Can the success of a small modular nuclear reactor designed and developed by the American firm NuScale Energy in Oregon bring more investors to long-term investment in nuclear innovation, and a more prominent role for nuclear in the global renewable energy mix?
In August, NuScale’s reactor became the first SMR to receive design approval (Final Safety Evaluation Report, or FSER) from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), following successful completion of a Phase 6 review. With the FSER in hand, NuScale customers can move forward with development plans for NuScale power plants with the understanding that NRC has given NuScale’s design its safety approval.
Investable Universe spoke with José N. Reyes, PhD, NuScale co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, and the nuclear engineer who designed the NuScale SMR. Faced with legacy nuclear architecture that traditionally involves an unwieldy concrete fortress, his concept for NuScale pares down this design for enhanced safety, resilience and operational flexibility.
“What we’ve done is a radical level of simplicity. We’ve redesigned the way in which, particularly, light water reactors can be configured,” explains Dr. Reyes.
Unlike most commercial reactors in the U.S., which produce electricity either by pumping water, or boiling water into the core, NuScale’s reactor is placed inside a small pressure vessel which is immersed in a pool below ground, and uses natural buoyancy to circulate water. This is a natural physical process that does not require AC or DC power for safety, external water or pumps at the reactor site.
Additionally, the reactor is modular, meaning that all of the high-quality nuclear components can be factory-fabricated, rather than built onsite, which dramatically reduces construction time and associated costs.
Reyes explains that containment structures in traditional nuclear power plants (the familiar-looking concrete dome) is typically field-assembled onsite. The NuScale reactor incorporates a much smaller, steel containment vessel that is fabricated along with the reactor vessel in a factory. All civil construction—the buildings and ground hole in which the containment vessel is placed—occurs in parallel, a logistics modification that reduces construction time (and associated costs) from five years to three years.
High barrier to entry
NRC’s safety certification clears a major hurdle for NuScale in commercializing its design worldwide, proving the concept behind small modular reactor technology, and bringing in new investors—a tough sell given the lengthy regulatory process. NuScale has been fortunate in that regard. In 2011, U.S.-based multinational Fluor Corporation became a strategic partner as NuScale approached commercialization.
Even with key support from a large-cap industrial company with deep supply chain and engineering expertise, the path to NRC approval was much like the process of clinical drug approval. Dr. Reyes explains that NuScale (with Fluor’s backing) spent $500 million in design work and preparation of an application that ultimately ran to 12,000 pages and 14 subsequent, topical reports. Two million labor hours involving 800 employees were spent just to prepare the report for submission in 2016. After submission came a 42-month review process involving another $70 million-plus in fees, plus $200 million spent internally to support the review.
“[It’s a] fairly high barrier to entry in terms of nuclear power, but it [NRC certification] is the most rigorous safety review you’ll find in the world, so getting that approval is an enormous accomplishment, and we’re very excited about the fact that we’ve made it,” says Dr. Reyes.
Along with its support of NuScale throughout the NRC regulatory process, Reyes notes that Fluor Corporation became NuScale’s strategic partner in 2011, after the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant nuclear accident in Japan. That accident was the worst nuclear event since Chernobyl, and it continues to evoke uncertainty around the risks of nuclear energy—misgivings that according to Dr. Reyes date from 1960’s-era power plant designs, and don’t take into account the significant safety advancements that developed in the intervening decades.
“Fluor actually invested in NuScale after Fukushima. Very telling. They did a lot of due diligence and they understood what we were doing, and what a radical change it was in terms of safety for nuclear power…and the fact that this had a huge global market,” Dr. Reyes explains. “And, of course, they’re strategic partners. They have a long-term view, and I think that’s what some of the challenge is with some early investors, that they have a short-term view [and are] looking for an early rate of return, whereas Fluor is looking forward to building the plants.”
The reactor design is “post-9/11 design,” with modules housed in a Seismic Category One building that is robust enough to withstand very strong earthquakes, and is also designed for aircraft impact.
Additionally, the containment building is designed to resist wind speeds of up to 290 mph, along with the debris associated with such powerful winds, factors that could become more prevalent in a climate-changed environment, with the potential for an increase in the number and intensity of severe weather events.
“We don’t need to be connected to the grid for safety,” explains Dr. Reyes. “We don’t need AC or DC power. We don’t need operator actions. We don’t need to add water to provide cooling to our reactors for an extended period of time…we’ve been authorized by the NRC to not require connections to the grid. So if you have a hurricane and lose connection, in conventional nuclear power they [the plants] have to shut down. In our design we can continue at 100 percent power, rejecting our steam to the turbines, and as soon as the grid is restored or portions [of the grid] are restored, we can then start adding power in 60 MW increments. So now, NuScale becomes first-responder power for emergency events, which has never been done with commercial nuclear power in the past.”
“I’ve always recognized the potential of the atom, in terms of [there being] so much energy density, that you can produce a lot of energy in a very small footprint. I always thought that was very attractive from the standpoint of the environment,” he explains. “Now, as we see, of course now, the world needs nuclear power. We need it to produce large quantities of carbon-free energy, if we have any chance of meeting global climate goals.”
Reyes says the imperative is not just global, but increasingly coming from individual U.S. states as they adopt clean energy mandates. He says NuScale meets with 29 utility companies in the U.S. and Canada every six months. While these companies are adding renewables to their energy mix, they also maintain many coal-fired plants, which at 40-60 years in service are scheduled to retire in the coming years.
The NuScale SMR plant is sized so that it will fit on a coal-fired plant site, where the water and transmission can be repurposed. NuScale can also minimize job losses at these sites by retraining coal-fired plant workers to work at NuScale site.
“We think there’s a huge, huge market. If we just look at coal-fired plant replacements alone – by 2040, we expect some 145 GW’s of coal fired plants to be eliminated. That’s [equivalent to] about 200 of our 12-pack NuScale plants. We’re not only adding clean energy to the grid, but we’re also alleviating some of the economic impacts that these communities are having to face as these coal plants retire,” he explains.
And besides the safety enhancements and cost savings, Reyes says, public stakeholders are looking for plants to provide not just electrical power, but also hydrogen and clean water. Here again is an opportunity to add value.
Because NuScale’s modular reactor is relatively small—15 feet in diameter and 70 feet long—it can be deployed in places where large nuclear installations likely wouldn’t be used, such as in coastal cities in need of clean water sources.
A single module can produce 60 MW of electricity, equivalent to 17,000 acres of wind, enough to power 50,000 homes. The module can also produce 60 million gallons of clean water per day, with a 12-pack NuScale reactor installation capable of fulfilling all of the water requirements for a city the size of Cape Town, South Africa, in a compact, carbon-free structure that is more feasible to install than wind or solar.