meantime, enjoy this inspiring and engaging presentation:

Elizabeth Palermo with the story at TechNewsDaily Teenager Designs Safer Nuclear Power Plants.

Thanks to TED Talks

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The Hook-Ons

by Will Davis

This week’s announcement by Babcock & Wilcox that it had signed the long-awaited funding agreement with the Department of Energy has been taken by advocates of small modular reactors (SMRs) as just the latest good news on the inevitable path to construction of at least one prototype nuclear plant using SMR reactor technology in the United States. It is widely hoped that this is the harbinger of the rapid spread of the market for SMR plants.

The chief advantage of SMRs other than cost reduction over large 1000–1600 MWe nuclear plants is that they can be located practically anywhere (assuming proper geologic characteristics and supply of cooling), since a primary design feature is that the major components of the reactor plant itself are to be easy to ship (i.e., by large truck over existing highways). This design asset potentially opens up locations previously considered unworkable (for large plants, with their enormous reactor vessels and other equipment that needs to be shipped intact to site) and may, in some cases, allow siting of SMR-driven power plants nearer to populated areas in order to take advantage of benefits to the grid (by siting source nearer to use) and even, if some have their way, to supply steam for process use to facilities already in existence or built new.

These concepts—siting closer to communities than with large commercial plants, and supply of steam for existing facilities—are, in fact, not new. In the early days of nuclear energy, a number of nuclear plants were built in order to supply steam to facilities already in use. In the cases of these early reactors, the facilities were all commercial electric power stations; the group of reactors came very loosely to be known as “hook-on” reactors. The concept of expanding the use of nuclear energy in such a way was actively pushed by the Atomic Energy Commission; three of the four plants we’re about to explore were (at least partly) funded under the AEC Power Demonstration Reactor Program.

ElkRiverPostCard04

Elk River  (Minnesota)

The Elk River Reactor, widely heralded as “Rural America’s First Atomic Power Plant,” was originally contracted to ACF Industries in 1959 for construction behind the Rural Co-Operative Power Association’s Elk River coal-fired plant (seen at far left in the above post card photo.) The reactor plant was a novel natural circulation, indirect cycle boiling water reactor that, while not fitting the modern definition of “small, modular” of today’s SMRs, did have a reactor vessel small enough to be shipped to the site on the smallest standard railroad flat car of the time (said cars measured 40 feet in length overall.) The 58-MWt reactor produced saturated steam at 922 psig and 536 °F, but the existing turbines in the plant required superheated steam. Construction of a coal-fired superheater interposed between the reactor plant and the power plant adjusted the steam conditions to 612 psig but 825 °F; of the total 22 MWe of generating capacity credited this installation, 7 MW was provided by the superheater.

The plant suffered teething pains that, today, seem not too surprising given the facts that the original reactor vendor was small, and that it was actually bought out by Allis-Chalmers while construction of the Elk River Reactor was in progress. Fuel element defects and reactor pressure vessel cladding cracks contributed (among other things) to delays in the start up of the plant, which did not achieve commercial operation until mid-1965, but after which operated with a very fair degree of reliability.

Eventually, further leakage from welds in the primary coolant system caused investigation into the overall condition of all welds in that system in 1968, and the determination was made that major rework would be required to fix the problems—a problem that looked all the worse given that Allis-Chalmers had decided to exit the nuclear power business in 1966. After considerable debate about what to do with the reactor plant (which was still technically AEC owned), the decision was made in March 1971 to decommission the reactor plant and completely remove it from the site. Below, a March 1971 UPI telephoto showing the plant as it looked at the time that the decommissioning decision was made.

ElkRiverUPITelephotoMarch1971

Piqua  (Ohio)

The Piqua Nuclear Power Facility (PNPF) was built in the early 1960s in the town of Piqua, Ohio, as a part of the second round of the AEC Power Demonstration Reactor Program. The reactor was unique among the world’s commercial power reactors in being an organic-cooled and -moderated design. A commercial terphenyl preparation (marketed widely as Santowax-OMP by Monsanto) was used for this plant that, because of the low pressure of the primary, originally was designed without any containment whatsoever. The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards, however, ordered that a containment be built. The reactor plant was built just across and down the river from the original Piqua municipal generating station, and supplied steam to it at 450 psia and 550 ºF through underground piping and a new bridge structure over the river. The reactor was rated 46 MWt, and the electric generating capacity credited to it was 11.4 MWe.

PiquaApril66

The Piqua Nuclear Power Facility is seen on the right, which is the east side of the Miami River; the municipal power plant is on the West side, just upstream.

PNPF began operation in 1963 and operated with occasional problems largely due to coolant breakdown until 1968 when a serious blockage occurred. The decision was made by the city of Piqua not to take over ownership of the plant, and it entered procedures to shut down and decommission immediately. The disposal method (after defueling) was selected by the AEC was SAFSTOR, in which the plant is left in place to allow decay of radioactivity at the same time guaranteeing no impact to the surroundings. The containment and support buildings are still clearly visible in Piqua to this day.

CVTR (South Carolina)

The Carolinas-Virginia Tube Reactor was built adjacent to an existing coal-fired plant (and hydroelectric dam facility) at Parr, South Carolina, under the third round of the AEC Power Demonstration Reactor Program in order to test out the pressure tube reactor concept. This plant was widely reported and heralded in the early 1960s as “The Southeast’s First Atomic Power Plant.” Westinghouse provided the 65-MWt pressurized (tube type) heavy water cooled and moderated reactor; Stone and Webster acted as architect-engineer. The plant (like Elk River, but unlike Piqua) required external superheating; of the rated electrical 17 MWe, 1.7 MWe was contributed by the superheater. The reactor and superheater provided steam at 415 psia and 725 ºF to the old powerhouse near by.

Carolinas-Virginia Nuclear Power Associates owned this plant; this organization was comprised of Duke Power Company, Carolina Power & Light Company, South Carolina Electric & Gas Company, and Virginia Electric and Power Company (the latter often referred to as VEPCO).

Below, a spectacular original pencil rendering of the CVTR plant facility, including the powerhouse and environs, from my collection. The drawing’s labeling is clear when blown up; it is signed “E.E. Grant 1960.” (Click to enlarge.)

