DOE funding for small reactors gets mixed reviews

The Obama administration yesterday announced that Oregon-based NuScale Power LLC had secured millions of dollars in federal funds to develop small modular reactors and firm up another low-carbon power source, a move skeptics immediately called a costly mistake.

NuScale Power LLC secured a portion of the Energy Department's $452 million program to finance the licensing of its 45-megawatt nuclear reactor but did not say where the project would be built. As many as a dozen reactors can be built in one location, underground and submerged in water.

The administration has hinted at a long-range plan for dozens of small, factory-built reactors capable of replacing coal-fired power plants that are expected to be retired in the coming decades (Greenwire, Feb. 27, 2012).

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz in a statement yesterday hailed small modular reactors as a critical new source of carbon-free power. "Small modular reactors represent a new generation of safe, reliable, low-carbon nuclear energy technology and provide a strong opportunity for America to lead this emerging global industry," he said.

The announcement also drew praise on Capitol Hill.


"As older nuclear power plants begin to go offline, it simply makes sense to explore ways to make nuclear power a much safer and more cost-effective way to provide low-carbon power," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a statement.

NuScale, a startup led by Oregon State University professor Jose Reyes, is the second recipient of funding from the program and estimated it will receive $226 million from DOE.

The company is backed by a wide swath of prominent investors, including Rolls-Royce and engineering and construction company Fluor Corp.

Last year, DOE awarded veteran reactor designer Babcock & Wilcox a smaller-than-expected amount of federal funding -- that the company will match --- to develop and license scalable, underground nuclear modules at the Clinch River site in Oak Ridge, Tenn. (Greenwire, Nov. 21, 2012).

Industry sources have said that developing the small units -- generating 300 megawatts or less -- is key to revitalizing an industry that has been hampered by stiff competition from cheap natural gas, a lack of carbon controls and waning demand for electricity in some parts of the country.

Critics, however, said the federal dollars would be better spent elsewhere, including larger investments into renewable energy.

"The [research and development] subsidy by DOE for an imaginary small modular reactor is misguided as these reactors would still produce nuclear waste, still risk meltdown and have not been shown to be economical," Katherine Fuchs, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Earth, said in a statement.

Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear engineer and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, , said new reactor designs are unlikely to throw a lifeline to the country's ailing nuclear industry or tackle climate change concerns.

Small modular reactors, he said, are only economical through billion-dollar orders and massive production lines that would require federal subsidies or demand from China to support them (E&ENews PM, Aug. 8).

Makhijani also rejected assertions that SMRs would become cheaper over time and avoid daunting upfront costs that are plaguing large, traditional reactors. It could take up to 20 years before prototypes are proved and the units can be used in the United States to replace retiring coal plants, and even then, they will not be economical until regulations surrounding evacuations and staffing are made less restrictive.

"The boosters latch onto the one problem they think they can solve, and it's sort of a sales pitch," he said. "CO2, they can't solve in time, I'm convinced of that. I believe the government should not be subsidizing these reactors."



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