Printed on: September 18, 2013

Transitioning to nuclear

For a source of energy whose prospects have been written off so many times, nuclear power is doing surprisingly well.

In a new climate action plan, President Obama called for investing in clean energy technologies, including small reactors that would be the size of those powering nuclear submarines and relatively cheap to build and run.

A bipartisan bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee provides $452 million to advance licensing of small reactor designs. These reactors would be built in a factory in less than half the time it takes to build a large nuclear plant and transported by truck or rail to nuclear sites.

Nuclear power accounts for two-thirds of the nation's zero-carbon energy, far exceeding contributions of solar and wind. And in contrast to plants that burn natural gas, nuclear power is environmentally benign. Meanwhile, scores of coal plants are being shut down, although demand for electricity is projected to grow 20 percent by 2035. Nuclear power must play a pivotal role in the nation's energy future.

Globally, transition to more nuclear power is underway. China, India and other countries are making major investments in nuclear power. Seventy-three nuclear plants are under construction, including five in the United States. Many more nuclear plants are either planned or proposed to add to the 432 nuclear plants currently operating.

Here in the U.S., companies are designing small modular reactors (SMRs). Oregon-based NuScale Power and utilities in Washington and Utah launched a collaborative effort -- the Western Initiative for Nuclear -- to study demonstration and deployment by 2024 of NuScale's SMR at a regional site such as the Idaho National Laboratory.

Small and compact, each NuScale SMR would generate 45 megawatts. A plant would contain as many as 12 modules, for total output of 540 megawatts, roughly half the generating capacity of large nuclear plants. Among the benefits of SMRs is the ability to add modules as needed for electricity increases, which eases upfront financial burdens. The U.S. Department of Energy is soliciting bids for a cost-shared program to support SMR licensing. Babcock & Wilcox, a Virginia-based reactor manufacturer, won the first DOE grant for an SMR to be in Tennessee. NuScale and other designers are competing for the second grant.

Potentially, a huge global market exists for SMRs. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts global energy consumption will grow 56 percent between now and 2040. SMRs could be built in U.S. factories and shipped abroad. Individual modules could supply electricity to industries or isolated areas without tying to an electric-power grid. And most SMRs are air-cooled, a big advantage in arid regions lacking water for reactor cooling.

It's encouraging that Western governors recognize the potential value of SMRs. For Idaho, that's a good thing.

Dunzik-Gougar is associate chairwoman of Nuclear Engineering and Health Physics at Idaho State University and a research scientist at Idaho National Laboratory.