NuScale advances nuclear safety, adds Rolls-Royce to DOE bid

Nuclear technology developer NuScale Power has achieved an industry first for small modular reactor (SMR) safety while beefing up its bid for Department of Energy funding with support from Rolls-Royce.

Oregon-based NuScale has designed a light water reactor nuclear technology that can be built in a factory and installed as individual modules of 45 megawatts (MW) each; a power plant could include as many as 12 of these modules. SMR units are smaller than traditional nuclear, which can be as large as 1,300MW or more in terms of capacity.

The company traces its origins to work by co-founder Jose Reyes at Oregon State University more than a decade ago. After securing more than 90 patents and conducting years of tests at a scale model of the module, NuScale recently announced that it has achieved what it calls the "Triple Crown" of nuclear safety. This safety breakthrough means that the NuScale module can shut-down and self-cool indefinitely with no operator action, no AC or DC power, and no additional water. It's the type of feature, known as passive safety, which could have prevented or mediated impacts of a Fukushima-type disaster.

On the heels of the company's technology advances, NuScale has added new support from the private and public sector as it pursues funding from a Department of Energy (DOE) cost-sharing program that targets commercial operation for SMR technology by 2025.

NuScale submitted its application for DOE funding in early July, and the department is slated to award funds on September 17. The Obama Administration – including DOE Secretary Ernest Moniz – has been vocal in support of nuclear energy as part of an "all of the above" energy strategy that looks to develop "more sustainable energy sources," according to the DOE funding announcement.

As part of the collaboration announced in August, London-based manufacturing giant Rolls-Royce provided support with development of the DOE application, and has engineers on-site at NuScale's test facility assisting with technology development.

NuScale CEO John Hopkins said of the partnership: "With the addition of Rolls-Royce's world class manufacturing capability to the NuScale team, we bring a wealth of experience to the development, production and maintenance of advanced nuclear technologies across global markets."

Rolls-Royce joins several Congressional delegations and state leaders in supporting NuScale. The Oregon delegation sent a letter to DOE Secretary Moniz on July 26 urging him to fully and carefully consider the company's proposal" for the funding opportunity. It was a sentiment echoed by Oregon Governor Kitzhaber, who said "NuScale's SMR technology can play an important role in our future."

Utah Governor Gary Herbert has added his voice in support of NuScale with another letter to the Energy Secretary. Utah is one of a coalition of Western states participating in a new program to develop and potentially deploy a NuScale project in the region. Known as Western Initiative for Nuclear (WIN), the collaboration also includes electric utilities Energy Northwest and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems.

Like the Administration and Congressional leaders, the utility industry is watching the country's growing electricity needs collide with several key factors, including 27 gigawatts of coal-fired energy that is expected to come offline in the next four years, according to Energy Information Administration data.

It's a challenge that experts say will only grow more acute, and policy organizations like Third Way, a Washington, D.C. think tank, are also eyeing SMRs as a way to backfill retiring, fossil-fueled generating stations in a scalable way. Large power plants of all stripes can face challenges in financing, procurement and labor. In a 2010 report on SMR technology, the think tank noted that while nuclear power is "the sole carbon-free electricity source that is both scalable and capable of meeting baseload power needs," large reactors "are not always the best option for smaller power producers." With the ability to add anywhere from 45 to 540MW of power, factory-built, smaller-scale and more flexible SMR modules are a promising option for clean and reliable power.

Major industry players are taking notice of these challenges facing the U.S. power sector – and the promise that SMRs holds for addressing them. In 2011, Fortune 500 engineering and construction firm, Fluor Corporation, became the majority shareholder in NuScale.

At the time of the deal, Fluor executives said, "today's new energy marketplace is dynamic and requires power generation diversification and technological innovation for continued success. Our investment is a synergistic fit for our engineering, procurement and construction business and positions us well for future new-build energy needs. At the same time, we view this investment as an excellent financial deal with great upside growth potential."