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DOE announces small modular reactor technology partnerships at Savannah River Site

The US Energy Department (DOE) and its Savannah River Site (SRS) announced three public-private partnerships to develop deployment plans for small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) technologies at SRS facilities, near Aiken, South Carolina. The DOE has been working to advance SMR systems, which it defines as producing less than 350 MWe. (Earlier post.)

As part of the DOE’s commitment to advancing the next-generation of nuclear reactor technologies and breaking down the technical and economic barriers to deployment, these Memorandums of Agreement (MOA) will help leverage Savannah River’s land assets, energy facilities and nuclear expertise to support potential private sector development, testing and licensing of prototype SMR technologies.

The Energy Department, Savannah River Site and Savannah River National Laboratory (SRNL) have entered into three separate agreements with Hyperion Power Generation Inc.; SMR, LLC, a subsidiary of Holtec International; and NuScale Power, LLC. The agreements will help these private companies obtain information on potential SMR reactor siting at Savannah River and provide a framework for developing land use and site services agreements to further these efforts.

DOE says that by strengthening information sharing and access to site facilities and technical expertise, these MOAs will help break down engineering and testing barriers to advanced nuclear reactor research and development while providing these nuclear companies with the resources to support effective deployment plans.

The announcement builds on the Energy Department’s work to develop nuclear power:

  • The Energy Department announced $10 million in new research funds earlier this month to solve common challenges across the nuclear industry and improve reactor safety, performance and cost competitiveness.

  • In 2010, the Department signed a conditional commitment for $8 billion in loan guarantees to support the Vogtle project, where the Southern Company and Georgia Power are building two new nuclear reactors, helping to create new jobs and export opportunities for American workers and businesses.

  • The Energy Department has also supported the Vogtle project and the development of the next generation of nuclear reactors by providing more than $200 million through a cost-share agreement to support the licensing reviews for Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor design certification. The Vogtle license is the first for new nuclear power plant construction in more than three decades.

  • Over the past three years, the Department has invested $170 million in research grants at more than 70 universities, supporting R&D into a full spectrum of technologies, from advanced reactor concepts to enhanced safety design.

The Memorandums of Agreement announced today do not constitute a federal funding commitment. The Energy Department envisions private sector funding will be used to develop these technologies and support deployment plans. The agreements, and the officials and offices involved with these activities, are separate and distinct from the Energy Department’s Funding Opportunity Announcement for small modular reactor cost-share projects announced earlier this year. (Earlier post.)

Comments

Nick Lyons

SMRs are a good idea: get power plants up and running on time and within budget through mass production, modular components, etc. Scale up or down with multiple modules--produce power closer to end user, reducing need for long-distance, high voltage transmissions lines. NuScale looks like the most promising player in the short run.

Molten-salt SMRs are a great idea: no pressurized water, no way to melt down and totally passive safety systems, much higher fuel utilization (much smaller waste stream).

Thorium-powered, molten-salt SMRs are a really great idea--essentially unlimited, dirt-cheap fuel supply, plus all of the above.

JMartin

$8 Billion loan guarantee. Makes $535 Million to Solyndra look cheap.

kelly

Nick Lyons makes sense and a sample SMR should be a small fraction of the total $8B loan guarantee mentioned.

ejj

Yucca Mountain should be opened before any new reactors are built or researched.

Nick Lyons

@ejj:

We don't need Yucca Mountain, or any other very long term repository for spent nuclear fuel (SNF). SNF is composed of two kinds of 'waste':

1. Fission products (isotopes of cesium, strontium, etc), which will decay away at various rates, becoming stable and non-toxic within a couple hundred years for the longest-lived ones. Storing the fission products for a few hundred years is a reasonable thing to do.

2. Various un-fissioned isotopes of uranium and trans-uranics, such as plutonium, neptunium, etc. These have mostly very long half-lives and remain radioactive for thousands of years. Devising a storage scheme to keep these materials safe for thousands of years is a problem we can't be sure we've solved, even if we try. The good news is most of these 'wastes' can be burnt (fissioned) in a molten salt reactors.

Plutonium 239 is much too valuable to bury in the ground--let's burn it for energy. Pu239 can be used as the initial fissile load for a thorium-to-239U breeder MSR.

Until such time as we have come to our senses and start burning SNF in MSRs, dry cask storage is perfectly safe and adequate.

There is no long term energy shortage; there is a shortage of imagination.

Nick Lyons

errata in my post:

thorium-to-239U

should read:

thorium-to-233U

Engineer-Poet

The problem with using plutonium (weapons grade, reclaimed from LWR fuel, or whatever) to start a LFTR is that Pu-239 only fissions about 64% of the time in a thermal neutron spectrum.  The other 36% de-excites and becomes Pu-240, which is essentially unfissionable in a thermal spectrum.  The result is a lot of Pu-240, and eventually americium and curium.  Pu-240's half-life is more than 6500 years, making it problematic for spent-fuel disposal if it's not dealt with separately.

All Pu isotopes will fission in a fast-spectrum reactor, as will Am and Cm.  An energy program based on LFTRs started with reclaimed Pu (and probably those started with LEU) really needs some fast-spectrum reactors to finish the job.

Nick Lyons

@EP: All Pu isotopes will fission in a fast-spectrum reactor, as will Am and Cm. An energy program based on LFTRs started with reclaimed Pu (and probably those started with LEU) really needs some fast-spectrum reactors to finish the job.

True, and these fast spectrum reactors can also be MSRs. Please see:

http://nuclear.inl.gov/deliverables/docs/msr_deliverable_doe-global_07_paper.pdf

The thorium cycle will generate very small amounts of transuranics when implemented with a LFTR-type MSR started up with 233U. Obtaining the initial fissile load becomes an issue, since supplies of U233 are limited. Thus one can envision a scenario where you build lots of LFTRs, using 239Pu and/or 235U for the initial fissile load. You also build some fast-spectrum MSR reactors to burn the actinides left over. These can also be used to dispose of excess SNF. One could also design a system of reactors that eventually breeds enough extra 233U to start up new LFTRs, eliminating the need to use the U cycle at all.

Engineer-Poet

Very interesting paper.

One thing I note is that there seems to be an emphasis on actinide burning alone, rather than a U-Pu fuel cycle.  I'm not sure this is in the interest of the United States, because identified thorium deposits only come to about 1/4 of the amount of uranium already in inventory.  Closing off that avenue turns a massive resource into a waste-disposal problem, and I'd rather deal with it as stuff with a 30-yr half-life instead of 4 billion years.

The other detail is that chloride salt reactors are not ready for prime time yet.  I'd like to see it but I don't see them being ready for revenue service in less than 25 years, maybe 15 on a crash program.  If you contrast this to 20 years experience plus extra decades of research with fluoride MSRs and 30+ years with LMFBRs, the difference is obvious.  We need to do more than just research, and something like S-PRISM or BN800 has the capacity to do real work while gaining operational experience.

90% of this problem is politics.  Being able to show that the new systems are cleaning up old problems (destroying americium from SNF) is one way to score points that the old anti-nuke camp can't brush off easily.

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