Upbeat Look at Small-Scale Nuclear
There’s no single answer to meeting the growing energy demands of electric utilities in the coming decades.
But a new generation of small modular nuclear reactors—a scaled-down version of the large reactors that supply 20 percent of the nation’s energy—might become an important part of the equation.
“We don’t believe you should put all of your eggs in any one basket. We need diversity,” said Sandra Hochstetter Byrd, vice president for strategic affairs at Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. “Small reactors represent a wonderful niche for us to do a variety of things.”
Byrd was one of several speakers at a Small Nuclear Seminar, sponsored by NRECA on July 14 in Washington, D.C. AECC and 12 other G&Ts are part of an industry consortium studying the ways co-ops and other electric utilities can benefit from advances in small modular reactor technology.
Small modular reactors, or SMRs, can be manufactured at a single facility, shipped to a site and installed with far fewer steps than traditional large reactors. SMRs can conceivably be built entirely in the United States, while large reactors depend on fabrication facilities in Japan.
Unlike their larger brothers, whose generation is often measured in gigawatts, SMRs are designed for 50 to 150 megawatts, which more closely mirrors trends in co-op load growth, Byrd said.
SMRs can be sited in more areas because of their small size, she added. They also provide co-ops with sole or joint ownership opportunities and open up more financing options.
“You are looking at hundreds of millions in investments, rather than billions,” Byrd said.
Darren Gale, a vice president at nuclear reactor manufacturer Babcock & Wilcox, said SMRs enjoy several safety advantages, compared with traditional facilities. They have a passive design, so no direct current power is needed to maintain important cooling functions.
“It’s a much less complicated system. There’s far less piping,” he said. “It’s not fundamentally anything new. We’re just repackaging it in a smaller size.”
Jim Colgary, director of government affairs for the Nuclear Energy Institute, told the forum that supporters are working on Capitol Hill to advance SMRs, which are strongly backed by the Obama administration.
“This is not a panacea but this is clearly a start in a good direction,” he said. “The political support is there and it’s on both sides of the aisle.”