Politics & Policy

Going Nuclear

Can small reactors rescue the nuclear-power movement?

With the arrival of the Tea Party in Washington, a huge rift may be opening up over the future of nuclear power.

On the one hand, the Tea Party and new Republicans are foursquare in favor of energy development. “Pass an All of the Above Energy Policy” was item No. 8 in the Contract from America. “This would include off-shore oil drilling, clean coal, nuclear, renewable, and everything else,” says Ryan Hecker, the Houston attorney who organized the document. “The important thing is to develop domestic resources.”

#ad#Yet virtually everyone in the nuclear industry says that it will be impossible to build any new reactors without loan guarantees from the federal government. “We had all the output from our new uranium-enrichment plant in Idaho sold in advance, and we still couldn’t get any investment money without a federal loan guarantee,” says Mike Rencheck, COO of Areva, the French nuclear giant. “That was only a $2 billion facility. You’re never going to be able to build an $8 billion reactor without federal help.”

Most environmental groups now bypass the traditional scare tactics and declare solemnly that they oppose nuclear only because it is too expensive. “It’s like trying to solve world hunger problems with caviar,” says Peter Bradford, a former nuclear-regulatory commissioner who’s now with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And therein constitutes the dilemma for the Tea Party. They want new energy sources, but they also want to cut industry’s reliance on government. Is there any way around this dilemma?

Marvelously, there is. American ingenuity has once again come up with a potential solution. Over the past four years, half a dozen new companies, plus a few old-guard stalwarts such as Babcock & Wilcox, General Electric, and Westinghouse, have introduced designs for reactors approximately one-tenth the size of the conventional variety. Instead of being laboriously constructed on-site — a process that takes at least four years — these units can be mass produced in factories and shipped to their destinations via truck or rail, where they can be sited individually or combined like Lego blocks.

This is something unique to nuclear. You can’t build one-tenth of a coal or natural-gas plant — at least without sacrificing a great deal of thermodynamic efficiency. But nuclear is so flexible that individual units can be built to almost any size.

The full-size commercial reactors built by Areva and Westinghouse are 1,500 megawatts — enough to power a city the size of San Francisco. By contrast, Babcock & Wilcox’s 50-year history of building small submarine reactors for the U.S. Navy finally inspired it to introduce the 125-megawatt mPower reactor in 2010. And NuScale Energy of Corvallis, Ore., has developed a 45-megawatt reactor that could fit into a gazebo and power a town of 10,000. “It’s built mostly of off-the-shelf technologies,” says Paul Lorenzini, a nuclear engineer and former utility executive who founded the company in 2007. “You could power a major manufacturing plant with one unit, or combine twelve of them into something the size of a conventional power plant.”

The biggest advantage of modular reactors is that they can avoid the whole sturm und drang of a ten-year, $10 billion investment that may turn out to have been unnecessary. Most utilities simply can’t afford the risk — their entire net worth may be only $20–25 million. But adding bite-sized units will be like adding individual windmills — except the reactors won’t stand 45 stories tall to produce only 1 megawatt apiece.

#page#Modular reactors offer all kinds of other advantages. Full-size reactors use water-coolant technology, which requires huge quantities of water drawn from a nearby river or ocean plus 50-story cooling towers. But Hyperion Power Generation of Los Alamos, N.M., has an air-cooled 25-megawatt reactor that can be located in the desert. “It can be used to recover shale oil in Saskatchewan or power irrigation systems in California,” says John “Grizz” Deal, the CEO, who discovered the design while serving as “entrepreneur in residence” at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. “You can put it in the basement of a large hospital or industrial complex. The unit includes its own containment structure and can be buried underground for additional safety.”

In fact, small reactors fulfill the dream of the small-is-beautiful crowd for “distributing electrical generation” across the grid in small units, Internet-style, instead of concentrating it in a few large power plants. Centralized generation normally wastes two-thirds of the energy it creates in converting heat to steam to electricity. Smaller units located at individual factories promise vast improvements in efficiency. “Everyone talks about the need for electricity, but we’re a massive user of industrial heat as well,” says Doug May, vice president for energy and climate change at Dow Chemical. “We see small modular reactors sited at industrial locations as a game-changer.” 

#ad#Does all this sound good? Well, there’s only one catch — the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The huge, monolithic Beltway bureaucracy has been laboring more than five years to give final approval to the design of the Westinghouse AP1000, a conventional reactor that is already under construction at four different sites in China, with the first scheduled for completion in 2012. The NRC is trying to figure out how to protect the reactor from airplane attacks. (If you have even the remotest concern about this, see here.) It is estimated that the NRC would take five years to approve a conventional reactor — that’s stated as a hypothetical because none have ever actually been approved. The idea of dealing with an exotic new technology is enough to give the Commission a nervous breakdown.

Early overtures by mini-reactor manufacturers were rejected outright, but the commissioners recently relented and sat down for talks. Still, the best estimates are that it may be 2017 before anyone is issued a license. Last March, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that America could regain a “key competitive edge” by embracing small-reactor technology. But at the current pace, Korea, Russia, France, and Japan will soon be far ahead of us — as they already are in the construction of conventional reactors.

Congressman Devin Nunes, author of Restoring the Republic, is preparing legislation that would require the NRC to complete its review of new license applications within 25 months. The new Tea Party representatives would do well to get behind him. It would be much less painful than trying to decide whether to extend multi-billion-dollar loan guarantees to the nuclear industry.

— Carl Shockley is an energy writer living in New York.

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