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Small Nuclear Reactors

April 16, 2013

For a variety of reasons, nuclear power is dying a slow death in the United States. (See Another Nail) Nuclear power’s only hope may be small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) that might breathe new life into the industry.

Small SMRs of 25 MW, and up to around 250 MW, have unique characteristics that may restore public confidence in nuclear energy.

In addition, SMRs could provide electricity to communities in  Africa and other areas where people live in poverty for the lack of electricity.

SMRs can be built in a factory, where tighter controls can improve quality and eliminate the interruptions that occur when nuclear power plants are constructed, piecemeal on site.

SMRs can be installed underground where it is extremely difficult to damage them, and where they won’t be affected by hurricanes or tornados.

They will be passive, capable of shutting down without human intervention or the need for back-up power.

They can be built one module at a time, as building blocks, increasing size as demand increases. This would be valuable when building SMRs in Africa and other areas where demand is initially low, but bound to increase.

An SMR requires a substantially smaller investment, making it easier to obtain financing, though the cost per KW may be similar to a large nuclear power plant. This advantage shouldn’t be underestimated. The amount of money required to finance a typical 1,000 MW nuclear power plant is approximately $6 billion, an enormous amount.

Financing is extremely difficult in the United States, and even more so in undeveloped countries, such as in Africa. With an equal $6 billion investment, SMRs could be built in a dozen undeveloped countries, freeing millions from burning dung for cooking meals while providing light when the sun goes down.

The mPower reactor, proposed by Babcock and Wilcox, recently received funding from the Department of Energy.

Other designs under consideration include NuScale Power, Westinghouse, Gen4 Energy (formerly Hyperion) and SMR, LLC.

Russia is pursuing the development of SMRs. One of their designs would be mounted on a barge that could be moved to different areas in need of electricity.

Needless to say, SMRs have been criticized by the Natural Resource Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others. One group criticized DOE for providing support for the mPower reactor.

It’s easy to visualize how SMRs could be used in Africa, and other areas lacking a widely developed transmission system, such as India.

Without SMRs, nuclear power plants in the United States are likely to cease operating, one by one, over the next 60 years, as their operating licenses expire and aren’t renewed.

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