Some of the key players in the emerging field of small modular nuclear reactors gathered in Corvallis this week to talk shop and compare notes on everything from safety features to energy economics.
The three-day technical meeting at Oregon State University, which wraps up today, is not open to the public. But it attracted 20 attendees from around the world, including representatives of private and government-run nuclear power companies from Russia, China, India, South Korea, Jordan, Italy, France and the United States. Two officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Austria, also took part.
Co-sponsored by the IAEA and OSU’s Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics, the event was billed as “A Roadmap for the Development of Small Modular Reactor Technology.” Touted as both cheaper and safer than conventional nukes, small modular reactors are designed to be built in a factory and then shipped to the generating site.
One of the American companies racing to be first to market with an SMR design is Corvallis-based NuScale Power, which is working to commercialize technology developed at OSU. The university has also developed expertise in high-temperature gas reactors, another developing technology.
“We’ve been around since the inception of this insurgence of SMRs and the development of advanced reactor technology,” said nuclear engineering professor Wade Marcum, one of the organizers of the meeting.
While seen as a promising new technology by both the utility industry and the federal government, U.S. regulatory approval is still years away, and some companies have scaled back their development programs for economic reasons, chiefly the availability of cheap natural gas to fuel large electric generating plants.
That was a hot topic at this week’s meeting, but at least some of the participants see that as a short-term obstacle to developing SMR technology.
“Natural gas historically has been so volatile; it just happens to be at a low state right now,” Marcum said. “We all know in reality that’s going to spike.”
Even Babcock & Wilcox — which along with NuScale is one of only two U.S. firms picked to receive up to $226 million in matching funds from the Department of Energy to speed commercialization of its design — drastically cut back its development funding this year after failing to attract investors for its SMR division, known as mPower.
But Jay Brister, mPower’s chief technology officer, insisted that the company’s long-range plans remain unchanged.
“Babcock & Wilcox is committed to the technology,” Brister said in an interview at OSU this week. “Concerted efforts on licensing and site certification, all of that will move forward, and the technology will continue to be developed.”
Safety concerns were another big topic at this week’s meeting, but participants continue to believe that SMRs offer major advantages over conventional nukes in a number of ways.
For one thing, they’re smaller than traditional 1,000-megwatt N-plants, meaning there’s less radioactive fuel involved. They’re also simpler, with smaller and less complicated process piping to worry about. And they tend to incorporate passive safety features, relying on natural convection currents to circulate cooling water around the reactor core rather than complex systems of pumps and valves that can fail in an emergency.
“This meeting in particular has been an eye-opener,” said Jose Reyes, the chief technology officer for NuScale and former head of OSU’s nuclear engineering program. “As we look at other designs, we also can see there is a unified, consistent desire to make plants safer.”
The meltdown and radiation releases at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan following an earthquake and tsunami in 2011 prompted a worldwide re-evaluation of safety protocols led by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which drafted a plan for improving protective measures.
One of the reasons for meetings like the one in Corvallis this week, IAEA representative David Shropshire said, is to continue to refine that plan and improve safety measures for SMRs and other reactor types.
“It’s a huge international effort,” he said.
And even though many of the participants represent competing companies, Reyes said, they are also collaborators when it comes to making small modular reactor technology better for everyone.
“What’s exciting to me,” he said, “is that this is a very interactive, growing community of SMRs with a focus on making things safer.”
Contact reporter Bennett Hall at [email protected] or 541-758-9529.