[Ucilia, Forbes, 1-20, “Feds To Finance Small Nuclear Reactor Designs,” http://www.forbes.com/sites/uciliawang/2012/01/20/feds-to-finance-small-nuclear-reactor-designs/]
The U.S. Department of Energy on Friday announced a plan to support the design of so-called “small modular nuclear reactors” and popularize their use for power generation. The plan is to fund two reactor designs that will become available for licensing and production by 2022. The department is first asking for advice from the power industry on crafting the details of this project, and it hasn’t said how much it would dole out. But whoever wins the contracts to design the reactors will have to pony up money as well. Small reactors are generally about one-third the size of existing nuclear reactors, and a power plant with small reactors promises to be cheaper to build and easier to obtain permits more quickly than a full-size nuclear power plant, proponents say. Utilities should have more flexibility in modifying the size of a power plant with small reactors – if they need more power, then they can add more reactors over time. Nuclear reactors have historically been designed to be 1-gigawatt or more each because such scale helps to drive down the manufacturing and installation costs. Small reactors can be economical, too, advocates say, because they can be shipped more easily and cheaply around the world. “We think (small, modular nuclear) solves a lot of issues in terms of investments and electricity infrastructure,” Chu said at a press conference a year ago. “And it’s a way for the United States to regain its leadership in nuclear.” Several startups and major power equipment makers are working on small modular nuclear reactors. They include TerraPower, which is backed by Bill Gates and recently received funding from Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries. TerraPower also has been talking to the governments of China, India and Russia, basically countries where nuclear power won’t likely receive the kind of intense opposition that you’ll find in the United States, Germany or Japan. Other venture capital-funded startups include NuScale Power and Hyperion Power Generation (see a list from GigaOm). These companies aren’t just working on shrinking the size of the reactors. They also are investigating the use of different fuels and ways to reduce nuclear waste, for example. Following the energy department’s announcement Friday morning, Westinghouse Electric Co. issued a statement to say it intends to apply for the funding. Westinghouse already is in the nuclear reactor design business. It received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a large, 1,154-megawatt nuclear reactor called AP1000 last month. The energy department funded part of the project to design AP1000. Just because small nuclear reactors promise many economic and environmental benefits (they don’t produce dirty air like coal or natural gas power plants do) doesn’t mean they can be developed and made more quickly or cheaply, however. Technology companies also will have to prove that their small nuclear reactors can be just as safe if not safer than the conventional, large-scale nuclear reactors today. The Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan has shown that a misstep in designing and operating a nuclear plant can have a far greater and more devastating impact than a mistake in running other types of power plants. That means nuclear power companies — and the government — will have to do a lot more to prove that nuclear power should remain an important part of the country’s energy mix.
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