CVTRdrawingFix01

The CVTR started up in 1962, and like the other plants we’ve shown so far, had a very short operating life (five years,) shutting down for good in 1967. The reactor was in SAFSTOR condition for many years, but in much more recent times has completely been decommissioned and removed, and today there is very little sign that the plant was ever there. Of course, the site of the former Parr generating station and the adjacent CVTR installation is quite near the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station, which today is seeing construction of two Westinghouse AP1000 plants—so that the area of “The Southeast’s First Atomic Power Plant” is again at the cutting edge of nuclear energy’s advance.

Saxton (Pennsylvania)

A fourth early reactor actually is one that contributed the least to commercial power generation of those we’re visiting here, and is also that which is most commonly found in the literature to have the appellation “hook on”.

The Saxton Generating Station was selected to host construction of a nuclear reactor whose primary purpose was developmental testing of fuels, and which was to be officially known as the Saxton Experimental Nuclear Reactor. Owner of the reactor was Saxton Nuclear Experimental Corporation, a non-profit entity formed by Pennsylvania Electric Company, Metropolitan Edison Company, New Jersey Power and Light Company, and Jersey Central Power and Light Company—all of which were subsidiary companies of GPU or the General Public Utilities System. The diminutive pressurized water reactor, rated originally 20 MWt, had only a single loop (and thus one coolant pump and one steam generator) and provided steam to the center of Saxton Generating Station’s three turbine generators. While the containment was clearly visible beside the coal-fired plant, for safety reasons (considering the surrounding community) the reactor vessel was actually located some 15 feet below grade.

According to the February 1959 Atomic Industrial Forum “Forum Memo” magazine, in which the contract for the reactor was revealed, GPU had actually announced that it was considering a “hook on” at Saxton back in 1957 after terminating an investigation into building a pressurized water reactor in the Philippines (another GPU subsidiary was Manila Electric Company.) At that time, the rating of the Saxton plant was given as a very modest 5000 ekw (which we would now write as 5 MWe), although in point of fact later testing was planned at far above the original rated figures; the turbine to which the reactor piped steam was actually rated nominally at 13 MWe, allowing considerable room for uprating for temporary testing.

In the March 1959 issue of the Forum Memo, Elmer L. Lindseth, president of Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company and chairman of the Edison Electric Institute’s Committee on Atomic Power, was quoted as saying that Westinghouse would build the Saxton reactor plant at a fixed price of $6.25 million. GPU would under the same agreement provide the site, use of the No. 2 turbine, and bear operating and maintenance costs—all of which figured to roughly $2 million. Westinghouse also had exclusive fuel production rights for five years.

With Gilbert Associates serving as architect-engineer, construction of this unique “hook on” began in February 1960 (with AEC Construction Permit CPPR-6.) A provisional operating license was issued in November 1961, and the reactor fueled in early April 1962, with criticality achieved at 1:40 AM on April 13, 1962.  (Below, a view of the Saxton Experimental Nuclear Reactor next to the Saxton Generating Station.)

SaxtonBrochure01

As has been mentioned, this plant was not entirely intended as a commercial power reactor; rather, its focus was the development of technology for further, future reactors. Quoting GPU in a Saxton advertising brochure of the day, “Investor owned utilities, dedicated to serving consumers in all walks of life, have invested $8,500,000 of private funds in the nation’s newest operational nuclear reactor so that ‘unknowns’ can be converted into ‘knowns’ and personnel can acquire valuable operating experience for use in designing and manning larger reactors in the future.”

Among other concepts, Saxton experimented with chemical control of reactivity (“chemical shim,” or use of boron in the primary coolant to control reactivity instead of just control rods) and also conducted extended operations with plutonium fuel (MOX or “Mixed OXide” fuel, containing both natural uranium dioxide and plutonium dioxide) beginning in the mid-late 1960s.

As a result of the nature of the program, it appears in retrospect that the plant spent as much of its life operating as not. From the 1964 AEC Report to Congress: “The Saxton Nuclear Experimental Corp.’s pressurized light water reactor near Altoona, Pa., was returned to power operation on January 30, after having been shut down since the previous November for modifications. The reactor, while producing small amounts of electric power, is primarily used for experiments to determine ways in which more heat energy can be obtained from specified amounts of fuel.” It would thus in hindsight be appropriate to consider that the waste heat from the Saxton reactor was not entirely wasted, if we simply view it as a byproduct of advanced fuels testing, by way of connecting the plant to the Saxton Generating Station.

Saxton was finally shut down in May 1972, and after a prolonged period of decommissioning, there is nothing visible at the site to hint that a power station of any sort once existed there. The entire power plant and reactor facility has been removed down to several feet below grade, and the area has been backfilled.

In closing, it’s interesting to consider the notion that today’s concept of placing lower output, transportable nuclear reactors at a now-expanded range of possible locations actually had a roughly correlative precedent early in the construction of nuclear power stations in this country. In the siting of plants nearer to populated areas, and in the use of small plants on grids that could not handle extremely large single generating sources, the early experience was perhaps a herald of things to come, even if it did take another roughly half century and the development of truly integrated, truck transportable, and inherently safe SMRs in order to realize the dream held up for these early small plants. The wide design disparity and newness of the technology associated with these early plants seemed to hint at troubles, which surely were encountered, but today nuclear technology is a half century further down the road so that the question of operability is quite far removed from consideration. As it turns out, everything old is new again—but today, with far better promise of success.

(All illustrations – Will Davis collection. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

(“Atomic Industrial Forum” was a trade group formed in 1953; it is a lineal predecessor of today’s Nuclear Energy Institute.)

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WillDavisNewBioPicWill Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society. In addition to this, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

Update and Perspective on Small Modular Reactor Development

By Jim Hopf

The US Department of Energy has a $452 million program to share development and licensing costs for selected small modular reactor (SMR) designs. The DOE’s goal is to have an operating SMR by ~2022. Last November, the DOE awarded the first grant to the B&W mPowerTM reactor. In more recent news, the DOE has decided to issue a follow-on solicitation to enter a similar cost-sharing agreement with one or more other SMR vendors (and their SMR designs). The status of development and licensing for several SMR designs are summarized below.

mPower (B&W)

B&W mPower SMR

The mPower reactor is a 180-MW pressurized water reactor. B&W was awarded the first cost-sharing agreement under the DOE’s SMR development program in November 2012. B&W has teamed up with Bechtel and the Tennessee Valley Authority to design, license, and build a set of 2-6 mPower modules at TVA’s Clinch River site. B&W plans to submit its design certification application (DCA) to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of this year.

