Small modular reactor funding uncertain


Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the Washington Post’s reporting on the amount of private and public funds invested in the NuScale project. It also was corrected to state that the U.S. has the capabilities to build the reactor modules without the need to build a dedicated factory.

Certification of NuScale Power’s small modular reactor design continues, even as a major source of its funding is in jeopardy.

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget includes a variety of cuts to the U.S. Department of Energy, including zeroing out licensing support for NuScale’s design.

Congress ultimately will decide the budget, but DOE funds have been critical to development of the reactor, which is currently under a multiyear review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Corvallis, Ore.-based NuScale plans to build the first-of-a-kind power plant at the DOE’s desert site west of Idaho Falls.

In May, NuScale had spent $160 million of a $217 million DOE cost-sharing appropriation throughout the small modular reactor design process. More than $600 million in private and public funds have been invested in the NuScale project. It’s estimated to take another $400 million to deploy the reactor, according to NuScale Chief Commercial Officer Tom Mundy.

NuScale’s first small modular reactor is slated to begin operation at the DOE desert site by 2026.

But the NuScale project will be difficult to complete without additional federal support, former Idaho National Laboratory Director John Grossenbacher said.

“These are very high-risk projects from a financial perspective,” he said. “And the upfront risks are difficult for the private sector to swallow because the time frame is so long.”

INL developed a high-temperature gas nuclear plant, dubbed the Next Generation Nuclear Plant, during Grossenbacher’s tenure.

The plant didn’t receive sufficient federal support to get off the ground, and though it received interest from manufacturers and utility CEOs, the CEOs couldn’t convince their boards of directors to invest in the advanced reactor technology.

“We couldn’t come up with a partnership between government and industry to successfully manage the risk and convince both sides they were playing the right part,” Grossenbacher said.

Advocates believe the small modular reactor is vital to boosting U.S. nuclear innovation, which has waned compared to countries such as China and Russia.

“This is the one biggest hope that we have over the next six to eight years,” Spencer Nelson, policy analyst with ClearPath, a conservative clean energy group, told the Post. “Everyone in the nuclear industry cares about NuScale.”

NuScale’s 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.

Because utilities can add modules as they go, the reactor minimizes one of nuclear’s biggest disadvantages compared to other energy sources: upfront infrastructure costs. Reactor operating costs also are relatively stable compared to natural gas, which can fluctuate in price.

NuScale has done the lion’s share of the design work for its reactor, but its engineers will continue to refine the design and answer technical questions from the NRC, which will cost the company in staffing.

If certification is granted, U.S. capabilities to build reactor modules exist without the need to build a dedicated factory.

Still, NuScale’s light-water reactor design presents fewer risks and technical unknowns than more experimental advanced reactor technologies being developed in the U.S.

“There’s modest increases in innovation and technology, but there aren’t enormous technical uncertainties associated with how they work compared to molten salt reactors or high-temperature gas reactors,” Grossenbacher said. “NuScale is as good a bet as we’re going to get.”

NuScale’s small modular reactor design is the first to be accepted for review by the commission, and its approval could pave the way for other reactor designs.

The reactor could boost U.S. relevance in the nuclear industry, but it will be difficult if NuScale can’t compete with foreign companies subsidized by their governments.

“Certainly in India, China, France, Russia — all the countries with a big interest in being purveyors of nuclear technology — the government plays an enormous role,” Grossenbacher said. “But if we don’t figure out how to do this, we’re putting ourselves out of the business of innovation in nuclear energy. I think this will be a serious test case of that.”

A group of Republican congressmen wrote a letter to Trump in May advising continued small modular reactor funding with respect to international competition.

If NuScale’s design is certified by the commission but federal funding doesn’t pave the way to deployment, NuScale could take the design to another country that will offer funding, Grossenbacher said.

Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 208-542-6762.