Columbia is hosting a major national conference this week about the next generation of nuclear power. Some South Carolina politicians and representatives from the energy industry are gathering Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the growing potential of miniature nuclear plants that can be smaller than a mobile home.
Called Small Modular Reactors, or SMRs, they are being touted as a possible alternative to traditional nuclear energy. Conceptually, they could be mass produced, pre-assembled, transported to a site, then installed. Supporters say SMRs could eventually be used to power small towns and military bases. However, opponents worry about their cost and safety. South Carolina officials want their state, with its strong historical ties to nuclear energy, to be at the forefront.
While based on the small reactors currently used on naval carriers and nuclear submarines, the technology is still years away from being sold commercially. The idea is that, once established, the small, mass-produced designs have lower costs to install and maintain. Companies such as Westinghouse, Babcock & Wilcox, Hyperion, and Holtec International have all designed SMRs, but none have gone so far as to apply to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license– although all hope to before 2013.
The event was headlined by speeches from Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Graham, long a proponent of nuclear power, recognized that the new technology was still several years away. Startup costs in the new technology are the biggest hurdle, he said, but he felt the federal government would step in for the first five years.
If you’re serious about nuclear energy, why wouldn’t you be in favor of policies that didn’t cost you the farm to build? If you could provide nuclear power without risking fiscal solvency, that’s a good thing.
The conference was organized by Nuclear Energy Insider and EngenuitySC– a public/private partnership designed to improve Columbia’s knowledge-based economy.
South Carolina Electric & Gas is examining the feasibility of the smaller reactors as it begins phasing out its coal plants in the next decade. Executive VP of Power Generation Steve Byrne said the costs would first have to be “affordable.”
If you’re going to peg (the cost) to another source, then you’re going to have to peg it to conventional nuclear. Conventional nuclear is coming in… somewhere in the range of $4,500-$5,000 per kilowatt. So, if these guys can get their price per kilowatt to somewhere down in that $5,000 range, that would be affordable.
And that’s the catch. Right now, no SMRs even exist, and their costs are only speculative. Part of the problem is that federal regulations are designed for the larger, traditional reactors and not the miniature designs. Industry officials are not even certain which regulations they will be expected to follow and which they will not.
Westinghouse Electric is involved with the new reactors. The company is heavily invested in South Carolina already, as it operates a nuclear fuel assembly plant in Columbia and designed the reactors soon to be installed at SCE&G’s new power plants in Fairfield County. Michael Anness is Westinghouse’s Manager for Advanced Reactors. He warns that SMRs are many years away from being practical.
We don’t like to hype. Hype does us no good. There’s no value in it for Westinghouse, so we’ve been pretty mum for quite some time. But, we’ve been hard at work. We only unveiled what we were working on early this year.
Arguably, the furthest along is Hyperion International, a New Mexico company which has announced plans to build a prototype SMR at the Savannah River Site (SRS). By building on a weapons-producing site (rather than for civilian purposes), the company might avoid the NRC’s licensing project– much in the same way that naval reactors are not covered by the agency.
Opponents are targeting the SMR’s uncertain costs. Tom Clements of the Friends of the Earth environmental group questioned how the industry could survive without federal funding– which is far from certain with federal budget-trimming looming on the horizon.
The cost of these speculative reactors may prove to be prohibitive and safety aspects of them, such as shipping reactors loaded with spent fuel, are of great concern, as they would have to travel through population centers, such as the Port of Charleston, if SRS were to become an SMR site where old reactors and spent fuel would be dumped.
With more reactors in use, others fear operators would be more likely to improperly dispose of radioactive waste. They say that could lead to environmental and health issues.
Opponents worry about using SMRs in Third World countries, which is where the industry is focusing due to a lack of American commitment. Nuclear proliferation could be a very real possibility, they warn, with materials ending up in the wrong hands.
However, supporters say the SMRs would prevent proliferation. Holtec International is an American company that revealed its SMR design in February. Pierre Oneid leads Holtec subsidiary SMR LLC that is developing the new reactor. Oneid said his company is trying to protect the reactors as much as possible.
I’ve asked our design team to turn their hats around and become terrorists overnight. I wanted them to come back into what they just designed and tell me… what is it that you can do to hurt this plant? And, you know, they’re struggling.
He says some safeguards include burying the installed reactors below ground (to minimize an impact from a missile or plane) and keeping the equipment necessary to remove them off-site.
Oneid says there are understandable fears, but believes that should not prevent a cautious step forward.
When electricity was invented, there were those who said, “That’s bad.” There were people who said, “You shouldn’t have that, it kills people.” And what do we do today? You point it to your head with a hairdryer in the morning and you think nothing about it.