Get small nuclear reactors off the starting blocks - Now! – II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 27 Jan 2020 0 Comment

Russia and Its Customers


Russia, a leader in the large, economy-of-scale nuclear power plants, possesses a small nuclear power plant manufacturing capability, but has not revealed its intentions concerning SMRs. From what can be gleaned, however, Russia will soon opt for developing SMRs of its own design. Following Jordan’s decision to abandon the plan, signed in 2015, to get two 1,000 MW nuclear power plants from Russia at $10 billion each and to opt for an SMR, the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) and Russia’s state-owned Rusatom Overseas signed a deal to conduct a joint feasibility study for building a Russian-designed SMR in Jordan.


In a joint statement with the JAEC, Evgeny Pakermanov, president of Rusatom Overseas, stated: “The SMR technologies will certainly become one of our top priorities on the way to develop the world energy market.” His statement and more about the deal were covered by the Jordan Times.


It is not surprising that Russia is planning to give the SMRs a real go. In recent years, Russia has met with setbacks selling their large Water-Water Energetic Reactors (VVERs) since these pressurized water reactors require large amounts of capital. In November 2016, Vietnam abandoned plans to build two multi-billion-dollar nuclear power plants with Russia, as did Japan, after officials cited lower demand forecasts, rising costs and safety concerns.


In Turkey, where Russia has begun construction of the first of four VVER-1200 reactor-based power plants at $20 billion each (estimated), which had been in limbo for years, funding is in short supply. Sberbank, Russia’s state-owned banking and financial services company, has recently come up with a $400 million loan to keep the project going, albeit at a slower pace.


China and Argentina


On the other hand, China has reportedly started building its first small modular reactor project on the southern island province of Hainan, the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) said last July, as part of the country’s efforts to diversify its nuclear sector. The project was originally scheduled to go into construction in 2017. The company did not say when the project was likely to be completed.


A setback has been reported from Argentina, where the construction of a prototype of the 25 MW CAREM (Central Argentina de Elementos Modulares), an SMR that has excellent export potential, has been suspended, reports said last August., a Cyprus-based outlet, had reported that Techint Engineering & Construction informed the workers from the CAREM project that they would halt the civil engineering work of the experimental reactor.


The primary reason cited by Techint was the unwillingness of the Argentinian Government to reconsider the budget for civil work, after the devaluation of the currency. At the same time, China National Nuclear Corp., which is owned by the state, has signed to finance and build Argentina’s fourth and fifth conventional nuclear power plants, in a deal estimated to be valued at nearly $15 billion.


Since most of the reports of SMRs across the world are not transparent, in this article we will focus on the developments in three countries—United States, Canada and South Korea.




World Nuclear News (WNN) reported on November 18, 2019 that Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), Canada’s premier nuclear science and technology organization, had announced the first recipients of support under an initiative launched earlier this year to accelerate the acquisition and deployment of SMRs in Canada, selecting Kairos Power, Moltex Canada, Terrestrial Energy Inc. and UltraSafe Nuclear Corporation (USNC). According to WNN:


The four projects that have been selected are: Moltex Canada and the University of New Brunswick’s test apparatus to explore the potential of converting used CANDU reactor fuel to power their stable salt reactor design; Kairos Power’s tritium management strategy for its high-temperature fluoride salt-cooled reactor; USNC’s resolution of technical issues for its Micro Modular Reactor (MMR), including fuel processing, reactor safety, and fuel and graphite irradiation; and Terrestrial Energy’s evaluation of nuclear safety, security and non-proliferation technologies for its integrated molten salt reactor (IMSR400) and other SMR designs. The Terrestrial Energy project will also look at opportunities to use CNL’s existing facilities, notably the ZED-2 reactor, as well as develop new experimental capabilities related to molten salt reactors.


In 2018, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) set a goal of siting an SMR on its Chalk River site by 2026, and co-hosted an SMR Vendor Roundtable as part of the G4SR (Generation 4 Small Reactor) conference.


It is evident that the Canadian program is at an early stage and the whole cycle of SMR development has not been laid out yet. At the same time, a connection has developed between the leading American SMR developer, NuScale Power, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, and Ontario Power Generation, Inc. (OPG), Ontario, Canada’s public electricity generator.