NuScale

The NuScale reactor is an even smaller, 45-MW PWR reactor module. NuScale Power will apply for the follow-on (second round) DOE program cost-sharing award that was just announced. It has partnered with Fluor to develop and build the SMR, and is considering building its first SMR modules at the DOE Savannah River Site (SRS). It expects to submit its DCA to the NRC some time in 2015.

Holtec

Holtec International, which is developing a 160-MW (light water) SMR, may also apply for the second DOE grant, and is also interested in constructing its SMR at the SRS site.

Westinghouse

Westinghouse is developing a 225-MW PWR that shares many design features of its larger AP1000 plant. It is partnering with Burns & McDonnell, Electric Boat, and the Ameren utility to design, license, and build its first SMR plant at Ameren’s existing Callaway plant site in Missouri. It is expected to also apply for the second round of cost-sharing grants under the DOE’s SMR program. Westinghouse is expected to submit its DCA to the NRC in 2014.

Non-LWR SMRs

The most advanced non-light water SMR project is the Gen4 Energy’s lead-bismuth-cooled 25-MW reactor module (formerly Hyperion). Given the DOE’s focus on near-term SMR deployment, however, and the NRC’s indication that licensing a non-LWR will take a much longer amount of time, it is unclear whether non-light water SMRs have much prospect for winning a cost-sharing award under the DOE’s current SMR development program. Gen4 Energy withdrew its application for the initial round of DOE grants and it is not clear if it will apply for the second round.

Key desirable SMR features

My personal view is that SMRs should (ideally) have the following three features, entirely or to the extent possible:

  • The entire nuclear steam supply system (NSSS) can be factory built and rail-shipped to site.
  • The reactor can go indefinitely without offsite power or forced (pumped) cooling.
  • No on-site construction subject to NQA-1 requirements.

In a recent ANS post, I discussed issues such as the basemat rebar (and other) problems at Vogtle, as an example of the problems that are likely to occur when there are a large number of construction activities that are subject to NQA-1 and NRC oversight being performed on site, often by local suppliers or craft labor that do not have extensive experience with nuclear-related construction. Processes are much more controlled in a factory setting, where one is simply making a large number of copies of the exact same product (reactor design). Also, the factory would have dedicated staff that is highly experienced in making copies of that one product, and is very experienced with the applicable nuclear-grade fabrication and quality assurance requirements (e.g., NQA-1). The result is much higher levels of quality and consistency, with much less in the way of cost overruns or schedule delays.

For these reasons, it is imperative to have as much of the safety/nuclear-related construction as possible be done at the factory, and to minimize assembly and construction activities at the plant site. Thus, it is very preferable to have the entire NSSS (reactor and steam supply system, e.g., steam generators) sealed inside a container that can be shipped by rail to the plant site, without any at-site assembly required. Ideally, all components necessary for safety would be inside the “box” that arrives on the rail car, resulting in only non-nuclear grade construction activities at the site.

In that recent ANS post, I suggested that due to spiraling nuclear plant construction costs, a bottoms-up review is in order, in which all regulations and requirements are put on the table and objectively evaluated (using detailed probabilistic risk analyses, etc.) in terms of how much “bang for the buck” we’re getting in terms of overall safety. I made the suggestion (provocative to many, I’m sure) that NQA-1, i.e., a unique and extremely strict set of fabrication/QA requirements that only applies to the nuclear industry, most likely does not produce much safety benefit relative to its associated cost. I suggested that more typical QA standards and procedures that are used in most other large construction projects (bridges, dams, etc.) be used instead.

Well, with SMRs a “compromise” may be possible. Based on recent experience with Areva’s EPR (at Olkiluoko) and now at Vogtle, I had come to doubt that it was possible or practical to comply with those NRC and NQA-1 requirements, with on-site plant construction anyway. It seemed to be too difficult to comply with such strict requirements under field conditions, especially given the use of local labor and suppliers that do not have extensive experience with those requirements. The factory assembly line setting, however, is one setting where I can imagine it being practical to comply with strict NRC/NQA-1 requirements (with highly experienced staff, a controlled process, and NRC inspectors permanently present at the factory site).

Thus, with SMRs, almost all important-to-safety fabrication is performed at the factory site, and it could still be held to NQA-1 standards. Onsite activities at the nuclear plant that are subject to NQA-1 requirements can be greatly reduced or perhaps (as part of a “compromise”) eliminated. In my view, not having onsite construction activities be subject to (nuclear-unique) NQA-1 requirements, and instead letting the local construction entities use more typical QA requirements that they are familiar with, would greatly reduce costs and the risks of schedule delays, rework, and cost overruns. On the other hand, having NQA-1 standards apply at the reactor module factory would deliver virtually all of NQA-1’s safety benefit, without significantly increasing costs.

Finally, it would be highly desirable for the plant to have the attribute of always remaining sufficiently cool to avoid meltdown for an indefinite period without any outside power or active cooling (pumps, etc.). Post-Fukushima, such a feature may greatly increase political and public support for the reactor design. Also, such a feature would greatly reduce the plausible conditions under which meltdown and release could possibly occur. This, in turn, could greatly reduce the number of components or systems that must be classified as “safety related”, which would result in significant cost reductions (as well as reductions in actual accident/release probability).

Features of SMR candidates

The main SMR candidates that meet the goals listed above are as follows, based on their publicly presented information:

The mPower and NuScale vendors state that their entire NSSS will be fabricated at the factory and shipped (whole) to the plant site. Westinghouse is less clear, referring to “rail shippable scale” (which could refer to the entire NSSS, or a small number of NSSS component modules, which would require a limited amount of on-site assembly).

