Despite the recent nuclear accident in Japan, small nuclear reactors are likely to find a place on the energy market.
During the first two months of 2011 environmental activists opposed to nuclear power were trying to organize major protests across the world to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The world, which seemed at ease with use of nuclear power in the two decades after Chernobyl, paid little attention to the efforts of the protestors. But that was only until early March. Today the protesters have gained momentum. Social networking sites are abuzz with protests against everything nuclear and marches protesting nuclear power are drawing an ever increasing crowd.
No prize for guessing the reasons behind the U-turn in the support for anti-nuclear protests. It was the handiwork of a tsunami that knocked off the cooling systems of a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, in March. As the cooling systems at a series of nuclear reactors failed, the resulting overheating of the nuclear fuel caused damage to the reactors and to entire structures of the power plant. What followed was an epic struggle from one of the world’s most advanced countries to prevent a meltdown of nuclear reactors. In the end it was a Pyrrhic victory: although the meltdown of the reactors was prevented, harmful nuclear radiation was let out in large quantities earning the disdain of a number of people across the world.
Now, the knee-jerk opposition to nuclear power following Fukushima is threatening to throw a wrench into the enormous amount of research work that has gone into making nuclear power safer and widespread. Some of these technologies and research were at the advanced stages awaiting implementation within the next couple of years. One such technology involved the development of small modular reactors (SMRs). Like many other nuclear technologies in the post-Fukushima era, SMR’s are expected to face increased regulatory oversight.
Before looking at the potential problems a SMR could face, a briefing on SMRs will cement our understanding of this nascent technology. SMRs work almost on the same principle as that of large nuclear reactors. Nuclear fuel burns and produces heat. The heat turns water to steam. The steam rotates a turbine, producing electricity. Overlooking some technical details, the biggest difference between a conventional reactor and a SMR is the size, the cost and the way it is manufactured. Conventional nuclear reactors are mainly designed to operate a power plant that usually serves thousands of customers and hundreds of companies. A typical nuclear reactor producing over 1,000 megawatt energy could be as tall as 50 ft and nearly an equal dimension in diameter. It could cost around $7 billion to get a conventional reactor started. Usually, this huge capital investment is recovered by providing power to thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses.
In comparison, SMRs are tiny and cost less. Some of the smallest SMRs under development are just 6ft in diameter and 10 ft tall, about the size of two residential hot tubs. Such small SMRs, capable of producing around 25 megawatts of power, sport a price tag of around $50-$100 million. SMRs target a market made of captive power consumers, such as military installations, mining companies, and even large universities.
The near-collapse of a series of nuclear reactors in Fukushima,
Japan, in 2011, has generated negative publicity for the nuclear
industry. But technologies such as the small modular reactors
(SMRs) are likely to gain prominence due to their simplicity.
Further, the fact there are no viable alternatives to nuclear
power in the short term could help.
Many companies also claim that SMRs can be mass produced in an assembly line. A number of companies are on the trail to market such SMRs. Babcock and Wilcox, an energy equipment company, has designed a 150 megawatt power SMR. Hyperion Power Generation, a Colorado-based firm, has licensed technology from Los Alamos National Laboratory to provide power to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site facility in South Carolina. TerraPower LLC, a firm part-funded by Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, is also engaged in the production of SMRs.
Post-Fukushima, many of these firms worry whether governments across the world will support their initiative as protests against nuclear power has grown. To be fair, even before the nuclear accident in Fukushima, SMRs were a lightning rod for criticism among environmental activists and security hawks alike. While activists worried about “a Chernobyl at every backyard”, security hawks fretted about spent fuel ending up in the hands of terrorists.
Although, the manufacturers of SMRs claim that they have the capabilities to look after the entire fuel chain and to ensure the safety of SMRs, many regulators, including the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) seem unconvinced about the safety of some of the so-called “nuclear batteries”. Post Fukushima, the U.S. is mulling even relicensing existing large reactors let alone encouraging new initiatives such as SMRs. John Deal, CEO of Hyperion, feels it is easier to build and sell a SMR in more nuclear-friendly countries such as Britain than in the U.S. Although President Barrack Obama, is largely supportive of SMRs, he faces strident opposition to SMRs within his own party.
Nonetheless, despite the current negative publicity over nuclear power, there is an underlying optimism that defines the attitude of companies supporting SMRs. After all, without nuclear power the earth will be emitting two billion more tons of carbon dioxide a year. Despite the risks involved in nuclear power there are few alternative sources of power that are as clean as nuclear power. Consequently, venture capital firms supporting SMRs view the current opposition to nuclear power as temporary. CMEA Ventures, a venture capital firm, is optimistic about its plans to raise $200 million for NuScale, a firm engaged in developing SMRs.
Furthermore, the Japanese accident could actually present SMRs with a potential advantage. In the case of Fukushima, it was the failure of the cooling systems, a combination of pumps and valves that actually led to the eventual overheating of the reactor. In contrast, SMRs do not require external pumps or extensive cooling systems to cool the reactor. In certain SMRs, cooling happens immediately and naturally once the system is idled, making a Fukushima-style accident with SMRs improbable. Moreover, even in case of a nuclear disaster, the damage is likely to be localized as the reactor of an SMR is buried several feet deep below the ground.
Still many countries, after watching the Japanese struggle in Fukushima, have curtailed their nuclear ambitions. Germany was the most prominent among them. Even China has said it would review its policy of operating large nuclear reactors. Other European countries, such as Denmark, Greece and Austria, have been stubbornly anti-nuclear too. But for every country that opposes nuclear power two seem to support it. France and Finland have not spoken against the industry and seem to acknowledge the usefulness of nuclear power.
Despite the recent scare in Japan, Argentina’s plan to install a 25-megawatt SMR prototype in 2014 is on schedule. Rosatom Corp, a Russian nuclear company, has said it will sell nearly three SMR equipped barges in 2011. If these reactors operate safely over the next couple of years without causing major problems, then the market for SMRs could expand gradually. And perhaps the future of nuclear power would have a reversal of fortune once more.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy, Inc.