The Energy Spectator

America’s Last Nuclear Hope

Small reactors may save us yet.

By From the March 2011 issue

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Griz Deal had been Entrepreneur in Residence at the Los Alamos Laboratory for only six months when he saw something he liked.

"I had been thinking in terms of taking some technology for sterilizing food with radiation," he says, sitting in his corporate offices in New Mexico. "There seemed to be a niche market in that. Then I went into John Peterson's office and saw a reactor he had designed that was about the size of two hot tubs. He said he thought they might be able to use it in the tar sand fields of Canada. I knew immediately it could have wider application. It was so obvious it seemed amazing no one had ever thought of it before."

Six weeks later, Hyperion Power Systems was incorporated and Deal was out marketing the 125-megawatt reactor, big enough to power a town of about 20,000 people. At first customers hesitated because there seemed no chance that Hyperion would ever get the design through the glacially slow licensing procedures at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Washington bureaucracy that controls all things nuclear in the United States. But in August Hyperion signed a memorandum of understanding to build a prototype of the Hyperion at the Savannah River Site, a weapons-producing installation in South Carolina that lies outside the NRC's jurisdiction. Then, in November, Hyperion entered an agreement with several European countries to start exploring the possibility of powering ocean-going oil tankers and transport carriers with nuclear engines. Contrary to all expectations, it appears that American companies may be able to participate in the nuclear renaissance that is sweeping the rest of the globe after all.

That America is going to miss the revival of nuclear power that is reaching into the remotest corners of the globe is now almost a foregone conclusion. While the rest of the world is discovering what will undoubtedly be the principal source of power by the end of the 21st century, Americans are preoccupied with how many picocuries of tritium are leaking out of Vermont Yankee or whether we'll ever get around to deciding what to do with Yucca Mountain. There are 60 new reactors under construction around the world in countries as diverse as Brazil, Argentina, Lithuania, India, and Sri Lanka. Twenty are being built in China alone. Kenya, Indonesia, Morocco, Bangladesh -- all have entered into agreements with one provider nation or another to begin plans on their own nuclear program.

Thirty years ago, the big three American companies -- General Electric, Westinghouse, and Babcock & Wilcox -- dominated the international market, building reactors in Europe and Asia. Today the field is completely dominated by foreign giants. Areva, 80 percent owned by the French government, is building in China, India, and Finland. Westinghouse, bought by Toshiba in 2008, has projects all around the globe. General Electric, still in the field but running in last place, recently partnered with Hitachi in the hope of reviving its fortunes. Russia's Rosatom has deals with Vietnam, India, Egypt, Brazil, and Venezuela. The biggest shock came when the United Arab Emirates put out bids to build four reactors in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Areva and Westinghouse figured to be the contenders but both were upended by Korea, which only started building its own reactors five years ago. The Koreans won a $20 billion contract in late 2009, the largest international construction job in history. Yet all this will change once again when China enters the international market with its own design (reverse-engineered from Westinghouse) somewhere around 2013. France, which prides itself on being 80 percent nuclear, is already fearful that it will be closed out of the market by the rising Asian competition.

So how can America possibly fit into the highly competitive race to provide what is surely going to be the dominant energy source of the 21st century? Believe it or not, we still have a chance -- with small reactors.

LAST MARCH, in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he praised small modular reactors (SMRs) as "America's New Nuclear Option," Secretary of Energy Steven Chu acknowledged that America is in danger of falling behind other countries. "Our choice is clear," he wrote. "Develop these technologies today or import them tomorrow." In fact, America is the only major nuclear country that does not even have the capacity to forge the three-story steel vessel heads at the heart of large reactors and will have to import them as well. But Chu saw an opportunity in the new small designs. "If we can develop this technology in the U.S. and build these reactors with American workers, we will have a key competitive edge."

Bite-sized reactors offer a whole spectrum of advantages. First, in terms of safety, they are much easier to handle. Temperatures do not reach the same level so there is minimal chance of overheating. Huge containment structures do not have to be built -- and in fact some are being designed with a built-in containment. Modular reactors can actually be buried, which more or less eliminates the possibility that even the worst-case accident could have any serious widespread consequences.

Modular units can be built at the factory and then shipped to the site by rail for final assembly -- a huge cost saving. Moreover, they can be added in small increments. One of the great disadvantages of contemporary 1,700-megawatt reactors is that they represent a colossal investment -- upwards of $10 billion -- and may take the better part of a decade to complete. For a country like the United Arab Emirates building its first reactor, this makes sense. But American utilities are facing an uncertain future and are incurring almost unacceptable risks by undertaking such long-term projects. Reactors in the 50-to-150-megawatt range will allow utilities to add power as needed at acceptable costs.

The construction of modular reactors presents the possibility that smaller nuclear "batteries" can be distributed across the electric grid, tucked into factories and urban locations, so that transmission costs can be minimized and efficient co-generation uses designed. One of the main criticisms of power plants in general is that they convert only about one-third of the energy input into useful electricity. The process of boiling steam to turn an electric turbine means that two-thirds of the energy escapes as waste heat. If the steam can be captured and routed to heating or industrial purposes, however, energy use can become almost twice as efficient. This is difficult when the power plant is located on an isolated compound miles from the nearest city. But if people can overcome their fears and tolerate small reactors in their neighborhood, the possibilities become enormous. "Everybody talks about electricity but we're an enormous consumer of industrial steam," says Doug May, vice president for energy at Dow Chemical. "We see small reactors as a game changer."

Finally, there is the possibility that nuclear "batteries" can bring power to remote locations that are difficult or impossible to serve by other means. Because of the extraordinary fuel density of uranium -- approximately 2,000 times the output per pound as coal -- small modular reactors can essentially be stocked with fuel rods and then run without interruption for five years. This would be invaluable in the tar sands of Saskatchewan, where huge amounts of natural gas are now being consumed in order to distill the heavy hydrocarbons into usable fractions. Several remote villages in Alaska are being courted by SMR manufacturers. A reactor buried in the basement of a single building could power a town of 20,000 without ever being noticed.

A HOST OF COMPANIES have already jumped into the field with innovative ideas. NuStart, a company founded by Paul Lorenzini, a former Los Alamos scientist, has a 150-MW reactor designed to fit into utility sites. It runs for five years and then the manufacturer hauls it away for refueling. Lorenzini places the costs at $700 million -- chicken feed for electric utilities.

Babcock & Wilcox, which has not built a reactor since the ill-fated Three Mile Island, has introduced mPower, a 175-MW reactor that is cooled by air and can be located anywhere. The company hopes to have a completed design by 2011 and is making plans to build an experimental model with the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Radix, a small Long Island start-up, has a design for a reactor of only 5 megawatts that is intended to run forward base operations for the U.S. Army. "We looked at the requirements and realized that nothing else works nearly as well," says Dr. Paul Farrell, a nuclear scientist who founded the company. "Anything involving liquid fuels involves a whole vulnerable supply chain and renewables like solar and wind just don't provide enough power. But our reactor can fit on a truck and support an encampment of 100 people."

In fact, the whole idea of using small reactors has been accepted by the military for decades. Nuclear submarines are powered by 50-MW reactors that sit a few feet away from crew members and run for five years without refueling. Admiral Hyman Rickover operated the Nuclear Navy on impeccable standards and there has never been an accident or a life lost due to radiation exposure. Since the 1990s, nuclear reactors now power aircraft carriers as well. The reactors aboard Nimitz class carriers are slightly bigger -- 194 megawatts -- and supply electricity for what amounts to a small floating city of 2,000 people. Again, there has never been an accident.

So why isn't there more coordination between the civilian and military efforts? In fact there is some. The first commercial reactor built at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, in 1957 was actually a submarine reactor "beached" by Admiral Rickover's Navy. Since then hundreds of nuclear technicians trained in the Navy have gone on to find jobs in the nuclear industry. One reason most new reactors are now being planned in the South is the large presence of Navy veterans. But beyond that, the Navy's long experience with nuclear does not seem to build anyone's confidence that the technology can be handled in the civilian field.

Instead, the great impediment to all this is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the gargantuan Washington bureaucracy that regularly wins awards as the "best place to work in the federal government" yet seems unable to deliver on its main purpose, which is to issue licenses for nuclear reactors. The NRC last issued a license for a nuclear reactor in 1976. No one knows if it will ever issue one again. One utility, Southern Electric, has received permission to begin site clearance at the Vogtle plants 3 and 4 in Georgia. But the Vogtle plants will be Westinghouse AP1000s, a model for which the NRC has not yet issued design approval, let alone permission to build particular projects. Four AP1000s are already well under construction in China, with the first scheduled to begin operation in 2013. Yet here the NRC is still trying to figure out how to protect the reactor from airplanes. Even though the containment structure is strong enough to withstand a direct hit from a commercial jet, the NRC asked Westinghouse to put up a concrete shield to protect adjacent buildings. Then after Westinghouse had completed the revision, the NRC decided the shield might fall down in an earthquake. Further revisions are still pending.

When Hyperion first approached the NRC about design approval for its small modular reactor in 2006, the NRC essentially told it to go away -- it didn't have time for such small potatoes. Since then the NRC has relented and sat down for discussions with Hyperion last fall. Whether the approval process can be accelerated is still up for grabs, but at least there has been a response from the bureaucracy.

OR COURSE, the NRC is only responding to the lamentations and lawsuits from environmentalists and nuclear opponents who have never reconciled themselves to the technology, even though nuclear's carbon-free electricity is the only reliable source of power that promises to reduce carbon emissions. If a new reactor project does ever make it out of the NRC, it will be contested in court for years, with environmental groups challenging the dotting of every i and crossing of every t in the decision-making. It will be a miracle if any proposal ever makes it through the process.

However, we should not imagine the rest of the world is standing still waiting for America to come up with the latest innovation. Japan, Korea, and Russia already have small reactors and France is preparing to enter the field. Toshiba has a 75-MW reactor it has been offering to the Alaskan village of Galena, which now generates its electricity by importing vast quantities of diesel fuel. The Russians have already built a 125-MW reactor and mounted it on a barge to float to an isolated Siberian village. Last year Rosatom started offering its small reactor to India. Korea is working on an SMR and France recently decided it was relying too heavily on its giant EPR1700 and will try to design a small reactor as well. If China ever enters the game -- which is likely by mid-decade -- it may be over for the competition. Areva's CEO Anne Lauvergeon recently expressed alarm at how quickly and efficiently China is constructing Areva's own reactors -- much faster and cheaper than the French are able to do it themselves.

So even though American ingenuity and inventiveness are still operating, there is no certainty that it will bring us any benefit. We have developed a bureaucracy that would make the Byzantine Empire envious. Most helpful, though, would be widespread public recognition that nuclear energy is not the devil's work but simply the practical fruition of the great scientific discoveries of the 20th century. Just as we led the world into the Computer Revolution -- and just about every other technological revolution since the 18th century -- America could still lead the world into the Nuclear Age. But it is going to be a much closer call this time. 

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.