Last week, power plant manufacturer Babcock & Wilcox announced its intention to develop and market a small nuclear reactor, the mPower, which is to be available in 125 MW modules—a tenth the size of the nuclear power plants typically built these days. For decades it’s been a truism in electric power that nuclear energy will never live up to its potential unless somebody offers a reactor that is small enough to be suitable for local and Third World electricity markets. But it's been like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. So, even though there's still a yawning gap between intention and execution, it's hard not to exclaim: At last!
A comprehensive and definitive account of the B&W initiative is hard to provide at this stage of the game, because the company’s web pages have been inaccessible since the project was unveiled at the National Press Club in Washington on June 10, and because the company’s relevant executives also have been unavailable for further comment. But materials issued by B&W’s parent company McDermott International, Inc., state that the new reactor will have the following extremely attractive features, besides being small:
• the reactor’s core and containment will be located underground
• spent fuel from the reactor will likewise be storable underground for the reactor’s 60-year lifetime
• refueling will be required only every five years, compared to 18-24 months in most present-day reactors
• the whole reactor system will be rail-shippable from manufacturing locations in North America
A new business unit, B&W Modular Nuclear Energy, LLC, to be headed by Christofer Mowry, is being established in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the expectation that production will be done there and at B&W facilities in Ohio, Indiana, and Canada. The Tennessee Valley Authority has signed a letter of intent saying it will explore inaugural sites for the first plant, and TVA is part of a regional utility consortium that is envisioning a whole fleet of mPower reactors.
In nuclear energy, nothing ever happens as fast as one would hope, and that's why nuclear is no panacea when it comes to dealing with climate change. McDermott CEO Brandon Bethards said last week that the first mPower reactor will enter service only in 2018, at the earliest. A lot can go wrong in the meantime. But as high-minded statements of intent go, this one seems rather detailed and credible.