Hauling the NuScale reactor

NuScale very clearly states that its SMR is entirely passively cooled, and can go indefinitely without outside power and active (pumped) cooling. B&W (mPower) is less clear on this point, stating that no AC power is required for design basis safety functions, that they have three-day batteries to support DC-powered accident mitigation, and that the station can go up to 14 days (under loss of power conditions) without outside intervention. Gen4 Energy also states that its (lead-bismuth) reactor can go 14 days without power. I could not find a statement from Westinghouse concerning how long its SMR can go without any external power. Westinghouse does make reference to the operator having to add water (to a large tank) after seven days.

As expected, none of the SMR vendors discuss fabrication QA requirements for at-plant-site construction and components, or how many such components would be classified as safety related. Some have, however, performed some PRA analyses and do discuss the very low probability of core damage and significant release for their reactors. B&W (mPower) and NuScale state that their core damage frequencies (CDFs) are 10-8 and 10-7 per reactor year, respectively. By comparison, currently operating plants generally have CDFs of ~10-4 per reactor year and more recent large plants (e.g., AP1000) have CDFs under 10-6.

Cost and safety tradeoffs

Due to their smaller size and lower power densities, SMRs offer inherent safety advantages, largely because smaller reactors are easier to keep cool. As shown above, their chances of core damage are far lower than those of large reactors. In addition to a lower probability of core damage, their much smaller fuel inventory greatly reduces the maximum possible release. In fact, since these reactors probably can’t get nearly as hot, even in a core damage scenario, I’m guessing that their maximum core inventory release fractions (e.g., for cesium) under even worst-case meltdown conditions are also significantly smaller than those that apply for larger reactors. Thus, the maximum possible release is probably even less than the ratio of reactor powers (MW) would imply.

In order to get these advantages (along with the advantages of assembly line construction), they have to give up on economy of scale and power density, which will tend to increase costs. Some SMR vendors claim that groups of their modules will produce less expensive power than large reactors (e.g., the AP1000), but this remains to be seen. It is also unclear whether these modular reactors will be less expensive than fossil fuels (particularly gas). As I’ve often stated, these reactors cannot provide any health, environmental, or global warming benefits if they are not deployed. Thus, some actions may need to be taken to reduce costs.

This leads me to ask what SMRs will “get in return” for what they are giving up in terms of scale, power density, and increased fundamental safety. We may have to ask if there are any measures that could be taken that would reduce costs but result in a release probability that is closer to that of, say, the AP1000, as opposed to being orders of magnitude lower. In these evaluations, the much lower potential release from these reactors should also be fully considered. I believe that thorough evaluations of all potential cost-saving measures, supported by detailed PRA evaluations, should be performed.

One idea I discussed earlier is to use ordinary construction QA requirements for all on-site construction activities (i.e., for everything outside the NSSS that arrives by rail car). Given the much lower likelihood of core damage/release, the much smaller potential releases, and the fact that components outside the NSSS have a relatively small impact on overall safety (especially for these reactors), such an approach would be justified. In evaluating such an approach, we need to make reasonable determinations of both the probability and possible nature of failures of non-nuclear-qualified components. For example, the NuScale reactors lay in a large pool of water inside a concrete-walled underground pit. We have to ask ourselves: Is there any way the concrete could fail that would result in the water disappearing (especially given that the pool is underground)?

Other issues are operator and security staffing levels. The simplicity and inherently better safety of these designs should reduce the number of required operators and staff (and some SMR vendors are claiming just that). Security costs could be greatly reduced (in my view) if SMRs are placed on existing sites where large reactors already exist. Little extra security should be required, since the site is already protected.

Also, as discussed in my earlier post, licensing review should be fairly limited if one is placing a certified SMR design on a site that already has reactors. Almost like spent fuel dry storage casks, a simple review of the existing site evaluations, to verify that external parameters such as maximum ground accelerations and other environmental factors are bounded by the SMR’s generic safety evaluations, should be sufficient. An evaluation of some bounding number of reactor modules would then be done to address any impacts of the reactors on the site (e.g., a site boundary dose evaluation). After that is done, modules could be added without further licensing activity.

The NRC’s general philosophies, however, as well as some of its recent actions, leads me to believe that any kind of compromise may be too much to expect. In response to Fukushima, the NRC is increasing nuclear regulations even further. While we all agree that some specific improvements can and should be made as a result of lessons learned from Fukushima, there has been absolutely no discussion at all about whether any requirements should be pared back. This, despite the fact that Fukushima showed that the consequences of a severe (almost worst-case) meltdown are FAR smaller than what we had thought (and far smaller than the assumed accident consequences that many if not most of those requirements were based upon). For this reason, I’m inclined to believe that the NRC will take all the benefits of SMRs (i.e., the great reduction in release probability due to fundamental features) and give absolutely nothing back. That, despite the fact that some economic sacrifices (on economy of scale) had to be made in order to get those fundamental increases in safety.

If SMRs are to be viable, and provide safety, health, environmental, and global warming benefits, the NRC is going to have to make some compromises. If they do, SMRs may be able to provide an option that is not only economically competitive (allowing it to displace harmful fossil fuels), but is also far safer than current US nuclear plants, and as safe or safer than new large plants such as the AP1000.

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Hopf

Jim Hopf is a senior nuclear engineer with more than 20 years of experience in shielding and criticality analysis and design for spent fuel dry storage and transportation systems. He has been involved in nuclear advocacy for 10+ years, and is a member of the ANS Public Information Committee. He is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

Talking about nuclear energy at Hunt’s barbershop

By Rod Adams

There are many benefits to living in Lynchburg, Virginia. Not only is it a scenically beautiful place with a diverse and growing economy that has continued its steady progress, even during the Great Recession, but it is also a place full of people who appreciate the value of nuclear energy technology.

Last week, I had the opportunity to evangelize about the importance of nuclear energy in a situation that might seem a little unusual for most places that are not Lynchburg. When I arrived at Hunt’s Barbershop, Glenda was busy with another customer, but she was also engaged in a conversation with that customer’s wife.

The waiting wife was a pleasant lady with an pronounced regional accent. She and Glenda were talking about grandchildren; there was an opening in the conversation for me to join in to mention my own granddaughter and the fact that we were looking forward to traveling with her across the country.

