By Jared Anderson
AOL Energy
December 17, 2012

Most of today’s existing nuclear plants consist of large reactors that generate thousands of megawatts, but an onerous licensing process, difficulties financing multi-billion dollar construction projects and unresolved waste issues have led the industry in a different direction.

“We see more focus on SMRs across the industry as a whole,” former Governor Christine Todd Whitman, who is now Clean and Safe Energy Coalition Co-chair recently told AOL Energy.

The nuclear power industry and utilities face a challenge as nuclear plants approach and reach the end of their originally-designed lives. Simply shutting these plants down would be extremely difficult – in some cases impossible – for power grids to handle and could result in power failures and increased electricity costs because they generate power on such a large scale. In many cases, the problem is being dealt with by extending operating licenses.

“They [utilities] will re-license [existing plants] as long as it’s safe to do so – but the focus will be on SMRs,” Gov. Whitman said.

The smaller reactors would be constructed in factories and could essentially be ‘plugged in,’ once transported to their desired location. As reported earlier this year by AOL Energy, “the modules can’t exceed 13 feet in diameter because factory-assembled units must be rail-shippable to sites. Modules would be placed in an underground structure, and replaced when their four-year fuel cycle is completed.

The small scale means all forging can be done in North American factories, unlike conventional nuclear plants whose large parts must be forged overseas.”

Commercial SMR deployment recently took a major step forward with a first-of-its-kind public/private R&D grant. In an effort to facilitate the licensing process, Babcock & Wilcox is participating in a 5-year engineering, design certification and licensing cost-sharing agreement, in which the firm will match government (Department of Energy) funding 1 for 1, said Whitman. The target is to achieve commercial operation by 2022.

Not a ‘Silver Bullet’

The industry clearly sees SMRs as the way forward, but the environmental community remains somewhat skeptical. Jordan Weaver, a Nuclear Program Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council told AOL Energy that while SMRs appear to have some advantages that include unassisted air cooling, they don’t discharge waste heat into water bodies and incorporate passive safety measures, challenges remain. Economic uncertainties, as well as safety and environmental concerns are still part of the picture for small scale nuclear.

“Depending on how one values nuclear power’s lower-carbon attributes versus its longstanding problems – waste disposal, accident/proliferation risks, and the significant environmental impacts of uranium recovery – SMRs could actually end up priced higher than a wide range of current renewables, and certainly energy efficiency.

Simply putting aside for the moment the environmental cost/benefit debate, the economics of SMRs still suggest that anything other than overly optimistic commercialization and manufacturing would result in these new units costing more than conventional large reactors, the group said. While there are some safety improvements in these designs, we don’t see SMRs as some sort of silver bullet that rescues the industry and revives a ‘renaissance’ that was never really underway in the first place,” Weaver said.

Nevertheless, Whitman maintains SMRs are ideal for smaller grids and can be added as communities grow – “DOE is committed to this, it’s the next phase,” she said.