Obama’s DOE Going Nuclear

It looks like the DOE has picked a winner for its SMR (Small Modular nuclear Reactor) grant: (emphasis mine)

WASHINGTON – As part of the Obama Administration’s all-of-the-above strategy to deploy every available source of American energy, the Energy Department today announced an award to support a new project to design, license and help commercialize small modular reactors (SMR) in the United States.  This award follows a funding opportunity announcement in March 2012.  The project supported by the award will be led by Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel.  In addition, the Department announced plans to issue a follow-on solicitation open to other companies and manufacturers, focused on furthering small modular reactor efficiency, operations and design.  

“The Obama Administration continues to believe that low-carbon nuclear energy has an important role to play in America’s energy future,” said Secretary Chu.  “Restarting the nation’s nuclear industry and advancing small modular reactor technologies will help create new jobs and export opportunities for American workers and businesses, and ensure we continue to take an all-of-the-above approach to American energy production.”

This project represents a significant investment in first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for small modular reactors in the United States. Through a five-year cost-share agreement, the Energy Department will invest up to half of the total project cost, with the project’s industry partners matching this investment by at least one-to-one.  The specific total will be negotiated between the Energy Department and Babcock & Wilcox (B&W). 

The Energy Department investment will help B&W obtain Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing and achieve commercial operations by 2022 – helping to provide U.S. utilities with low carbon energy options as well as create important export opportunities for the United States and advance our nation’s competitive edge in this emerging global industry. The project will be based in Tennessee and will support additional suppliers and operations in Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

The rest from the DOE here.

For more on SMRs, William Tucker wrote about the benefits here. An excerpt:

SMRs have been around almost since the dawn of the nuclear era.  As advocates love to point out, we’ve been building small reactors for the U.S. Navy since the 1950s.  At the height of the Cold War we had 400 nuclear submarines prowling the ocean, many of them operating for five years without refueling.  Today we only have 70 left but we have added 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, each one the equivalent of a small city.  Now the Department of Energy has decided to prime the pump by offering $400 million for the construction of one or two SMR prototypes among the many models that are now circulating.

You could call to this another instance of government research and investment paving the way for private enterprise – “You didn’t build that.  Somebody else made it happen” and all that.  But somehow with all the government money that has been spent of Navy reactors, the transfer has never taken place.  Now the race is on.  

What I don’t get is that it looks as if the government is funding B&W in order to give the company enough cash to meet the NRC licensing hurdles. But as William Tucker pointed out above, we already have Navy reactors that are approved. Isn’t it cheaper to start with or use the Navy designs?

I wrote about this in 2010, when I proposed putting the Navy in charge of small nuclear power plants and selling the energy back to the grid. I don’t see why using $400 million of taxpayer dollars to help B&W build reactors that will look quite similar to reactors already in use is a good investment.

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