Small Scale Nuclear Could Be a Big Deal

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We’ve written extensively about the need for new nuclear technologies to help reach global carbon reduction targets. Recently, Oregon-based nuclear startup company, NuScale, received the go-ahead to build the world’s first small modular nuclear reactor (SMR). This approval represents a significant milestone for new nuclear technology.

In the past, nuclear plants have been nothing short of mammoth in scale as has the emission-free power they produce.   These large plants take many years and big budgets to finish, making their construction next to impossible without broad government backing.

Energy Fairness has been very supportive of large scale nuclear projects over the years, most notably with our support of the Plant Vogtle expansion project in Georgia. Large scale nuclear is an indispensable tool to reduce carbon emissions and for keeping electricity reliable and affordable for consumers.

Small scale nuclear reactors have a role to play, too, in the future of clean energy. These plants would be small enough to be built in a factory and transported on your average semi truck. NuScale believes they will be able to churn reactors out in factories at a price competitive with other electricity sources.

What makes Nuscale’s SMRs attractive is its ability to ramp up and down quickly, making them the perfect complement to intermittent renewables such as wind and solar. One study found that small modular nuclear reactors could be a more cost-efficient partner for renewables than batteries.

“NuScale is a natural circulation light water reactor with the reactor core and helical coil steam generators located in a common reactor vessel in a cylindrical steel containment,” the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) explains.

“The reactor vessel containment module is submerged in water in the reactor building safety related pool, which is also the ultimate heat sink for the reactor. The pool portion of the reactor building is located below grade.”

The design for the project is relatively simple, at least as far as nuclear plants go. In any meltdown event, the reactor would cool itself in the pool, making it passively safe. NuScale’s small reactor is expected to produce 60 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power around 50,000 homes. The project is scheduled to begin operating by 2029.

While NuScale’s small reactor design is the first to get approved, it’s not the only SMR project on the front-burner.

Well-known billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates is also working on his own design for small modular reactors. His company TerraPower has partnered with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy to build several traveling wave nuclear reactors across the U.S. Traveling wave technology is a new source of atomic energy that works differently than traditional light-water reactors. Like NuScale’s project, TerraPower’s reactor would be designed to work in tandem with renewables.

As we’ve said before, investments in nuclear energy are crucial for reducing worldwide carbon emissions. These new small modular reactors could pave the way for a nuclear renaissance here in the U.S. while further facilitating wind and solar energy proliferation. Renewables and nuclear working together could make our power grid cleaner than ever before while keep energy affordable and reliable.