In another sign that the Obama Administration remains committed to nuclear power, the Department of Energy (DOE) is funding a five-year project to design, license and help commercialize small, modular nuclear reactors in the US.
Specifics are being negotiated, but DOE will fund up to half the cost of the $450 million project under a cost-share agreement with Babcock & Wilcox, the lead company selected to implement it. The Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel are also partners. DOE says it will help the firm obtain Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing and achieve commercial operations by 2022.
Small modular reactors can produce 180 megawatts of energy - about one-third the size of current nuclear power plants. They are promoted as compact, scalable designs that can be constructed more cost-effectively and quickly than large reactors – obviating their biggest flaws. The reactors can be manufactured in factories and transported to sites where they would be “plug and play” upon arrival. Their smaller size allows the to be used on smaller electric grids and in locations that can't support larger plants, giving utilities more flexibility to scale with demand.
DOE also views the techology as an export opportunity for the US, "advancing its competitive edge in this emerging global industry."
The project will be based in Tennessee, supporting additional suppliers and operations in Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
In 2010, DOE approved $8 billion in loan guarantees to support two new reactors at the Vogtle project spearheaded by Southern Company and Georgia Power.
The license was the first granted for a new US nuclear plants in more than three decades. The work there has been fraught with delays and cost overruns, which underscores the need for new designs such as the ones that will be supported with this latest round of funding.
Over the past three years, DOE also invested $170 million in research grants at more than 70 universities for a range of nuclear technologies that span advanced reactor concepts to enhanced safety design.
Despite the Obama Administration's enthusiasm for nuclear, countries such as Japan and Germany plan to phase it out. Even in the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is proceeding with caution – in August, it postponed at least 19 nuclear licensing decisions pending new policies for disposal and storage or nuclear waste.