Tuesday, March 12, 2013

SMR's the Nu Crack of the Nuclear Age

Companies engaged in the nuclear energy business are scrambling like an addict looking for its next fix. Some bad stuff hit the streets in recent years and nuclear energy operators found business slowed and even stopped in a few instances.

How could nuclear energy be revitalized again? Remember that line from Field of Dreams, "If you build it they will come." So that is where we are at this minute in time, rolling out the plans to build SMR's ~ small modular reactors.

What is a small modular reactor and why is it so desirable? Small reactors are about one-third the size of current reactors, they can be built in less time and for less cost. The biggest feature is that the modular reactor can be manufactured at a plant and brought to the site fully constructed. Much like a modular housing, which for some reason never really took off.

In my own state of Missouri there has been a lot of talk about SMR's this past year. Ameren Missouri operates Callaway Nuclear Plant #1 and has been trying to secure a license to build a second nuclear plant at their facility near Fulton, MO. It kept getting hung up in the state legislature over this CWIP (Construction Work in Progress) law we have. You see Ameren wanted to change that law so the rate payers could be charged for the construction up front.

It has been a very controversial piece of legislation that Ameren worked on for years to try to get changed. Then almost in an instant the issue became silent. I'm not an insider so I didn't know what was going on but I was worried. I felt like you do sometimes when you are out walking late at night, it is dark and no one is around and it is so very, very quiet. The slightest breaking of a twig under your shoe can send you jumping sky high.

Then about a year ago Ameren shifted course and announced a partnership with Westinghouse to go into the manufacturing business of small modular reactors. It was going to apply for the grant being offered up by the Department of Energy.

The state of Missouri from the Governor to the University of Missouri president was joyful. They were assured that this new venture would be cure all for the economic woes of the state.
"And because the plants would be built in modules at a central factory and shipped worldwide, they’re seen as a potential new source of American manufacturing jobs — a benefit that especially interests elected officials in Missouri. " ~  Jeffrey Tomich, St. Louis Post Dispatch
The grant was lost by Ameren-Westinghouse when the DOE  award went to a partnership led by Babcock & Wilcox and included the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel corporation. It doesn't take special eyeglass lenses to see that this is a game played at the big boys club. 

Ameren has not yet announce if it will attempt to try for the second grant that the DOE has offered up. Applications are due July 1 and the award announced in the fall of this year.

Additional reading material on Small Modular Reactors:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_modular_reactor
  2. http://news.thomasnet.com/green_clean/2013/02/27/are-small-modular-reactors-a-better-nuclear-solution-or-just-more-of-the-same/
  3. http://ansnuclearcafe.org/2013/03/01/on-federal-investment-in-smrs/
  4. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/512321/safer-nuclear-power-at-half-the-price/

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