Small modular reactor possibilities expand

A rendering of NuScale Power’s small modular reactor design. Courtesy of NuScale Power

Courtesy of NuScale Power

Taylor Carpenter / Idaho National Laboratory small modular reactor operations director Mike Patterson (left), INL small modular reactor technical coordinator George Griffith (middle) and INL small modular reactor team lead Corey McDaniel (right) answer questions about reactor siting at the INL desert site at a workshop Wednesday afternoon. Taylor Carpenter /

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to fix a description of the Terrestrial Energy USA reactor.

When the U.S. Department of Energy granted a site use permit in February 2016 to build a small modular reactor at Idaho National Laboratory’s desert site, NuScale Power’s design was the only one in the pipeline.

Since then, 18 other reactor design groups have expressed interest in building at the desert site.

Most of the groups are interested in hybrid energy applications. Though nuclear plants are traditionally used to produce electricity, groups are exploring other energy possibilities, including water desalination, synthetic fuel creation and direct heating for municipal or industrial uses.

Some of the applications could reduce fossil fuel dependence, here and abroad.

Though too early to say definitively, the reactors eventually could be supported by INL’s own fledgling initiative — Joint Use Modular Plant or JUMP — which could play an important role in hybrid energy research.

JUMP is a joint proposal by INL, NuScale and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, a consortium of 45 Western community-owned utilities.

The initiative would allow INL to conduct research that could make NuScale’s light-water reactor more marketable on an international stage while paving the way for other hybrid energy reactors.

INL small modular reactor deployment team lead Corey McDaniel discussed JUMP on Wednesday during a fuel safety research workshop at INL’s Idaho Falls campus. McDaniel’s team recently won an INL Vision Award for facilitating deployment of NuScale’s reactor and championing hybrid energy research.

“In the lab we tinker. We like to fix things, break things, see how things work,” McDaniel said. “A reactor such as NuScale’s is a perfect demo platform. Once the reactor is up and running, what would INL’s research interest be?”

NuScale’s small modular reactor, which was accepted for a 40-month review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March, is slated to begin operation in 2026 at the desert site. Owned by UAMPS, it will provide power to utilities in a handful of Western states.

The first-of-its-kind plant design includes up to 12 small reactors, or “power modules,” at one facility. Modules will each produce 50 megawatts of energy, and can be added to the facility as energy demands increase. Twelve modules could produce enough power for around 425,000 homes.

If McDaniel’s team follows through with JUMP, INL would lease one or two of the modules for research after the plant becomes operational.

The reactor’s modular nature would allow UAMPS to produce electricity with 10 or 11 modules while the remaining module or two would function independently for research.

One possible module application: uninterruptible power.

INL, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the federal Tennessee Valley Authority are researching emergency microgrid capabilities to see if a small modular reactor could power critical infrastructure after a serious natural disaster or attack.

“If something happened and a reactor shut down, one of those modules would be able to keep running to provide power to critical infrastructure, like supercomputers in Oak Ridge or hospitals,” McDaniel said. “INL would be a natural place to demonstrate that because we have our own grid.”

Other modules, meanwhile, could be used to produce heat or desalinate water.

INL already conducted hybrid energy modeling, and researchers hope to begin lab-scale tests next year. But full-scale reactor tests are vital in securing regulatory licensing; only then does technology become marketable, McDaniel said.

“It’s not rocket science to take steam off a turbine, but when it’s a nuclear power plant with the licensing involved, it gets more complicated,” he said. “We can test something in a lab, but until somebody’s licensed it with an actual reactor, nobody’s going to buy it here or internationally.”

NuScale officials have pursued non-electrical applications for their small modular reactor design from the start, NuScale Chief Strategy Officer Chris Colbert said.

“And JUMP would be a means of demonstrating those diverse applications. And doing it at this scale would be transformative in terms of getting it to the marketplace,” he said.

An eight-module plant in California could provide power and water to a 350,000-person town, Colbert said, and there’s also potential abroad.

Middle Eastern municipalities that use coal-powered plants to desalinate water from the brackish Arabian and Gulf seas could instead use small modular reactors, which are more efficient.

INL researchers also are looking at direct district heating: heat generation for cities.

Such capabilities could be of particular use to China, which is looking to reduce emissions from heat-producing coal plants in quickly expanding multimillion-person cities, Colbert said.

“We think the market for our modules would be very strong overseas. And when you consider our module is manufactured in a factory here, all those jobs would be in the U.S. and you’d be exporting,” he said.

There’s also potential at INL’s desert site to study hybrid energy systems better-suited to other reactor designs.

INL has become a desirable potential landing spot for commercial and research reactors since the lab completed reactor siting with NuScale.

It was a complex, four-year interagency process that cost DOE $16 million, and now information gathered during that process is available for free from INL small modular reactor technical coordinator George Griffith.

“George put together a siting document which details all the lessons learned from siting NuScale’s reactor at INL, so anybody who wants to come to INL only has to pick up this document,” McDaniel said. “All you have to do is email George.”

Two groups requested the document shortly after McDaniel’s presentation Wednesday.

Of the 18 groups interested in building reactors at INL, some are backing different light-water small modular reactor technologies, though McDaniel said most are working on advanced reactors that use molten salt, liquid metal or gas coolant.

The furthest along on INL’s radar is New York-based Terrestrial Energy USA, which approached INL last year. Terrestrial is developing an advanced Integral Molten Salt Reactor capable of producing much higher temperatures than a light-water reactor.

The reactor will be able to pump non-nuclear 600 degree Celsius liquid salt nearly 2 miles for heating at industrial facilities, Terrestrial Vice President of Business Development Robin Rickman said. The reactor also would produce electricity.

Terrestrial applied for a DOE loan-guarantee last year, and expects to complete its first reactor in the 2020s.

INL’s desert site is one of Terrestrial’s leading candidates for the reactor’s location, Rickman said, though there are other sites in the U.S. under consideration.

For Terrestrial officials, part of INL’s appeal is the NuScale siting documents.

“That legwork is important. In the nuclear industry nobody wants to be first — everybody wants to be second,” Rickman said. “In NuScale’s case, a lot of that initial work is germane to a larger fraction of the nuclear industry. It only makes sense to leverage that work when and if it’s appropriate to do so.”

Just as NuScale did in December, Terrestrial officials expect to submit a licensing application for their reactor to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in late 2019, which would set the table for a multiyear review process.

In the meantime, siting talks with DOE continue.

“You’ve got the nation’s premier nuclear lab for nuclear energy research, development, demonstration and deployment right here in Idaho,” Rickman said. “It makes sense if you’re going to build a new nuclear technology in the form of a power plant that INL would be on your list of potential sites.”

Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.

Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.