The lady waiting for her husband started talking about how much she and her husband enjoyed traveling, and asked me about my own journeys. We had a quick chat about how my wife and I had moved around the country during my naval career, and how I ended up in Lynchburg working for B&W mPower, Inc. She mentioned that she had once visited “The Plant,” and had been fascinated to learn about the fuel manufactured at the facility and how concentrated it was.

It turned out that this grandmotherly type had been an accountant, and active in local civic organizations before she and her husband retired. After retirement, she and her husband continued their habit of taking numerous cross country trips. We started talking about a number of energy-related topics; she was particularly interested in “backyard windmills.” She had heard people talking about how they could install a windmill and sell power back to the power company.

She said that she wasn’t sure how that would work because she and her husband had seen large wind installations on their travels. They had stopped a couple of times and had stood underneath the towers to see just how tall they were and how massive the blades were. She described how she and her husband had often wondered if those systems were doing much good; they had noticed that many of the blades were not even turning as they drove by.

That gave me a terrific opening to talk about how nuclear plants work reliably nearly all of the time, no matter what the sun and wind are doing. We talked a little bit about the nuclear Navy, and how I had been able to live for months at a time underwater. She was fascinated to learn how the ship had been able to run for 14 years on a tiny amount of fuel that would have fit in the space between us in the barbershop.

The timing of the conversation was fortuitous; earlier that day I had just been provided the link to a short video designed to illustrate, in a three dimensional, active way, the difference in the environmental footprint of a nuclear plant when compared to a wind farm. I had my phone with me, so I showed the below video to the woman as we talked more about what those wind turbines were doing and what they were contributing to the reliability of the electricity grid that supplies the country that she loved to visit.

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The conversation lasted the length of a haircut, but it was a great opportunity to share my enthusiasm for nuclear energy with a curious member of a demographic group that is not always supportive of our technology. Engaging in such one-on-one conversations can be a great way to spread the word about the value of nuclear technology; I would not be surprised if that encounter encourages additional research and discussions.

Later in the same week, I enjoyed sharing a video produced by the Weather Channel titled A Mini Nuclear Power Plant around the office. As you might imagine, there were some happy, proud faces as my colleagues received visible evidence that their hard work was getting noticed. At least two of the people in my group make cameo appearances in the short clip.

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There are times when it is tough to be an active nuclear professional. The days are long, the work can be frustratingly burdened by regulations and self-imposed work rules that seem almost purposely designed to impede progress, and people who are opposed to the technology are often loud enough to dominate the conversation. It is enough to make one feel completely unappreciated.

However, the reality is that plenty of people are interested in what we are doing. They are cheering for us to succeed and to make the world a cleaner, safer, more prosperous place. They want us to figure out how to stop the proliferation of wind turbines in pristine landscapes, how to slow the continuous build up of CO2 in the atmosphere—with its uncertain effects on the climate—and they want us to develop world leading technology that will help create good jobs here in the United States.

In Lynchburg, at least, we are making some progress on all of those fronts, but that does not mean it is time to rest. As was described here just last week, there are still plenty of people that are targeting our technology and telling the world that investing any resources into its development is a waste of money. It is up to us to prove them wrong.

Disclosure: Rod Adams is employed by B&W mPower, Inc., but his thoughts are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of his employer.

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Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

On federal investment in Small Modular Reactor technology

Taxpayers for Common Sense on February 27 issued a press release targeting the Department of Energy for “wasting more than half a billion dollars” on its small modular reactor (SMR) development cost-sharing program. Leaving aside the historically essential role of government investment in developing, advancing, and bringing to market innovative energy technologies—and the fact that early government investments in nuclear energy technology now pay back enormous dividends to all Americans in billions of dollars’ worth of affordable and emission-free electricity generation every year—many of the advantages of advanced SMR energy technologies were overlooked or misconstrued in the group’s press release and policy brief.

The press has virtually ignored the announcement, possibly because an advanced technology development cost-sharing program of $452 million, spread over five years, may not make for a big target in a multi-trillion-dollar annual federal budget. But it does present an opportunity to quickly point out a few important facts about SMR technology.

As a general statement, at this juncture in world history, it is almost impossible to overstate the critical importance of developing clean, versatile, energy-dense, and low-carbon-emission energy technologies for our future. SMRs show great promise to help achieve this vitally important goal.

B&W mPower SMR

In contrast to large nuclear reactors, which have enormous components that are shipped to and assembled at the site where they will operate, SMRs will be assembled in a factory, somewhat like a modular home. SMRs will use manufacturing capability currently entirely available in the United States. Construction time for SMRs will be greatly reduced compared to current larger-scale reactors. Upfront capital costs and debt loads sometimes prevent deployment of larger nuclear reactors, and the reduced cost and speedier construction time of individual SMR units will help lower this barrier to emission-free energy. SMRs will also offer great versatility for industrial applications. For example, SMRs are ideal for producing fresh water by desalination in many growing regions of the world. SMR designs offer advanced safety and proliferation-resistance features as well.

These factors will allow low-carbon energy technology in new locations and markets, and locations where alternative forms of energy are not available or attractive (e.g., natural gas price and availability vary widely in the United States and especially abroad). SMR technology also promises to build on U.S. global leadership in nuclear technology to allow new U.S. manufacturing exports to markets abroad.

SMR technologies will require significant review and approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before they can be built. The American Nuclear Society has taken a leadership role in addressing licensing issues for SMRs, and will continue to do so.

ANS recommends the U.S. government continue to expedite research on issues that must be addressed prior to commercial deployment of SMRs; identify and resolve SMR licensing issues; encourage the development and deployment of multiple SMR designs; and participate in programs that demonstrate the feasibility of multiple SMR designs and approaches to reduce the time to market. Note that much of the funding in the DOE’s SMR program is actually for helping to establish reliable licensing and inspection of the technology.

