The US certifies the first design of a small modular nuclear reactor

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For the first time, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has certified an advanced small modular reactor (SMR) design. The certification allows utilities to choose the advanced reactor design when applying for a permit to build and operate a new power plant.

The NRC’s certification is an important stamp of approval for a potential climate solution that remains controversial among environmental advocates. In essence, it is the green light for an entirely new generation of nuclear reactors.

“RBEs are no longer an abstract concept”

Whether these advanced reactors can overcome the challenges traditional nuclear power plants have faced remains an open question. There are years of testing and research to come.

Nuclear energy advocates are eager to get the technology out of the lab and into the real world as the Biden administration tries to bring carbon-free energy online to meet its climate goals. The argument is that nuclear power plants, which emit no greenhouse gas emissions, can provide much-needed backup for solar and wind energy that fluctuates with the weather. Because they are small and modular (that is, they can be factory assembled), these next-generation reactors would also be cheaper and easier to build and place than traditional nuclear power plants.

The NRC-certified design is about one-third the size of a traditional reactor and is based on a concept developed at Oregon State University in the 2000s. Since 2014, the Department of Energy (DOE) has given more than $600 million to the company that grew out of that research project, NuScale Power, and similar advanced reactor concepts to mature the technology.

An artist's rendering of a cylindrical metal reactor

The NuScale Power Module™, comprising an integrated reactor vessel, steam generator and containment vessel in a single cylindrical module.
Image courtesy of NuScale

The DOE and NuScale are currently working with utility company Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to build a demonstration power plant with the small modular reactors. The first module is expected to come online in 2029, while the rest of the factory will be fully operational the following year.

The recently approved module design can generate up to 50 MW of electricity, although Nuscale has applied to increase that to 77 MW. The plan is to build the demonstration plant in Idaho, with six modules that together can generate 462 MW.

Costs have already gone up for that project. The target price per megawatt of power from the plant is up 53 percent this month to $89 per megawatt-hour. Reuters reports. The higher price tag “reflects the changing financial landscape for rural energy project development,” according to a press release from NuScale. But rising costs are nothing new for nuclear power projects. The only nuclear power plant under construction in the US, the Vogtle reactors in Georgia, is already billions of dollars over budget after years of delay.

The NRC published its final rule on NuScale’s advanced reactor design in the Federal Register on Jan. 19 and will go into effect Feb. 21. The Commission has only ever certified six other types of nuclear reactors – all older, larger designs.

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