1. With development of large-scale reactors in the United States slowed by constrained debt capital markets, the absence of climate legislation, low gas prices and flagging power demand, talk in the nuclear industry has shifted to next-generation reactors that are smaller, less capital-intensive and therefore more flexible. These small and modular reactors (SMRs), generally 300 MW or less, can serve remote locations, small power grids and large process heat needs, such as oil production from the Alberta tar sands.
There are wide-ranging, proposed SMR designs, including light-water reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, liquid metal-cooled fast reactors, and molten salt reactors, with the smallest design beginning around 10 MW.
The Hyperion Power Module uses a uranium nitride fuel and a lead-bismuth eutectic as the coolant. The 25-MWe reactor is intended to be buried 33 feet underground and fueled only every eight to 10 years. In contrast, the NuScale reactor is a small, light-water reactor, the same reactor type as many of its large-scale cousins but with a modular design that allows a facility to have just one unit or as many as 24 units. If a plant had all 24 units with each reactor operating at its 45-MWe design capacity, the facility could produce more than 1,000 MWe of electricity, which is on par with the electricity production of one large-scale reactor.
Several reactor developers have been in contact with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to discuss their designs and licensing: Babcock & Wilcox Co. for its 125-MW mPower reactor; GE-Hitachi for its 311-MW PRISM reactor; Hyperion Power Generation for its 25-MW HPM reactor; NuScale Power Inc. for its 45-MW reactor; Toshiba for its 10-MW 4S reactor; and Westinghouse for its 335-MW IRIS reactor. Other developers are working on other SMR designs but have not yet filed a letter of intent to submit an application with the NRC.
The biggest challenge to getting SMRs to market in the United States is NRC licensing. The NRC’s licensing requirements are geared toward certifying a design and then conducting a site-specific construction and operating licensing proceeding for large-scale nuclear reactors, a process that can take as much as a decade. Many SMR reactor developers are focused on the design certification. This process allows the NRC to approve a reactor design independent of an application to construct or operate a plant. It has been used by the agency a handful of times during the past decade for large-scale reactors. It seems well-suited to the small-reactor designs, some of which are intended to be factory-built and transported whole for drop-in installation at sites.
SMRs must undergo rigorous NRC safety and licensing reviews, but under the regulations as written, an applicant for an SMR design certification would need to determine on its own and on a case-specific basis which of the safety and licensing standards in the regulations–all of which were designed with large reactors in mind–are relevant to its design and which ones should not be applicable. This is a laborious, uncertain process.
The NRC recognizes its regulations must be re-examined to address the new SMR technologies. The agency has begun to review the potential policy, technical and licensing issues for SMRs. The NRC has identified issues associated with the licensing process, design requirements, operational matters and financial matters where tailoring to meet SMRs’ specific needs might be warranted.
2. Korea Nuclear Energy Promotion Agency (KONEPA) Chairman Rhee Jae-hwan said in a recent interview with The Korea Times that the nation is working on the development of small-sized commercial nuclear power generation systems.
“Local researchers have finished much work on small-sized SMART nuclear reactors and have applied for global approval, which will be reviewed next year.
South Korea’s SMART (System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor) is a 330 MWt pressurised water reactor with integral steam generators and advanced safety features. It is designed by the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) for generating electricity (up to 100 MWe) and/or thermal applications such as seawater desalination. Design life is 60 years, with a three-year refuelling cycle. While the basic design is complete, the absence of any orders for an initial reference unit has stalled development. KAERI is now intending to proceed to licensing the design by 2012
Several countries have already expressed keen interest in SMART plants. For instance, Kazakhstan has agreed with the South Korean government to undertake a joint safety study on the SMART as part of its programme to introduce nuclear power generation.
Reactor type: Integral PWR
Thermal power (MWt): 330
Electric power (MWe): 100
Desalination (ton/day): 40,000
Design life (years): 60
Fuel and reactor core:
Assembly type: 17×17 square FA
Fuel material: UO2
Maximum enrichment (wt%): 5%
Active core length (m): 2.0
Refuelling cycle (months): 36
Reactor coolant system
Design pressure (MPa): 17
Operating pressure (MPa): 15
Design temperature (C): 360
Core outlet temperature (C): 323
Core inlet temperature (C): 296
Minimum flow rate (kg/s): 2090
3. Kazakhstan will supply China with 55,000 tons of uranium. This is expected to be 40% of China’s uranium needs from now to 2020.
The upside of small nukes lies in cutting not only greenhouse gases (nuclear power produces little to nothing in the way of emissions) but also costs. Chu pointed out that small reactors like the ones built by Hyperion are sold as ready-made, turnkey devices, which will likely keep construction costs down. Hyperion estimates it will take $100 million to build and 25 employees to run one of its plants, compared with the $4 billion to $6 billion in capital needed to build a traditional plant and the roughly 300 people needed to run one. Small reactors appeal particularly to the developing world because they are a microgrid solution. Many poorer countries lack the robust electrical grids needed to handle the massive output of a large nuclear power plant. According to Deal, of the 130 units Hyperion says it hopes to sell in the near future, over a hundred will be outside the U.S. — as far afield as Kenya, Cambodia and Saudi Arabia
Nuclear batteries have some high-profile supporters in the NGO and academic communities. In testimony last year before Congress, Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, an arms-control think tank, said Congress should urge the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to speed approval for the Hyperion Power Module and other U.S.-designed small reactors, in part because they are much more proliferation-resistant than those being designed overseas
There is growing interest in Jetsonsesque applications for a minireactor, from nuclear cruise ships (“Holy cow, do you know how cheap they would be to run?” says Deal) to desalination plants in conflict areas (“World War III is going to be fought over water. It’s a huge issue, and we can help”). The interest is symptomatic of a vision that has been largely dormant in the U.S. since the early days of the nuclear era: the view that atom splitting can be a source of wonder and excitement rather than dread.
Vice-president of Russian Railways (RZhD) Valentin Gapanovich says they will present the layout of the train by the end of this year. The train will consist of 11 wagons.
The engine of the train will be a small fast breeder reactor, and in its initial stage, the train will be a scientific exhibition complex.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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