Finally, a quick historical observation is in order (thanks to Rod Adams’ excellent coverage of the Taxpayers for Common Sense SMR press conference). In historical context, government investments in natural gas and oil hydraulic fracturing research, as early as the 1970s and continuing in subsequent decades, share similarities to federal investment in SMR technology today. The oil and gas industry was already “mature” in the 1970s, yet federal research investment in new technology in the field now brings a very good return for taxpayers in terms of more abundant, cleaner, and less expensive natural gas energy (although certainly not clean by nuclear standards, it must be noted).

For more complete information, see American Nuclear Society Position Statement Small Modular Reactors and press release ANS supports the development of advanced energy technologies.

Babcock & Wilcox Refutes Mischaracterization of SMR Program

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Responding to System Demand

by Will Davis

Significant discussions have occurred recently on various internet venues about “load following”—that is, the capability of a generating source to adjust its power output to match variable demands. There is a myth spreading that nuclear power plants cannot load follow, and today’s ever-changing discussion about low-GHG generating sources demands that this myth be dispelled.

One might immediately ask this question: “Haven’t we been saying that nuclear plants are best for base load power generation?” That’s a valid question. Baseload generation can be thought of as that degree of electric demand below which you never go. When compared to other generating sources, nuclear power plants have a relatively high construction cost—but a relatively low operating cost—and thus are often referred to as baseload generating assets. Nuclear power plants make steady power and steady income for the utility at a low and controlled fuel cost that isn’t subject to rapid market fluctuations or interruptions in supply—and they do this all day and night.

However, today’s energy world is evolving. We now have under consideration small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear plants that may be ’off the grid’ and required to supply variable loads at all times instead of  baseload power as part of a larger distribution network. Further, as high-GHG generating assets are retired, nuclear will become a larger percentage of the generating mix (all else held constant) and load following becomes part of the energy mix discussion.

From a utility perspective, operating today’s large commercial nuclear power plants at reduced load isn’t economically sensible, since the same staff  is paid the same money whether the plant is at 30-percent power or at 100 percent. Of course, the overall impact is much larger than just what you’re paying the staff,  considering all the other operating expenses—that’s just a simple example. Since renewable energy sources—which have a highly intermittent output—are now being seriously discussed, the capability of nuclear energy facilities to integrate with renewable sources, which would require load following, is important to address.

The Shippingport Atomic Power Station (seen in the lower part of this photo as a longish, red, left-to-right building in front of the much larger Beaver Valley nuclear station built years later) was the first large-scale commercial nuclear plant in the United States.  Shippingport was designed not only for load following but for remote load dispatching while operating in its normal power range (the plant was originally rated 265 MWt/60 Mwe, and ‘normal’ power was considered anything over 20 MWt).  The plant was designed to accommodate the following thermal power changes while in automatic control mode:  1. +15 MW or -12 MW at a step change rate.  2. ±15 Mw at a rate of 3 Mw/sec.  3. ±20 Mw at a rate of 0.417 MW/sec.

While today we don’t allow remote dispatching to control the power level of reactors, it’s important to know that they can accommodate power changes as well. Let’s take a look at some other nuclear plant design data for plants presently in service in terms of allowed power change rates, and then we’ll compare that to published data about today’s new-build AP1000 nuclear plant.

Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactor: This design of nuclear plant was advertised in the 1980s as being “able to follow repetitive load changes automatically throughout the range of 15 percent to 100 percent of rated power consistent with the cyclic nature of the utility system load demand.” The Westinghouse PWR was designed at that time to accommodate step changes of 10 percent rated power and ramp changes at 5 percent per minute. Further, the plant was designed to operate, if required, on the 12-3-6-3 daily load cycle; 12 hours at 100 percent power, then three hours to reduce power followed by six hours at 50 percent power, then another three hours to ramp back up to full power. Finally, the plants were designed to accept up to a 50 percent rated power load rejection without reactor trip and full load rejection with reactor trip but optionally could be equipped with extra steam dump capacity in order to accept full load rejection with no reactor trip. The plants adjust both primary coolant boron concentration and control rod position as required to follow load.

Combustion Engineering PWR: Data are at hand for early generation C-E plants like that at Palisades; design criteria for this plant included the ability to accept step changes of 10 percent rated power, or ramp changes at 5 percent per minute.

Babcock & Wilcox PWR:  B&W large commercial plants were advertised as able to accommodate transients of 10 percent step changes, or ramp changes of 10 percent per minute between 20 percent and 90 percent rated power; above 90 percent rated power, the ramp change permissible was 5 percent per minute. Load reduction rates were the same without steam dump; with steam dump, load reductions of 40 percent in a step could be handled. According to B&W literature, “The turbine bypass system and safety valves permit a 100% load drop without turbine trip or reactor trip.”

GE Boiling Water Reactor: Data on hand for the late-generation BWR/6 shows that the design originally accommodated up to a 25 percent change in rated power automatically by recirculation flow control change, with no control rod motion, “thus providing automatic load following capability for the BWR.”

As we can see, these plants are responsive in varied degrees to changing system loads—and system loads don’t generally swing wildly unless there are storms in the area. What about new build nuclear plants?

Westinghouse advertises their AP1000 as having the following characteristics pertaining to variable system load: “The plant is designed to accept a step-load increase or decrease of 10 percent between 25 and 100 percent power without reactor trip or steam-dump system actuation, provided that the rated power level is not exceeded. Further, the AP1000 is designed to accept a 100 percent load rejection from full power to house loads without a reactor trip or operation of the pressurizer or steam generator safety valves.”

The Westinghouse SMR site offers a thorough description of that reactor design’s load following scheme which is also applied, according to the site, to the much larger AP1000 just described.  Click here for details. 

The competitive Generation mPower SMR is also designed for load following. In an interview on Atomic Power Review about the mPower SMR, Generation mPower LLC’s Matt Miles said of the mPower: “Traditionally, nuclear power plants have been used for base load generation. Our plants are designed for more segmented or off grid applications and are capable of load following to accommodate this type of deployment.”

As we can see, light water cooled and moderated nuclear power plants, whether of PWR or BWR type, and whether large commercial plants or SMR designs, are capable of adjusting power output to match variable system demand. Many years’ worth of operation on many various demand schedules have proven out the technology. While today, for many considerations, large commercial plants aren’t used as load followers, there is nothing inherent in the technology that precludes them from doing so; further, it is expected that SMR plants will normally behave as load followers. I hope this article clears up the spreading misconception about light water cooled and moderated reactor plants, in order to help level the discussion about applicability of technologies to a new age in which renewables will play a larger role on the grid.

