Despite predictions that the grandchildren of today’s nuclear waste workers will still be at it, there is an end to the billions of dollars in federal funds for cleanup at Hanford.
Economic development efforts in the Tri-Cities region around Richland, WA, turned their focus to the potential to become a manufacturing center for small modular reactors. Their pitch for support includes getting a state legislative task force on board to provide help in landing an assembly plant for one of the major vendors. Two of them are nearby in the Pacific Northwest being NuScale in Corvallis, OR, and TerraPower in Bellevue, WA.
Of the two, NucScale has better commercial prospects due to its reliance on light water reactor (LWR) technology. TerraPower’s unique, and as yet unproven, design will need partners with very deep pockets to license its technology and build a first of a kind unit. NuScale will offer customers “six-packs” built one-at-a-time of 50 MW units. TerraPower has a design concept, ten times larger, for a single 500 MW installation.
Other potential SMR vendors with LWR designs are less likely candidates for the Tri City SMR vision. Babcock & Wilcox has all the manufacturing capacity it needs in Ohio, Indiana, and in Ontario, CA. What it doesn’t have are customers who wants it to build its 180 MW SMRs – lots of them.
Neither does Westinghouse which has more or less pulled the plug on its efforts to develop an 225 MW SMR at least until it can seen better market conditions. In February 2014 Westinghouse President Danny Roderick said the lack of potential customers was a warning to the firm not to get ahead of the market.
The general industry view is that like any manufactured product, your costs per unit go down as your production numbers go up. Profitability isn’t going to be found in building one or two SMRs at a time. Vendors want an order book with commitments for 40 or 50 units. The model for SMRs is in a way similar to the one for jumbo jets. You don’t open a factory just to build one. You want customer from all over the world placing orders and for years into the future.
To get to that place, global markets will have to turn to SMRs as replacements for aging coal fired power plants. And developing nations, or states, that don’t have electric grids that can handle the power output of an 1100 MW full size plant, will want to grow their capacity slowly matching demand for electricity and the ability to pay for infrastructure improvements like power lines and substations. SMR vendors have also positioned their technology for process heat applications. Regardless of the use, to be competitive, SMRs will have to deal with the challenge of low prices for natural gas which are likely to remain that way for some time.
But first, SMRs in the US need design certification from the NRC, an expensive and difficult, time consuming objective. It is worth the effort because an NRC design certification of a reactor design is considered to be a “gold standard” by other nations.
According to Dale Atkinson, executive at NuScale who spoke to the Tri City developers last week, the firm expects to spend just shy of $400 million to get there. So far, he says, NuScale has already spent well over half that amount.
Table: NuScale SMR Technical Summary
- Thermal capacity – 160 MWt
- Electrical capacity – > 50MWe (gross)
- Capacity factor – >95 percent
- Dimensions – 80′ x 15′ cylindrical containment vessel module containing reactor and steam generator
- Weight – ~ 650 tons as shipped from fabrication shop
- Transportation – Barge, truck or train
- Cost – Numerous advantages due to simplicity, off-the-shelf standard items, modular design, shorter construction times, <$5,000/KW
- Fuel – Standard LWR fuel in 17 x 17 configuration, each assembly 2 meters (~ 6 ft) in length; 24-month refueling cycle with fuel enriched less than 4.95 percent
Locating an SMR on a greenfield site could be an expensive undertaking which would undermine its other economic benefits. Tri Cities folks think that the infrastructure already in place at Hanford would serve two purposes. The first is to provide a site for a manufacturing facility, and the second is to serve as a site for SMRs for Energy Northwest, the region’s nuclear electric utility which owns and operated the Columbia Generating Station. The claim is savings in the range of $300-500 million could be achieved by using the Hanford site.
To some degree the message is being heard. In 2013 Energy Northwest joined a teaming arrangement with NuScale Power and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) as part of the Western Initiative for Nuclear Project collaboration to promote a commercial, small modular reactor project. Energy Northwest holds first right of offer to operate the project. However, as a prudent investor, it hasn’t made a commitment, yet, to buy one.
For its part NuScale’s first SMR isn’t likely to be built soon, but it will need to be thinking about who will build them and where. At least for now Tri Cities has its hand in the air saying think of us first.
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