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DOE to provide up to $450M for design and commercialization of small modular nuclear reactors

The US Department of Energy will provide up to $450 million to advance the development of American-made small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). The funding is targeted to support first-of-its-kind engineering, design certification and licensing for up to two SMR designs over five years, subject to congressional appropriations. Small modular reactors, which are approximately one-third the size of current nuclear plants (about 350 MWe or less), have compact, scalable designs that are expected to offer a host of safety, construction and economic benefits, acording to the DOE. (Earlier post.)

Through cost-share agreements with private industry, DOE will solicit proposals for promising SMR projects that have the potential to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and achieve commercial operation by 2022. These cost-share agreements will span a five-year period and, subject to congressional appropriations, will provide a total investment of approximately $900 million, with at least 50% provided by private industry.

SMRs can be made in factories and transported to sites where they would be ready to “plug and play” upon arrival, reducing both capital costs and construction times. The smaller size also makes SMRs suited for small electric grids and for locations that cannot support large reactors, offering utilities the flexibility to scale production as demand changes.

The newly announced funding builds on the Obama Administration’s efforts to help revitalize the US nuclear energy industry that include:

  • In 2010, DOE signed a conditional commitment for $8 billion in loan guarantees to support the Vogtle project, in which 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.

  • DOE 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.

  • Promoting a sustainable nuclear industry in the US also requires cultivating the next generation of scientists and engineers. 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.



Its a shame there is no money for LFIR there.
Spending a few billions on a number of rival designs is peanuts compared to the savings which can be made by getting the designs optimal.


Nothing to restart IFR development, either.

Eliminating the storage and shipment of spent fuel, as both LFTR and IFR would do, would address one of the major objections to nuclear power.  The waste volumes are also minuscule compared to LWRs.


Public / private partnership is not the right model for new nuclear developments. What will end up happening is that only GE and Westinghouse having the private capital to take advantage of the matching grants, but these two corporations will only push light water reactors. End result: spending a lot of money for no technology advancement. It would actually block the development of viable small reactors.

Department of Energy should have just performed the basic research in Small Reactors straight up. Be it Molten Salt Reactor, or Liquid Lead Coolant Reactors, and develop through demonstration plant stage, and keep them running to gather real life operating experience.

This way, the Department of Energy would have something real that can go through licensing in a few years.


This is a perfect example of how nuclear is simply not viable. The industry has access to hundreds of billions of private capital, and it benefits from tens of billions/year of government liability protection and Energy Department subsidies, and it still needs $450M to develop new reactor models?


The industry needs government to have skin in the game so that future pols don't just decide to legislate the effort out of existence.


The industry needs government to have skin in the game so that, just MAYBE, they don't get "Keystoned".

Bob Wallace

"approximately one-third the size of current nuclear plants "

OK, so if we wanted to power our country with nuclear plants rather than finding 100 to 400 places to build new normal-sized reactors we'd have to find 300 to 1,200 willing back yards?

Nick Lyons

@Bob Wallace: One of the main attractions of SMRs is that they are modular--you can install multiple reactors at a single site. You can scale up as needed. But you can also distribute them closer to users, reducing the need for transmission lines. You can also integrate them more easily into smaller grids, that can't support a 1 or 2-MW nuke (developing countries, remote regions such as northern Canada, Alaska).

The beauty of smaller components is that forgings, etc. can be built in your garden variety US factory. You can get mass production going, instead of building very expensive bespoke one-offs in that one factory in Japan, or wherever. SMRs are a good idea for a lot of reasons. See NuScale, for instance:


Eventually, LFTR SMRs will be favored design for cheap electricity, I do believe. Hope we get there while I'm still kicking.

Bob Wallace

Nick, I suppose you find that attractive. But how about dealing with the question of where one finds potentially hundreds of communities in the United States willing to allow nuclear reactors in their vicinity.

Nuclear is currently fight a rear guard battle with communities which want it gone from their backyards.

Furthermore, one does not achieve economy of scale with only a few hundred units. If that were the case the Nissan Leaf would already have greatly dropped in price.

Nissan sold almost 10,000 Leafs in the US in 2011. They state that total economy of scale savings won't be reached until EVs are manufactured at around 500,000 per year.


One of the day's good news stories. And, yes, I would be happy to have one in my backyard. Much better than having a coal fired plant even a hundred miles away.

Concerning economies of scale. There are different for different devices. Cars are typically made on a line that runs at a car every 50 seconds or so. (Running 2 shifts, this produces about 250,000 vehicles a year) Locomotives are made on a line that may make one or two a day but this is a lot different from trying to build one at a time. You would achieve significant savings if the reactors could be factory built in a reasonable scale (even 10 a year) and then shipped to the site instead of being custom built on site.


It seems like you deliver fuel rods to a lot more sites and have spent fuel rods at a lot more sites. I would rather that they put the money into thorium reactor research.


Bob Wallace,

Being modular allows instalation of reactor undergraund not escalatin costs dramaticaly. In that case NIMBY problem could be solved.


So it is Not In My Back Yard, it would be Under My Back Yard...so much better :)

Baby Fishmouth

Not concerned in whose yard they split atoms. I suppose they are going to want more taxpayer financed loan guarantees and tax credits.


As Nick_Lyons stated, "wish it were LFTR SMRs".
But at least its a step in the right direction.
Good objection from Bob Wallace about NIMBY but that could be overcome, if engineering is failsafe. Better than a coal plant in my backyard.

