By Adrian Cho
To a world facing the existential threat of global warming, nuclear power would appear to be a lifeline. Advocates say nuclear reactors, compact and able to deliver steady, carbon-free power, are ideal replacements for fossil fuels and a way to slash greenhouse gas emissions. However, in most of the world, the nuclear industry is in retreat. The public continues to distrust it, especially after three reactors melted down in a 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. Nations also continue to dither over what to do with radioactive reactor waste. Most important, with new reactors costing $7 billion or more, the nuclear industry struggles to compete with cheaper forms of energy, such as natural gas. So even as global temperatures break one record after another, just one nuclear reactor has turned on in the United States in the past 20 years. Globally, nuclear power supplies just 11% of electrical power, down from a high of 17.6% in 1996.
Jose Reyes, a nuclear engineer and cofounder of NuScale Power, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, says he and his colleagues can revive nuclear by thinking small. Reyes and NuScale’s 350 employees have designed a small modular reactor (SMR) that would take up 1% of the space of a conventional reactor. Whereas a typical commercial reactor cranks out a gigawatt of power, each NuScale SMR would generate just 60 megawatts. For about $3 billion, NuScale would stack up to 12 SMRs side by side, like beer cans in a six-pack, to form a power plant.
But size alone isn’t a panacea. “If I just scale down a large reactor, I’ll lose, no doubt,” says Reyes, 63, a soft-spoken native of New York City and son of Honduran and Dominican immigrants. To make their reactors safer, NuScale engineers have simplified them, eliminating pumps, valves, and other moving parts while adding safeguards in a design they say would be virtually impervious to meltdown. To make their reactors cheaper, the engineers plan to fabricate them whole in a factory instead of assembling them at a construction site, cutting costs enough to compete with other forms of energy.
Spun out of nearby Oregon State University (OSU) here in 2007, NuScale has spent more than $800 million on its design—$288 million from the Department of Energy (DOE) and the rest mainly from NuScale’s backer, the global engineering and construction firm Fluor. The design is now working its way through licensing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the company has lined up a first customer, a utility association that wants to start construction on a plant in Idaho in 2023.
NuScale is far from alone. With similar projects rising in China and Russia, the company is riding a global wave of interest in SMRs. “SMRs as a class have a potential to change the economics,” says Robert Rosner, a physicist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who co-wrote a 2011 report on them. In the United States, NuScale is the only company seeking to license and build an SMR. Rosner is optimistic about its prospects. “NuScale has really made the case that they’ll be able to pull it off,” Rosner says.
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