Downsizing Nuclear Power Plants

Modular designs rely on "economies of multiples" to make smaller reactors pay off big

4 min read

A standard nuclear power plant generates a gigawatt or more of low-carbon power, a boon in this age of anxiety over climate change. The problem is getting the thing built in the first place: At US $7 billion to $10 billion apiece, nuclear plants are tough for even the largest utilities to finance.

President Obama proposes to handle the problem by tripling federal loan guarantees to such plants, to $54 billion. But now a more economical solution is coming under scrutiny: downsizing nuclear plants from gigawatt scale to more affordable units that can be built by the dozen. ”Size matters. In this case, small size,” says Andrew Kadak, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT.

Small modular reactors, or SMRs, of 70 to 210 megawatts are under construction in China and Russia, and a mix of start-ups and established nuclear technology firms, such as Westinghouse Electric Co., General Atomics, and the Babcock & Wilcox Co., are shopping similarly modest designs in the United States.

This strategy overturns the drive toward economies of scale that has pushed nuclear designers toward ever-larger reactors since the industry’s inception. Now the designers may instead rely on the ”economies of multiples” that accrue to the mass production of everything from cars to iPhones.

”We want to manufacture in a plant with supply-chain management. This enables you to drive down cost and control the schedule,” says John Parmentola, senior vice president for energy and electromagnetic systems at General Atomics. That means building modules, including reactors, that are small enough to be shipped on a truck or railcar and designed so that they can be snapped together on-site. ”It’s almost Lego-style assembly,” says Kadak.

These innovators hope to avoid the sprawling construction sites required to build today’s gigawatt-plus reactors, which are prone to quality problems and delays. For example, in 2005 France’s Areva boasted that its flagship 1.65-gigawatt pressurized water reactor, the EPR, would be completed by 2009. Now the company is admitting that faulty materials and planning snafus have set the completion target back to 2012 and raised the project’s estimated cost by 66 percent, to a budget of 5.3 billion ($7.2 billion).

Proponents of SMRs admit that their installation costs may turn out to be as much as or even more than that of today’s behemoths, but they argue that the lower risk involved should make SMRs the better deal anyway. Christofer Mowry, CEO of Babcock & Wilcox’s Modular Nuclear Energy subsidiary, leads the development of a 125-MW SMR called mPower that he estimates will cost about $600 million in parts and labor. That’s comparable to Areva’s Olkiluoto plant on a per-megawatt basis, but because mPower could be built in bite-size chunks with a relatively modest overhead investment, using the same reliable light-water reactor technology, it’s much more likely to work and to start working on schedule. That means the cost of financing and insuring the project should be much lower. ”You could have 10 to 20 percent cheaper electricity,” says Mowry.

Jack Baker, vice president for energy and business services at Washington state–based Energy Northwest, sees mPower as a clean and economically viable way to meet a 250- to 350-MW increase in demand for base-load capacity. His public power cooperative is taking extra care in assessing investments, having defaulted on $2.25 billion in bonds in 1983 thanks to an overly ambitious reactor construction plan.

Firms are also developing other concepts for small-scale reactors. Take Beijing-based consortium Chinergy Co., which just launched construction of a 210-MW SMR using a pebble-bed reactor, so-named for its 6-centimeter-wide fuel pellets. Protective carbon sheaths encapsulating the pellets’ fissile fuel cores allow pebble-bed reactors to operate at double the temperature of a large reactor, at which point they can generate at up to 50 percent higher efficiency and sell waste heat to industrial processors. The fuel’s design also ensures that if the cooling system should fail, the reactor will shut itself down passively, rather than melt its way down. Chinergy’s permit application seeks permission to build up to 18 of the pebble-bed SMRs at its site in Shandong, where coal-fired chemical industries produce some of China’s dirtiest air.

General Atomics, meanwhile, sees an advanced SMR design that breeds and burns its own fuel as the answer to the nuclear waste quandary, which has been heightened by the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain repository. General Atomics’ reactor should be able to go 30 years before refueling, about 20 times as long as light-water reactors can go.

Large-scale breeder reactors analogous to General Atomics’ Energy Multiplier Module, or EM2, have so far proven unwieldy and uneconomical. France’s 1250-MW Superphénix breeder cost 9 billion and ran just 174 days before being shuttered in 1998 [see ”Nuclear Wasteland,” IEEE Spectrum, February 2007]. However, EM2’s modularity makes it safer and more economically viable, says Parmentola. Microsoft’s Bill Gates recently endorsed that view by investing in Bellevue, Wash.–based TerraPower, which is talking up a similar breeder SMR.

However, there are political objections to SMRs. Precisely because they are more affordable, they may well increase the risk of proliferation by bringing the cost and power output of nuclear reactors within the reach of poorer countries.

Russia’s first SMR, which the nuclear engineering group Rosatom expects to complete next year, is of particular concern. The Akademik Lomonosov is a floating nuclear power plant sporting two 35-MW reactors, which Rosatom expects to have tethered to an Arctic oil and gas operation by 2012. The reactor’s portability prompted Greenpeace Russia to call this floating plant the world’s most dangerous nuclear project in a decade.

SMRs may be smaller than today’s reactors. But, politically at least, they’re just as nuclear.

About the Author

Peter Fairley writes about energy for IEEE Spectrum, Discover and other publications. In April he covered Reva Electric Car's technique for wringing more power out of batteries.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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