Bechtel & BWXT share some details on their SMR plans

The two nuclear engineering giants are starting to get into specifics, and a few interesting facts come out in an email interview with spokesmen for both firms.

On March 4th Bechtel and BWXT issued a press release re-stating the fundamentals of their partnership to design, license, and sell to customers a small modular reactor (SMR). What is significant about it is that over the past two years BWXT has been reducing its spending on the mPower project from a high of nearly $90 million a year to just $10 million. In a regulatory filing it recently sent to the SEC the company reaffirmed its spending for SMR work would remain at the $10 million/year level.

So what’s changed? Both firms agreed to answer a series of emailed questions. Here are their answers to the questions posed by this blog.

First of all power is up!

Q: Will there be any major changes in the technology and planned configuration of a customer installation, e.g., two 180 MW units side by side with a single control room?

A: BWXT:  Since the announcement that program would be restructured with reduced funding, BWXT has continued to refine the design.  BWXT completed a design and cost optimization program during which the thermal power output of the reactor was increased by 8% (to 195 megawatts electric) and the core was redesigned with a two-year fuel cycle and an out-in shuffle scheme.  The reactor service building was also redesigned to decrease the embedment depth, but still retain the containment underground. Progress continues with developing the reactor safety case analysis and refining the various Nuclear Steam Supply System (NSSS) system designs including the integral reactor.

NRC Safety Design Review timeline?

Q: Is there a timeline for completing the SMR design, submitting to NRC for safety review?

A: Time to market is key to the program’s success, but right now we do not have a fixed timetable. Our focus over the next 12 months will be on confirming the development schedule and identifying the funding partners needed to support the mPower Plant development effort through to design certification.

Q: How much money will be needed to take the design through NRC safety design review?

A: In the coming months, we will be refining our development schedule and associated costs. We will be sharing this information with potential development partners.

Who is the customer?

Q: Is / are there customer(s)?  Are there candidate sites?

A: Bechtel will be approaching a focused set of potential development partners including government agencies; nuclear and non-nuclear industrial firms; and utilities. In addition, we are one of the four SMR technologies being incorporated into the TVA early site permit planned for submittal in the next year.

NB: (The other U.S. based SMR developers are Westinghouse, NuScale, and Holtec.)

Q: A few years ago Bechtel / BWXT held a press conference in DC (July 7, 2010) in which First Energy indicated some interest in SMRs, and their Chief Nuclear Officer at the time invested his efforts in tracking developments related to the BWXT design. First Energy is now engaged in a hot rate controversy in Ohio for Davis Besse and Perry plants.  As you know, First Energy never completed unit 2 at Perry and never will.  Given all that is First Energy still a potential customer? If not, who?

Potential development partners include utilities and nuclear owner / operators. We can’t speak for First Energy.

Note to readers: In July 2012 First Energy told the Cleveland Plain Dealer an SMR would cost a fraction of what a new large reactor would cost — under $2 billion. Though FirstEnergy has not committed to buying such a power plant, the Akron-based company said it will study deploying B&W’s small reactor. The studies will include financial analyses as well as evaluations of various sites.  First Energy signed an MOU to conduct the studies for the SMR with Bechtel and BWXT in July 2010.

First Energy owns and operates nuclear reactors in Ohio at the Davis-Besse and Perry plants. A proposed second unit at Perry was never completed. To save money, any new SMR project would likely be built next to an existing reactor to take advantage of power, roads, and the local workforce. The environmental impacts would be much easier to quantify.

Raising funds to pay for the project?

Q: It sounds like the agreement is more or less a fund raising effort?  With DOE having committed its SMR funds to NuScale, where does the partnership think it can get new funding?  Will any partners / equity stakes, be from international sources, e.g. China?

A: Bechtel will be approaching a focused set of potential development partners including government agencies; nuclear and non-nuclear industrial firms; and utilities. DOE is included in this group. Both BWXT and Bechtel have remained in communication with DOE since the expiration of the original cooperative agreement. Internationally, we want to participate in the program initiated by the UK government. We will not be seeking funding from China.

Is TVA still in the picture?

Q: Why did Bechtel enter the picture now after BWXT has been engaged in an orderly withdrawal following the end of its collaboration with TVA at Clinch River?

A: Bechtel has always been intimately engaged in the mPower design. Bechtel’s and BWXT’s confidence in the mPower technology has never changed. In 2014, BWXT slowed its spend to focus on technology development in response to its evaluation of the market.

Note to readers: TVA has never completely cut the cord in terms of its plans for an SMR. In January 2015 Ric Perez, TVA Senior VP, told Nuclear Insider that the utility still plans to move ahead with plans to develop an Oak Ridge site for a small modular reactor. Perez said in the interview that he hopes Babcock & Wilcox will complete their reactor design despite cutbacks in the project, and for a small nuclear reactor to be installed at the Clinch River site in Oak Ridge.

Pereez said TVA is shifting its focus from making Clinch River a design-specific site to being a fundamentally generic SMR facility.  It is applying to the NRC for an Early Site Permit and does not have to select a specific reactor design to get one.

Perez was quoted by the Times Free Press as saying, “We want to develop the site so that whoever comes out of the licensing process with a successful design that is certified, we will have a site available for them.”

TVA sees enough value in the SMR concept, and in keeping nuclear power as part of a varied portfolio of power generating options, it wants to keep the project going despite an uncertain turn of events, Perez said.

Status of the TVA ESP?

According to the NRC, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) intends to submit an Early Site Permit Application (ESPA) for two or more small modular reactor (SMR) modules (up to 800 MWe, 2420 MWt) at the Clinch River Nuclear (CRN) site to the NRC for review in the first quarter of calendar year (CY) 2016).

The application will use the Plant Parameter Envelope (PPE) approach, by which an applicant provides sufficient bounding parameters and characteristics of the reactor or reactors, and the associated facilities, so that assessments of site safety and environmental suitability can be made by NRC.

Readers interested in TVA’s SMR plans can read more by checking the utility’s public slide presentation from 2014.

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