The Nuclear Energy Game Changer? Thoughts After the NRC Regulatory Information Conference

There is a growing chorus of experts, businesses, and public sector leaders espousing for one key clean technology: small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).  And the reason is clear.  These next generation advances in nuclear energy may be – dare I say – a silver bullet energy solution that transforms electricity generation, provides the military with an independent and more secure energy source, and offers industries a low-carbon energy alternative. And like other clean technologies, and maybe even more so, SMRs require significant federal support to make them a viable clean energy option.

The significant up-front capital cost and decade-long development time for licensing and constructing large power plants has renewed interest in smaller nuclear options in recent years.  In response, nearly 60 SMR designs have been proposed worldwide, though none have been deployed.  Their main selling points: reduced cost, customizability, safety, less nuclear waste, and long power generation lifetimes without refueling (table below). 

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Currently, two broad design categories have emerged.  Light water reactor (LWR) SMRs are similar to scaled down versions of current large nuclear power plants.  LWR-SMRs range between 200-300 megawatts and are aimed at providing new baseload capacity or act as a replacement for retiring coal power plants with a 4 to 5 year fuel replacement cycle.  LWR-SMRs are also closest to deployment.  The first demonstration project – the mPower LWR by Babcock and Wilcox – is set to take place at the Clinch River Site by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The second category is advanced SMRs, otherwise called fast-reactors or high temperature gas-cooled reactors.  These designs are at an earlier stage of development because of their use of untested coolant system designs and more highly enriched fissionable material than presently regulated plants.  But these reactors offer the prospect of much longer refueling lifetimes, often in excess of 10 years, and more flexible site locations, because many don’t use water for cooling.

So, while “silver bullet” may be too strong of a statement – SMRs don’t solve all our clean energy needs – the potential benefits of SMRs are significant and the key to realizing these benefits comes down to creating a cohesive national clean energy policy to innovate through a number of technological barriers.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so.  This week was the 23rd Annual Nuclear Regulatory Commission Information Conference that brought together hundreds of nuclear energy leaders from industry and government to talk all things nuclear.  The hottest topic?  SMRs.  The clear message?  Industry and government leaders are ready to move forward in developing new small reactors as soon as policy makers give the green light.

In his opening conference speech, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko remarked that his agency will be taking the first steps in licensing new SMRs by announcing that, “[the NRC] may take final action on three design certification rules for new [LWR-SMR] reactors as early as this summer, and conduct the first mandatory hearing on a new reactor license since the 1970s.” Department of Energy’s Director for Advanced Reactor Design Sal Golub presented that the goal of his office is to “license and deploy LWR-SMRs by 2020.”  The President proposed in both his 2011 and 2012 budgets to create a nearly $100 million SMR program within the DOE Office of Nuclear Energy that would focus on deploying LWR-SMRs as well as perform much needed advanced SMR RD&D.  And bipartisan group of Senators have recently proposed a bill designed to speed up the deployment of SMRs.

But there is an immediate policy barrier: the federal clean energy innovation budget.  While Congress debates how best to reduce the federal budget deficit, clean energy innovation is in the unfortunate position of being a prime target.  Like other emerging clean technologies, reducing or eliminating support for SMRs could effectively set back the United States nuclear industry by decades.  NRC Chairman Jaczko stated firmly that possible budget issues require, “…tough choices…because if everything is a high priority then nothing is.”  Essentially, if the NRC budget is slashed, its staff would have to focus on the 44 large reactor applications it is currently reviewing and not be able to more quickly attend to licensing first-of-kind SMR designs.  The same budget decisions would have to be made by DOE if their proposed SMR program is not funded.

And the stakes are high for policy makers to “get it right” on clean energy innovation policy.  Presently, Russia is preparing to deploy the world’s first electricity generating SMRs and France has quickly progressed in developing their own SMR designs.  In fact, the majority of SMR designs aren’t being developed in the United States and many U.S. nuclear technology companies are looking to foreign countries to deploy their technology.  Whether this possible clean energy game changer has an impact environmentally and economically in the United States is up to policy makers because everyone else is waiting.

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About the author

Matthew Stepp is a Senior Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology development, climate science policy development, transportation policy, and the role innovation has in economic growth.