Bob Wallace

There are a number of people who seem to love big whiz-bang project stuff and are willing to take a chance that no more reactors go sour.

There are a number of people who are dead-set against living next to nuclear plants. Many may be even unrealistically unwilling to let reactors be built outside their personal danger zone.

I'm going to hold that there are fewer 'fors' than 'againsts' in almost every 'large neighborhood' in the country. The battle will be a political one and we will not see 200, 300, 400 mini-reactor sites in the US.

If nuclear was our only option, then perhaps. If people found their lights going off because they didn't have ample electricity then many would switch sides. But we've got non-nuclear options.

And the thing that makes the future decisions interesting is, those options are cheaper, quicker to bring on line and safer than nuclear.

Nuclear advocates are somehow going to have to convince the general public to accept more risk, pay more money for their electricity, and live with long term radioactive waste.

I just don't see that happening.


(I'm making some simple assumptions here: 1) the cost of PV solar will keep falling as the industry says it will and be considerably cheaper than nuclear, 2) grid storage batteries will give us affordable storage, and 3) both of these will have happened before a mini-nuclear factory can be built.)


"NIMBY but that could be overcome, if engineering is failsafe"

There is no failsafe engineering. All it takes is one Homer....


One of the prices I'm already paying for electricity is game fish so full of mercury they're unsafe for children and women of child-bearing age to eat.  A little bit of cesium?  I'd trade for that in a heartbeat; chronic low-level radiation exposure has no proven link to ill effects of any kind.


Oh, let's not forget widespread groundwater contamination from today's "clean" shale-gas revolution.


SMRs have many advantages, the biggest one is the ability to deliver one on the back of a truck.

As you decommission an old nuke you can install 10-20 of these at the old site, rotate the refueling and you can afford to have a continuous team working all the time, instead of hiring contractors and shutting down everything for a month every two years. Hopefully an SMR will also give you the ability to load follow better that the existing behemoth nukes.

A few SMRs at the Canadian Tar Sands sites would greatly increase production and at the same time reduce emissions.

Nick Lyons

People get much more radiation exposure from coal plant emissions than from nuclear plants. However, it is other emissions (particulates, mercury, etc) which are killing people every year.

Walk-away safe: look at the NuScale design: the whole containment is located underground in a pool of water. It has no coolant pumps (circulation by convection) so core cooling continues during a station blackout.

MSRs would be even better: no high-pressure water, so no chance for a steam explosion, no need for massive containment. The fuel is molten, mixed with the molten salt. No way to create a hydrogen explosion. If the salt gets too hot, a salt plug melts and the whole fuel load runs into drain tanks where decay heat can be passively rejected--truly walk-away safe.

This could be a much cheaper solution than smart grids + renewables. You can deploy a dirt-cheap, concentrated energy source close to where it's needed.

Small is beautiful, and thorium is abundant.


Thorium does sound like the way to go, from what I have read. They stopped development of it a long time ago, maybe it is time to reinvest in developing it again.

Kit P

When it comes to economy of scale, it is important to remember power plants produce energy and last 60 years while cars use energy and last 10 years. There comes a point in the life of car when a set of new tires and tune up is more than the car is worth.

To increase the out put of a large nuke 33%, only a 10% increase is required in plant size with the same number of components. It takes the same number of people to run a 500 MWe nuke plant as it does a 1500 MWe nuke plant. Furthermore, we only need so many baseload power plants.

If there has been a major change in how we think about nukes, it is how long they will last. The initial thinking is that they would last for 25-40 years. The current thinking is that we do not know how long they will last. We know they will last 40 years and are going for 60. Research to make them last 80 years is ongoing. We have not reached the point where keeping a old 400 MWe nuke running is more expensive than replacement power made with natural gas or coal which continue to trend up.

If 40 years ago, you built a 1000 MWe nuke, it has become one huge cash cow.

Bob Wallace

E-P, you're a smart guy. Why do you resort to the bogus proposition that the alternative to coal is only nuclear?

You can have your wide screen TV, your electric car, and all your lights on while accepting the risk of neither coal-provided mercury nor reactor-provided cesium.

If you think nuclear the answer then make the argument that somehow nuclear will turn out to be the least affordable or fastest way to get us off coal. Or some legitimate argument rather than the false coal/nuclear dichotomy.

Bob Wallace

Kit, the same can be said about solar panels. We act as if they burn out after 20 years but, facts are, panels in the field are still going strong after 30 years of use.

And the 1% - 2% predicted performance loss per year hasn't turned up. Losses are well under 1% per year.

Solar panels on your roof may pay for themselves in less than ten years and should then give you decades of free electricity.

Nick Lyons

@Kit P: The problem with scaling nuclear up is that the capital costs and project delays escalate, and the likelihood of project failure increases unbearably, making projects impossible to fund. This is due, in part, to pressurized water designs, which require enormous forgings which can't even be made in US factories.

SMRs, by contrast, reduce project risk by using smaller components which are capable of being produced by multiple US manufacturers. Modular components, rail or road shipping, fewer bespoke parts all add up to more schedule certainty, shorter project timelines and lower financing expense.

It's all good.

@Bob Wallace: I'm all in favor of distributed solar, BTW, and hope to outfit our house later this year or early next.

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