According to a press release by NuScale in the Financial Post on November 7, 2018, NuScale and OPG have signed a Memorandum of Understanding, in which OPG has agreed to support NuScale in its SMR vendor design review (VDR) with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The agreement, according to NuScale Chairman and CEO John Hopkins, was an “important milestone” in the company’s efforts to bring its reactor to Canada.


The United States


In the United States, the leading SMR developer, NuScale, announced in a December 12, 2019 press release on its website, titled “NuScale’s SMR Design Clears Phase 4 of Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Review Process,” that, The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has completed the fourth phase of review of the Design Certification Application (DCA) for the company’s small modular reactor. NuScale reached this milestone on schedule, marking yet another significant achievement along its path to commercialization. The entire review of NuScale’s SMR design is now in Phases 5 and 6.


Phases 5 and 6 of the NRC review remain. Phase 5 entails a review by the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (ACRS). The ACRS is an independent advisor to the NRC that reviews and reports on safety studies and reactor facility license applications and renewals.


Phase 5 “will be completed on or ahead of the original schedule in June 2020,” according to NuScale Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Tom Bergman. “Phase 6 is preparation of the Final Safety Evaluation Report (SER), which will incorporate confirmatory items from the Phase 4 advanced SER, and comments raised by ACRS in Phase 5.”


In a September 26, 2019 press release, NuScale Power announced that it had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with CEZ Group, a leading Czech utility conglomerate, “to explore applications for NuScale’s small modular reactor (SMR) as a long-term energy solution in the Czech Republic. The agreement calls for a sharing of nuclear and technical expertise between the two companies as they examine applications for NuScale’s SMR. Specifically, NuScale and CEZ will exchange information relating to nuclear supply chain development, construction, and operation and maintenance.


Another American firm, X-energy, a private nuclear reactor and fuel design engineering company based in Rockville, Maryland, entered into an MoU with the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) to assess X-energy’s SMR - the Xe-100 high temperature helium-cooled pebble-bed modular reactor - and its potential for deployment in Jordan.


The Xe-100 is a 200 MW thermal (MWt), 75 MW electric (MWe) reactor, which X-energy envisages being built in a standard “four-pack” plant generating about 300 MWe. All of the components for the Xe-100 are intended to be road-transportable, and will be installed - rather than constructed - at the project site, to streamline construction.


The reactor will use “pebbles” of fuel containing TRISO (TRistructural ISOtropic) coated fuel particles. Each TRISO particle has a kernel of uranium oxycarbide (also known as UCO) enriched to 10% uranium-235, encased in carbon and ceramic layers which prevent the release of radioactivity. The layers provide each particle with its own independent containment system, while the graphite surrounding the particles moderates the nuclear reaction. Such fuel cannot melt down. X-energy sent its updated design and licensing submittal information to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on January 16, 2018.


Reportedly, X-energy is working to design, finance, and license its TRISO-X Commercial Fuel Fabrication Facility, scheduled to begin commercial-scale fuel production in the 2023-2024 time frame. On December 2, 2017, the Jordan Times had reported that work on selecting a site for an SMR was proceeding in the Qusayer region near Azraq, about 60 km east of Amman. X-energy has an advantage in desert areas such as Jordan, since a helium-cooled reactor would not need the supplies of water required by a PWR (pressurized water reactor), but would need water only for the steam cycle. Jordan has a tiny, 4 GW electrical grid, which can support at most 40 MW of power input from a single source.


On November 15, 2019, according to a statement released by X-energy, JAEC and X-energy have moved on to the second stage of their relationship by signing a letter of intent (LOI) to build four 75 MWe high-temperature gas-cooled reactors that burn TRISO fuel.


South Korea


In South Korea, Mun Mi-ock, first vice minister of Korea’s Ministry of Science, and Khalid bin Saleh AlSultan, president of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, signed an MoU on Sept 17, 2019 during the International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Vienna, to work on developing an SMR in Saudi Arabia using technology developed by the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute.


