Growth Through Downsizing? Chu’s Vision for Nuclear

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu penned an op-ed that appeared in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. The piece, touting the future of the small modular reactor (SMR), follows the announcement that President Obama’s 2011 budget request would include 39 million dollars for R&D in small modular reactor technology (a detailed, though hardly objective, breakdown of the nuclear related budget requests, including those for weapons, can be found here).

Small reactors are used extensively in naval applications and as neutron sources, however commercial nuclear energy is dominated by large, two-unit power plants. The design and construction of the next generation of these plants is plagued by long construction times and extremely high costs. SMRs seem to be an attractive option because they require substantially less time and money to implement. If developers succeed in producing reactors small enough to be transported on a rail car, the reactors themselves could effectively be mass produced in a single facility and the on-site construction requirements of the power station would be significantly reduced.

SMRs “plug and play”-ability, as Chu words it, could make nuclear an option for smaller energy markets. For these markets where construction of a large plant is not reasonable, the availability of reactors anywhere from 50 MWe to 300 MWe, pre-built and shipped, would make them a viable option to satisfy commercial power demands. Additionally SMRs could be operated in modular clusters, allowing the size of the cluster to be changed as the energy demands of the market fluctuate.

The initial federal push is to implement light water moderated small modular reactors to reduce NRC approval time. Some companies have dipped their toes in the SMR water by proposing designs (further discussed in this post). However Chu is looking ahead to the (next) next generation of SMRs that could employ technologies similar to two of the most popular designs for the next generation of full size reactors: high temperature gas reactors and liquid sodium fast reactors. The additional safety features of the HTGR and the waste burning capabilities of the fast reactor have pushed them to the forefront of next-gen conversation. In light of this, Chu additionally threw his support behind the development of HTGR and fast reactor technologies independent of SMR R&D.

SMRs have even been discussed as playing a support role to the development of tar sands, oil shale, and hydrogen production by acting as a low carbon source of heat and power, especially high temperature designs like the HTGR. Proponents claim that this integration would reduce the carbon footprint of tar sand/oil shale processing and hydrogen production, although Chu’s claim of this heat and energy being “carbon-free” faces the standard argument.

Chu also took the opportunity to plug the job creation potential for these new technologies (if we can keep the production domestic), as well as the need for new climate legislation. In case his support of nuclear was still in question, his department announced funding for university-level nuclear education improvements, including $7 million for reactor upgrades.

Although an op-ed in the WSJ and $39 million for R&D probably aren’t enough to get a SMR lover’s heart aflutter, they do serve as further indication that the Obama administration is serious about the development of new technologies to make nuclear a more attractive energy option.


1 Comment

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One response to “Growth Through Downsizing? Chu’s Vision for Nuclear

  1. rjk288

    Personally, I like the idea of small modular reactors. There have been some interesting designs that are much simpler and safer than large-scale nuclear reactors ( One particular design utilizes a fuel mixture, similar to the fuel used in university research reactors. This alternative fuel is inherently much safer than what is being used in reactors today and it being touted as being able to be operated “unmanned”. And because these reactors are designed to power small cities and be built in relatively close proximity, it also seems to me that these small modular reactors greatly increase overall efficiency by removing the need for hundreds of miles of transmission lines.

    One of the major obstacles of nuclear power is its enormous capital cost and construction time. These modular reactors seem to be a much more economically feasible alternative to massive nuclear power plants.

    The foreseeable problem here, though, stems from the lack of high-level waste repository. Today’s protocol in terms of spent fuel disposal is to store it on-site. From this blog entry, as well as proposed reactor designs, on-site storage of these types of reactors does not seem feasible. And there are non-proliferation concerns with having so many sites with high-level waste.

    While Secretary Chu seems to support this technology, the Obama administration has been so detrimental to the promise of nuclear technology with the closing of Yucca Mountain, that it is almost a sure bet that the implementation of SMRs will remain a pipedream for quite a while.

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