NuScale celebrates last-minute nuclear milestone

From left, NuScale Power executives Tom Bergman and Dale Atkinson on Thursday provided a ceremonial delivery of their 12,000-page reactor design application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Vonna Ordaz and Mike Johnson, at NRC headquarters in Washington, D.C. The application has been underway since 2008, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce.

A conceptual drawing shows a proposed NuScale Power plant site, which would be located on a 35-acre footprint. Courtesy NuScale Power, LLC.

A rendering shows a cross-section of a NuScale Power nuclear reactor “module.” NuScale’s proposed facility would utilize as many as 12 modules, which could be scaled up based on energy need. Courtesy NuScale Power, LLC.

For years, NuScale Power promised it would file its small modular nuclear reactor design application with federal regulators before the end of 2016. It made the same commitment to the U.S. Department of Energy, which offered NuScale $217 million in matching funds four years ago.

But by Halloween, doubts began to creep in. NuScale still had more than 300 items to resolve in its 12,000-page document detailing the first-of-a-kind power plant. Each day at 4 p.m. a group of NuScale executives and subject matter experts held a meeting in their Corvallis, Ore., offices, examining the slowly shrinking list and assigning additional resources to problem spots.

After a final meeting on New Year’s Eve, everything appeared in order. Executives gathered at 10:30 that night, ready to sign the document and send it electronically to NRC headquarters. But there was a problem: One of the chapters — hundreds of pages — was from a previous draft.

“We thought, ‘Oh my God,’” said Mike McGough, NuScale’s chief commercial officer.

But they got lucky.

The person in charge of the chapter had the updated version and sent it over. The application was signed and sent minutes before midnight — culminating eight years and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of work.

A three-year NRC design review process begins in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, a renewed examination of the reactor is set to begin in eastern Idaho. Experts say there are number of questions that remain about the plan and the public design application should help answer many of them.

The plant is slated for construction on the U.S. Department of Energy’s desert site, with a completion goal of 2026. But costly hurdles remain.

NuScale, owned by global construction giant Fluor Corp, already has spent $505 million on the reactor, a figure that includes $160 million from the DOE grant. McGough said the company anticipates spending $11 million per month this year, between NRC fees and its own continued design work.

Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems plans to build the facility and use the power for its community-owned member utilities located around the West, including Idaho Falls Power. Officials with the energy cooperative have said the plant would provide a clean-burning replacement to coal plants set to retire in coming years. They are in the process of securing power purchase agreements from member utilities to fund the plant.

The reactor’s design — the first of its kind submitted to the NRC — is really several small reactors, or “power modules,” rolled into one. Each module would produce 50 megawatts of energy. Additional modules could be added to a plant as energy demand increases; as many as 12 could be paired together in one plant. The reactors would be installed below ground in a steel-lined concrete pool.

NuScale says the design offers passive safety features and power output flexibility not available from traditional light-water reactors.

But Beatrice Brailsford, the nuclear program director for the Snake River Alliance watchdog group, said she has several concerns. One is the facility’s water consumption. The Idaho Falls-based Partnership for Science and Technology estimated it would require roughly 15 million gallons daily, with 5 million consumed and 10 million reused.

She also has questions about a reduced emergency planning zone surrounding the reactor. Because of its safety features, NuScale officials say the safety zone can be smaller than traditional reactors, allowing it to be sited in a wider variety of locations. The proposed reactor property is 35 acres located south of the U.S. Highway 20 and 26 junction.

“We will certainly always raise challenges, and in fact we do oppose the construction,” Brailsford said. “We will be working hard to educate Idahoans about the problems with the reactor.”

Steve Laflin, chairman of a Partnership for Science and Technology subcommittee studying the reactor, said NuScale’s NRC application will offer an in-depth opportunity to examine the reactor’s safety features. PST last year posted a question-and-answer about the project on its website. Now the organization can view thousands of pages of additional details and, if necessary, “raise more questions,” he said.

At a Washington, D.C., event Thursday announcing the application submittal, nuclear industry and DOE officials spoke in support of the project. So did several members of Congress, a group that included both Democrats and Republicans.

“The timing is critical for the nuclear industry right now,” Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said of NuScale’s application. “The nuclear industry is under siege, natural gas prices being what they are.”

Lynn Orr, undersecretary for science and energy, said with bipartisan support small modular reactors could “secure a future for nuclear energy.” While nuclear still accounts for about 20 percent of the nation’s power output, five plants were retired in the last five years, and more are expected soon, he said.

DOE had a message for NuScale, Orr said, around the time it offered the company matching funds in 2013: “Don’t mess this up.”

Interest is growing outside Idaho for small modular reactors, McGough said. The Tennessee Valley Authority on Thursday submitted a site permit application for what is expected to be a NuScale plant near Oak Ridge. Also Thursday, McGough said he met with officials in Los Alamos, N.M., about possibly siting a NuScale reactor there. He said a dozen U.S. locations have shown interest.

There’s a long way to go: About $600 million more will be needed to finish the design and begin the early stages of construction west of Idaho Falls. But many in the industry were skeptical NuScale would even make it this far, McGough said.

“This technology offers the industry a lot of hope,” Schrader said.


Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth