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Heft, ‘11

[Gordon, Black & Veatch, “Small Modular Reactors Make Headway In Many Countries: Design Certification Starts Soon,” Issue No. 1, http://solutions.bv.com/small-modular-reactors-make-headway-in-many-countries/]


Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), those nuclear power plants that have the capability of being mass produced, hauled by rail and dropped in the ground, at first glance sound like something from the futuristic pages of Popular Science magazine. But look out – the first proposals head for design certification as early as next year. Already, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is holding discussions with various designers on what are called topical reports. It is a “meet and discussion” time that allows the subjects addressed in the topical reports (e.g., security, passive safety systems) to get an early review by the NRC and to see what kinds of questions or concerns the NRC raises. Call it an early-stage vetting opportunity. “SMRs have many advantages, including the passive cooling systems that have simplicity and safety,” said Larry Drbal, Chief Engineer, Nuclear for Black & Veatch. “It is really an interesting, exciting concept.” The notion of using nuclear power in a very small manner is certainly not new, considering several countries have naval fleets that are nuclear powered. But using SMRs to generate electrical power in small quantities – 10 megawatts to 300 MW – is definitely new and ground-breaking, Drbal said. Currently, there are four small reactors operating in a remote area of Siberia and a floating barge equipped with two small reactors under construction in Russia, with operation expected in 2013 near the city of Viluchinsk. Drbal sees SMRs as gaining much traction in the next few years. Although the design certification documents (DCDs) may take five years for NRC review, he said that utilities could also submit COLAs (combined construction and operating license applications) to the NRC in parallel with the DCD. By the time the DCD receives NRC approval, the COLA approval could soon follow, and construction could quickly begin. “One developer is saying they expect to have their first SMR operating commercially by 2020,” Drbal noted. Advantages to SMRs Drbal has no problem reeling off a laundry list of advantages he sees to this new way of viewing nuclear power. “All components can be built in-country and then hauled by truck, rail or barge to the site. These modules can be mass produced, which gains factory-like efficiencies. Since they are modular, they can be built to match the load growth of a given region, and when you need additional power, you add another module, just like what we do with combined cycle units.” Drbal says SMRs will likely be used in remote locations, where it is difficult to generate power and erect transmission lines. Because the generation size is so much smaller than a full-sized nuclear plant, the load output would be more compatible with the electric grid size. The designs also promise longer fuel cycles, and when it does come time to refuel, it may be a matter of pulling out one module and dropping in a new one for some SMR designs. Financially, SMRs come with a much smaller price tag. While owners are probably looking upwards at $1 billion, Drbal estimates, that is still dwarfed by the $8 billion price that comes with the full-sized brethren. With the smaller size also comes a smaller staff, partially reduced security needs, less operating maintenance, decreased financial risk, and perhaps even less emergency planning. The designs also are “passive,” meaning less safety-related pumps, motors, piping and other apparatus. International Interest in SMRs Many countries are looking at developing SMRs – China, South Korea, Argentina, Russia, the U.S., South Africa and France, just to name a few. The International Atomic Energy Association projects that 1,000 such reactors could be in commercial operation in the next 30 years – reaching isolated areas and small cities. There are a variety of different designs being offered by the global nuclear community, ranging from scaled-down PWRs (pressurized water reactors) to liquid metal-cooled (e.g., sodium) fast reactors to high-temperature gas-cooled reactors. “The NRC is first looking at the PWR designs, since that is what they are used to examining,” Drbal noted. “We expect the first two design certification applications to go before the NRC for review beginning in 2012.” The review process is meticulous but is continually ongoing during the five-year period, although SMR developers believe the NRC review time will be less because their designs are smaller, passive and simpler. There are many SMR generic licensing issues that will require resolution, including emergency planning, passive safety systems, staffing, physical security, financial issues, decommissioning and many more. These issues are being addressed with the NRC by the industry, technical societies, the government and other organizations. “The NRC will do a very detailed analysis. They will question everything – all assumptions, all calculations,” Drbal said. “They will ask for documentation, data and proof on literally hundreds of items. And after you answer those questions, they’ll ask more. They will also do their own analyses. Then there is a public comment period, which will generate more questions and discussions. It just takes time.” The fact that all of this technology is new – and in some cases, unproven – makes it even more time-consuming. There are few existing prototypes to gather data from, and no commercial operations to point to as examples. Still, Drbal says he has no doubt that SMR designs will be moving forward quickly in the upcoming years.


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