(Sources consulted for this article include “Shippingport Pressurized Water Reactor, US AEC / Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1958; advertising material from Combustion Engineering, Inc. and Consumers Power for Palisades Nuclear Power Station; “The Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactor Plant,” Westinghouse Electric Corporation, 1984; “Steam / Its Generation and Use,” 38th ed. Babcock & Wilcox 1975; “General Description of a Boiling Water Reactor (BWR/6)” General Electric 1978; Westinghouse AP1000 advertising materials, Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power advertising materials.)

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Will Davis is a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society. In addition to this, Davis is on the Board of Directors of PopAtomic Studios, is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and also writes his own blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy Reactor Operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

2012 ~ The year that was in nuclear energy

Plus a few pointers to what’s in store for 2013

By Dan Yurman

Former NRC Chairman Gregory Jackzo

On a global scale the nuclear industry had its share of pluses and minuses in 2012. Japan’s Fukushima crisis continues to dominate any list of the top ten nuclear energy issues for the year. (See more below on Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima.)

In the United States, while the first new nuclear reactor licenses in three decades were issued to four reactors, the regulatory agency that approved them had a management meltdown that resulted in the noisy departure of Gregory Jazcko, its presidentially appointed chairman. His erratic tenure at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cast doubt on its effectiveness and tarnished its reputation as one of the best places to work in the federal government.

Iran continues its uranium enrichment efforts

The year also started with another bang, and not the good kind, as new attacks on nuclear scientists in Iran brought death by car bombs. In July, western powers enacted new sanctions on Iran over its uranium enrichment program. Since 2011, economic sanctions have reduced Iran’s oil exports by 40 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In late November, the U.S. Senate approved a measure expanding the economic sanctions that have reduced Iran’s export earnings from oil production. Despite the renewed effort to convince Iran to stop its uranium enrichment effort, the country is pressing ahead with it. Talks between Iran and the United States and western European nations have not made any progress.

Nukes on Mars

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover is a scientific and engineering triumph.

Peaceful uses of the atom were highlighted by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover, which executed a flawless landing on the red planet in August with a nuclear heartbeat to power its science mission. Data sent to Earth from its travels across the red planet will help determine whether or not Mars ever had conditions that would support life.

SMRs are us

The U.S. government dangled an opportunity for funding of innovative small modular reactors, e.g., with electrical power ratings of less than 300 MW. Despite vigorous competition, only one vendor, B&W, was successful in grabbing a brass ring worth up to $452 million over five years.

The firm immediately demonstrated the economic value of the government cost-sharing partnership by placing an order for long lead time components. Lehigh Heavy Forge and B&W plan to jointly participate in the fabrication and qualification of large forgings for nuclear reactor components that are intended to be used in the manufacture of B&W mPower SMRs.

Lehigh Forge at work

The Department of Energy said that it might offer a second round funding challenge, but given the federal government’s overall dire financial condition, the agency may have problems even meeting its commitments in the first round.

As of December 1, negotiations between the White House and Congress over the so-called “fiscal cliff” were deadlocked. Congress created this mess, so one would expect that they could fix it.

The Congressional Budget Office has warned that if Congress doesn’t avert the fiscal cliff, the economy might slip into recession next year and boost the unemployment rate to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013, compared with 7.9 percent now. Even record low natural gas prices and a boom in oil production won’t make much of a difference if there is no agreement by January 1, 2013.

Japan’s mighty mission at Fukushima

Japan’s major challenges are unprecedented for a democratically elected government. It must decontaminate and decommission the Fukushima site, home to six nuclear reactors, four of which suffered catastrophic internal and external damage from a giant tsunami and record shattering earthquake. The technical challenges of cleanup are daunting and the price tag, already in the range of tens of billions of dollars, keeps rising with a completion date now at least several decades in the future.

Map of radiation releases from Fukushima reported in April 2011

  • Japan is mobilizing a new nuclear regulatory agency that has the responsibility to say whether the rest of Japan’s nuclear fleet can be restarted safely. While the government appointed highly regarded technical specialists to lead the effort, about 400 staff came over from the old Nuclear Industry Safety Agency that was found to be deficient as a deeply compromised oversight body. The new agency will struggle to prove itself an independent and effective regulator of nuclear safety.
  •  Japan has restarted two reactors and approved continued construction work at several more that are partially complete. Local politics will weigh heavily on the outlook for each power station with the “pro” forces emphasizing jobs and tax base and the anti-nuclear factions encouraged by widespread public distrust of the government and of the nation’s nuclear utilities.
  • Despite calls for a phase out of all nuclear reactors in Japan, the country will continue to generate electric power from them for at least the next 30–40 years.
  • Like the United States, Japan has no deep geologic site for spent fuel. Unlike the United States, Japan has been attempting to build and operate a spent fuel reprocessing facility. Plagued by technical missteps and rising costs, Japan may consider offers from the United Kingdom and France to reprocess its spent fuel and with such a program relieve itself of the plutonium in it.

U.S. nuclear renaissance stops at six

The pretty picture of a favorable future for the nuclear fuel cycle in 2007 turned to hard reality in 2012.

In 2007, the combined value of more than two dozen license applications for new nuclear reactors weighed in with an estimated value of over $120 billion. By 2012, just six reactors were under construction. Few will follow soon in their footsteps due to record low prices of natural gas and the hard effects of one of the nation’s deepest and longest economic recessions.

The NRC approved licenses for two new reactors at Southern’s Vogtle site in Georgia and two more at Scana’s V.C. Summer Station in South Carolina. Both utilities chose the Westinghouse AP1000 design and will benefit from lessons learned by the vendor that is building four of them in China. In late November, Southern’s contractors, which are building the plants, said that both of the reactors would enter revenue service a year late. For its part, Southern said that it hasn’t agreed to a new schedule.