South Korea brands its SMR technology “SMART,” an acronym for System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor Technology. Korean scientists have been developing it for 22 years. The pressurized water design is able to generate 100 MW, or enough energy to supply a city with a population of 100,000 with 90 MW of electricity and 40,000 tons of fresh water a day. The unit has a 60-year design life and a three-year refueling cycle. (“South Korea signs deal to develop small modular reactor in Saudi Arabia,” Global Construction Review, Sept. 23, 2019)


Although the SMART does not contain any U.S. technology, concerns have been expressed in the United States about allowing Saudi Arabia to own a 100 MW plant that could violate the NRC rules on export licensing of fuel element fabrication plant equipment. In order to enable such a transfer, some non-proliferation experts claim, Saudi Arabia will have to sign the 123 Agreement with the United States.


Departed Brethren


While many experts have consistently promoted SMRs in industry conferences, lack of capital has already killed off a number of SMR development projects, leaving NuScale Power virtually the sole survivor. Babcock & Wilcox (B&W), which once partnered with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to design and license two 180 MW mPower SMRs at TVA’s ClinchRiver site in Tennessee, initially received about $111 million from the Department of Energy (DoE), but DoE reduced subsequent payments until finally halting all payments at the end of 2014. The B&W project is as good as dead now. B&W (now BWXT) claims it lacks a customer and is unwilling to invest any more of its own money in SMRs without one.


Westinghouse’s 25 MW SMR, in partnership with the St. Louis-based Ameren Corp, a holding company for several power and energy companies, did not fare any better. Failing to qualify for DoE funding, Ameren, now owned by Toshiba, exited the SMR field in early 2014. Efforts by Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Energy to pursue an SMR in Iowa met a similar fate in 2012 when Buffet pulled the plug on that one.


A Future in Flux


According to a March 1, 2015 article, “Be Careful About Rose Colored Glasses When Viewing the Future of SMRs,” posted on Neutron Bytes, the problem could lie with the political leaders, such as then President Barack Obama, who had little interest in “rebooting” the nuclear industry via SMRs:  It [the Obama Administration] is continuing its politically driven infatuation with solar, wind, and other so-called “renewable” energy technologies. The “green” wing of the Democratic Party, whose support is needed to elect Hillary Clinton to be President in 2016, continues its hard over-opposition to nuclear energy despite the work of such pro-nuclear green groups as the Breakthrough Institute. Clinton has said little of any significance about nuclear energy other than some plain vanilla campaign rhetoric in 2008. Policy makers in Washington must realize that development of SMRs could create a large employment base and a vast, new manufacturing industry, employing thousands as a skilled and semi-skilled workforce. According to a NuScale official, NuScale’s technology-based SMRs could potentially support 13,500 jobs across the country (based on manufacturing just three 12-module SMR plants per year).


The funding picture is no brighter in Canada, where thoughts of exporting SMRs are yet to develop. In a July 7, 2019 posting, “No-One Wants to Pay for SMRs: U.S. and UK Case Studies,” Nuclear Monitor Editor Jim Green writes: Canadian Nuclear Laboratories has set the goal of siting a new demonstration SMR at its Chalk River site [180 miles north of Ottawa in Ontario] by 2026. But serious discussions about paying for a demonstration SMR - let alone a fleet of SMRs - have not yet begun. ... The CEO of Terrestrial Energy said in early 2019 that the Canadian government “must ... provide financial products which minimize commercial risks,” with options including loan guarantees, production tax credits, grants and off take agreements.


U.S., Canadian Governments Not Interested


Despite the progress pointed out above, there is no indication as of now that the governments in the United States and Canada have really committed to make SMRs a success. NuScale Power has received about $275 million from the U.S. DoE, ($217 million in 2014, and $40 million in 2018), while spending $800 million of its own. However, that kind of funding to develop a new power generation system will simply not do.


As Jim Green rightly pointed out in the cited article: No company, utility, consortium or national government is seriously considering building the massive supply chain that is at the very essence of the concept of SMRs - mass, modular construction. Yet without that supply chain, SMRs will be expensive curiosities. [In the United States,] government SMR funding of several hundred million dollars is an order of magnitude lower than subsidies for large reactors (several billion dollars for the AP1000 projects).



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