First U.S. Small Modular
by Amy Gahran
The long and expensive process of building the first U.S. nuclear power plant to feature small modular reactor generation units nudged forward this summer.
On June 17, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and Portland, Ore.-based NuScale Power notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that they plan to submit a design certification application by the end of 2016. This will be followed by a combined construction and operation license application by early 2018.
If built, the plant would provide 600 MW of baseload capacity, produced by a dozen 50 MW SMRs fabricated by NuScale and its primary investor, Fluor. It would be operated by Energy Northwest on behalf of UAMPS, and possibly additional utility partners.
If the project successfully navigates the regulatory and economic hurdles, it could begin producing power by 2023. The site for the plant has not yet been selected, but an early leading candidate is the Idaho National Laboratory complex.
In many ways, the project is by no means certain. "UAMPS is still in the investigatory stage," said LeVarr Webb, spokesman for Salt Lake City-based UAMPS. "We haven't yet made a final decision to go forward."
That's not to suggest that UAMPS isn't enthusiastic about the potential.
"We believe SMR technology has advanced to the point that it may be the cleanest, safest and most cost-effective long-term solution to ensure stable, reliable, well-priced electrical power for UAMPS members over the next several decades," UAMPS General Manager Doug Hunter said in an EnergyBiz guest commentary last fall.
The SMR plant would mostly replace coal-fired power plants, which UAMPS plans to eventually decommission.
As envisioned, each reactor would sit within a 76-foot-by-15-foot containment vessel. The reactors would operate independently inside a water-filled 8 million-gallon pool built below grade.
The self-cooling reactors would rely on natural convection; hence, no pumps are needed to circulate water through the reactor. The design simplicity means the reactors could be factory-built and transported to the site by rail or on trucks. That makes the plants faster to construct and less expensive to operate. The footprint of a plant - one-tenth the size of conventional large-scale nuclear plants - would be relatively small, only 44 acres.
Still, the hurdles are formidable.
For starters, UAMPS is a nonprofit wholesale power producer supplying 45 community-owned power systems in eight Western states. Each member utility must decide whether to participate in the SMR project. Those decisions are being made now in city council meetings.
Gaining a critical mass of member participation is important to achieving favorable economics for the project - UAMPS needs to be certain that there is a sufficient market for the power the plant will produce. If additional support is needed, UAMPS may also partner with non-member utilities in the region.
On the other hand, it helps that the Obama administration has championed SMRs as an alternative to fossil fuels. The U.S. Department of Energy operates an SMR Licensing Technical Support program, which awarded NuScale $217 million to support design, certification and licensing efforts.
Also, the White House issued a March 19 Executive Order requiring federal agencies to acquire one-fourth of their power from "alternative energy" resources by 2025. While conventional nuclear plants don't qualify, SMRs would.
But, as might be imagined, substantial costs are involved in certifying a new nuclear reactor design and in licensing plants which include new reactors designs.
In detailing what's needed to meet NRC requirements, Mike McGough, chief commercial officer for NuScale, noted:
"We are billed $268 per hour for every hour that someone from NRC spends working on this. Recently we had a five-hour meeting that included 26 NRC people. That cost nearly $35,000, not counting travel, lodging and per diems. We'll have spent $1 billion on this process by the time it's done."
Once the NRC application is done (probably by late 2016), it will be about 12,000 pages. From there, the NRC will take an estimated 40 months to review it. The COLA from UAMPS will follow this process by about a year.
Once that happens, UAMPS will be able to break ground and start operations as soon as the first reactor is ready.
While the process is no doubt complicated and protracted, it does represent some streamlining in how nuclear plants are licensed today.
"A quarter-century ago, nuclear plants first got a construction license, and then when the plant was completed they had to ask NRC for an operating license," said McGough. "So a decade ago, NRC eliminated the two-step licensing process. Nobody wants to spend the money it takes to buy a nuclear plant, and then sit on their hands waiting for a new process to work its way through the bureaucracy."
David Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project of the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that if SMRs ultimately can gain the regulatory approval, they would offer some significant potential economic advantages.
"Currently, conventional nuclear reactors are 1,000 MW or more, and often there are two or three reactors at the same site. That's appropriate if you're anticipating 1,000-2,000 MW of demand pretty consistently," said Lochbaum. "But smaller reactors can be more incrementally staged, at just about 50 MW per unit. If your demand forecast is wrong, the consequences of having guessed a little high or low aren't as significant."
Furthermore, a nuclear plant comprised of several smaller reactors has the potential to start producing power before the entire plant is completed. This could be an advantage in states that allow investor-owned utilities to recover costs to license and build a power plant only after power production has begun. (Because UAMPS is an association of municipal utilities, that rule does not apply to this project, UAMPS confirmed.)
Still, again, SMRs face some unique challenges.
Among them: The NRC is funded through fees collected from the owners of nuclear power plants. Currently those fees are based on the number of reactors, not the total plant capacity - roughly $4 million per reactor, per year, said Lochbaum. Consequently, a plant comprised of three 1,000 MW reactors would be charged significantly less than a plant containing a dozen 50 MW reactors (600 MW total).
McGough said this NRC rule is under review, and may be revised to prorate fees based on total plant capacity.
In any case, Western states might be especially fertile ground for future SMR projects, McGough said.
"Until now, the Eastern U.S. has had a much higher concentration of nuclear energy - about 20%, compared to about 7% in the West," he said. "There's a disproportionally large percentage of carbon-generating energy resources in use out West. Since pressure to reduce carbon emissions remains, utilities in Western states are probably particularly motivated to give SMRs a closer look."
That doubtlessly will be the case, in the West and elsewhere, given that more coal plants will need to be replaced, not to mention the roughly 200 nuclear reactors - nearly half of the global nuclear capacity - that are expected to be decommissioned over the next 25 years.
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