The Tennessee Valley Authority recalibrated its efforts to complete Watts Bar II, adding a three-year delay and over $2 billion in cost escalation. TVA’s board told the utility’s executives that construction work to complete Unit 1 at the Bellefonte site cannot begin until fuel is loaded in Watts Bar.

The huge increase in the supply of natural gas, resulting in record low prices for it in the United States, led Exelon Chairman John Rowe to state that it would be “inconceivable” for a nuclear utility in a deregulated state to build new reactors.

Four reactors in dire straights

In January, Southern California Edison (SCE) safety shut down two 1100-MW reactors at its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) due to excessive wear found in the nearly new steam generators at both reactors.

SCE submitted a restart plan to the NRC for Unit 2 in November. The review, according to the agency, could take months. SCE removed the fuel from Unit 3 last August, a signal that the restart of that reactor will be farther in the future owing to the greater extent of the damage to the tubes its steam generator.

The NRC said that a key cause of the damage to the tubes was a faulty computer program used by Mitsubishi, the steam generator vendor, in its design of the units. The rate of steam, pressure, and water content were key factors along with the design and placement of brackets to hold the tubes in place.

Flood waters surround Ft. Calhoun NPP June 2011

Elsewhere, in Nebraska the flood stricken Ft. Calhoun reactor owned and operated by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), postponed its restart to sometime in 2013.

It shut down in April 2011 for a scheduled fuel outage. Rising flood waters along the Missouri River in June damaged in the plant site though the reactor and switch yard remained dry.

The Ft. Calhoun plant must fulfill a long list of safety requirements before the NRC will let it power back up. To speed things along, OPPD hired Exelon to operate the plant. In February 2012, OPPD cancelled plans for a power uprate, also citing the multiple safety issues facing the plant.

In Florida, the newly merged Duke and Progress Energy firm wrestled with a big decision about what to do with the shutdown Crystal River reactor. Repairing the damaged containment structure could cost half again as much as an entirely new reactor. With license renewal coming up in 2016, Florida’s Public Counsel thinks that Duke will decommission the unit and replace it with a combined cycle natural gas plant. Separately, Duke Chairman Jim Rogers said that he will resign at the end of 2013.

China restarts nuclear construction

After a long reconsideration (following the Fukushima crisis) of its aggressive plans to build new nuclear reactors, China’s top level government officials agreed to allow new construction starts, but only with Gen III+ designs.

China has about two dozen Gen II reactors under construction. It will be 40–60 years before the older technology is off the grid. China also reduced its outlook for completed reactors from an estimate of 80 GWe by 2020 to about 55–60 GWe. Plans for a massive $26-billion nuclear energy IPO (initial public offering) still have not made it to the Shanghai Stock Exchange.  No reason has been made public about the delay.

India advances at Kudanlulam

India loaded fuel at Kudankulam where two Russian built 1000-MW VVER reactors are ready for revenue service. The Indian government overcame widespread political protests in its southern state of Tamil Nadu. India’s Prime Minister Singh blamed the protests on international NGOs (non-governmental organizations).

One of the key factors that helped the government overcome the political opposition is that Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited told the provincial government that it could allocate half of all the electricity generated by the plants to local rate payers. Officials in Tamil Nadu will decide who gets power. India suffered two massive electrical blackouts in 2012, the second of which stranded over 600 million people without electricity for up to a week.

Also, India said that it would proceed with construction of two 1600-MW Areva EPRs at Jaitapur on its west coast south of Mumbai and launched efforts for construction of up to 20 GWe of domestic reactors.

India’s draconian supplier liability law continues to be an effective firewall in keeping American firms out of its nuclear market.

UK has new builder at Horizon

The United Kingdom suffered a setback in its nuclear new build as two German utilities backed out of the construction of up to 6 Gwe of new reactors at two sites. Japan’s Hitachi successfully bid to take over the project. A plan for a Chinese state-owned firm to bid on the Horizon project in collaboration with Areva never materialized.

Also in the UK, General Electric pursued an encouraging dialog with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to build two of its 300-MW PRISM fast reactors to burn off surplus plutonium stocks at Sellafield. The PRISM design benefits from the technical legacy of the Integral Fast Reactor developed at Argonne West in Idaho.

You can’t make this stuff up

In July, three anti-war activitists breached multiple high-tech security barriers at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Y-12 highly enriched uranium facility in Tennessee. The elderly trio, two men on the dark side of 55 and a woman in her 80s, were equipped with ordinary wire cutters and flashlights.

Y-12 Signs state the obvious

The intruders roamed the site undetected for several hours in the darkness of the early morning and spray painted political slogans on the side of one of the buildings. They were looking for new artistic venues when a lone security guard finally stopped their travels through the plant.

The government said that the unprecedented security breach was no laughing matter, firing the guards on duty at the time and the contractor they worked for. Several civil servants “retired.” The activists, if convicted, face serious jail time.

None of the HEU stored at the site was compromised, but subsequent investigations by the Department of Energy found a lack of security awareness, broken equipment, and an unsettling version of the “it can’t happen here” attitude by the guards that initially mistook the intruders for construction workers.

The protest effort brought publicity to the activists’ cause far beyond their wildest dreams and produced the predictable uproar in Congress. The DOE’s civilian fig leaf covering the nation’s nuclear weapons program was once again in tatters.

So long Chu

Given the incident at Y-12, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who came to government from the quiet life of scientific inquiry, must have asked himself once again why he ever accepted the job in Washington in the first place.

DOE Energy Secretary Steven Chu

Chu is expected to leave Washington. That he’s lasted this long is something of a miracle since the Obama White House tried to give him the heave ho this time last year after the Solyndra loan guarantee debacle, in which charges of political influence peddling by White House aides colored a half a billion dollar default on a DOE loan by a California solar energy company.

The predictable upswing in rumors of who might be appointed to replace him oozed into energy trade press and political saloons of the nation’s capital.

Leading candidates are former members of Congress, former governors, or just  about anyone with the experience and political know how to take on the job of running one of the federal government’s biggest cabinet agencies. It’s a short list of people who really can do the job and a long list of wannabes. With shale gas and oil production on the rise, having a background in fossil fuels will likely help prospective candidates.

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Dan Yurman published the nuclear energy blog Idaho Samizdat from 2007–2012.