Feds eye small nuclear reactors for key role in U.S. energy policy

Feds eye small nuclear reactors for key role in U.S. energy policy

Federal officials are preparing for a future in which small nuclear reactors are a key piece of the United States’ energy policy.

The technology, known as the small modular reactor, has attracted the attention of regulators, lawmakers, utilities, manufacturers and others.

The reactors are less than 300 megawatts in capacity and usually manufactured away from the place they’re operated. A handful of companies are working to design such reactors, though none is ready for operation yet. Proponents say the reactors, less than a third the size of a reactor at a standard power plant, could bring the greenhouse gas and other benefits of nuclear power with a lower cost.

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But the same problems that have slowed development of full-size nuclear reactors to nearly a halt — safety and cost — could keep delaying or even kill the potential for small modular reactors to take off.

The nuclear industry’s congressional supporters see a role for the federal government in enabling development of small reactors.

“I have long supported and advocated for the development and deployment of small modular reactors,” Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiElle honors 10 at annual 'Women in Washington' event Five takeaways from Labor pick’s confirmation hearing ObamaCare repeal faces last obstacle before House vote MORE (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said last month at an industry conference.

“The potential for this technology in my home state of Alaska is very exciting — the size, power potential, and ability to add unit by unit could be a game changer for small, remote communities that currently pay extremely high energy costs or to supply power to our military bases,” she said.

Murkowski said that the federal government has to make sure it doesn’t stand in the way of small reactors, or they might not be viable.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderOvernight Regulation: Trump's Labor nominee hints at updating overtime rule Trump's Labor pick signals support for overtime pay hike Live coverage: Day three of Supreme Court nominee hearing MORE (Tenn.), who chairs the spending subcommittee panel with authority over energy, said at a recent hearing that federal research spending should prioritize small modular reactors, part of the GOP lawmaker's goal to double energy research funding.

Alexander is also a lead sponsor of the Competes Act, which has similar energy research goals.

The Obama administration is also on board with pushing further development of small reactors, arguing that it’s an essential step to making major cuts in carbon emissions.

The Energy Department nuclear energy office has named the reactors as one of its highest priorities for research and development, along with helping get some of the designs licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

“Small modular reactors offer the advantage of lower initial capital investment, scalability, and siting flexibility at locations unable to accommodate more traditional larger reactors,” the Energy Department stated recently. “They also have the potential for enhanced safety and security.”

The department is working on multiple fronts to help out the industry. It’s dedicating $452 million over six years to help reactors get licensed, partnering with mPower America to develop a reactor with a goal of operation by 2022 and working with NuScale Power on its own reactor development, a program worth $217 million.

The Energy Department also has an industry-wide program aimed at assisting with licensing.

The nuclear power sector has argued in recent years that the NRC needs to update its safety regulations to accommodate small reactors, including reduced licensing fees and more flexibility in staffing levels, emergency planning zones and other rules.

The NRC says it’s ready to start considering applications for small reactors, and NRC Chairman Stephen Burns told lawmakers in April that his agency has budgeted to review one application in fiscal 2016.

In May, the NRC voted to adopt a sliding scale for reactor license fees, which would provide for lower costs for small reactors.

However, the prospect of changing rules for small reactors is troubling to nuclear safety and security advocates such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientists with the group, said small reactors have no safety or security advantages when compared with larger ones. But since they would produce less power, there is pressure to scale down the requirements.

“The simple fact is that SMRs have a significant cost penalty compared to large reactors on a per-megawatt basis because of diseconomies of scale,” Lyman said.

“No utility will want to buy them unless they can be exempted from a lot of costly regulations that large reactors must meet,” he continued. “But in light of the Fukushima disaster, one must be very wary of the safety claims made by the nuclear industry, especially for reactor designs that have never been built or tested.”

The Tennessee Valley Authority is hoping to have the first operational small modular reactor, though the timeline is in flux.

The utility says it’s planning to buy up to four reactors to install at its Clinch River site near Oak Ridge, Tenn.

This article is part of America's Nuclear Energy Future series, sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). For more information about NEI, visit nei.org/futureofenergy.