A Second Big Boost for Modular Nuclear Reactors

Illustration: NuScale

Illustration: NuScale
NuScale’s modular reactor can self-cool indefinitely in the event of an outage.

It's long been recognized that nuclear energy will achieve its full potential only if much smaller, inherently safer reactors are developed, so as to be an attractive option in a much wider range of situations. A variety of interesting concepts for compact modular reactors have emerged in the last decade, and now some of them are starting to attract real money. This week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would award one such developer, NuScale Power of Corvallis, Oregon, up to US $226 million to support design work.

This was the second such DOE grant. Last November, the Energy Department made its first grant of its $452 million modular reactor program to Babcock & Wilcox, to support its mPower concept. The mPower project is considered to be “a step ahead of NuScale’s because it has a preliminary agreement with a customer, the Tennessee Valley Authority,” according to Matthew Wald of the New York Times.

In the NuScale concept, as described in Spectrum’s round-up on modular reactors two year ago, “the nuclear fuel assemblies sit inside a long core vessel, which in turn is housed in a secondary containment vessel immersed in water. Unlike conventional light-water reactors, which require large pumps to circulate water through the core, the NuScale reactor is based on convection.”

The United States, having given birth to a handful of innovative ideas for small reactors, seems to be well ahead of the rest of the world in this particular technology. But it does not have the field all to itself. Russia's reactor company has developed a small floating nuclear power plant, which appears to be on the threshold of commercial application, most likely in offshore oilfield settings, initially.

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