DOE official says advanced SMRs are ‘potentially game changing’

Small modular reactors were a key area of focus at a recent hearing held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy, with a Department of Energy official saying advanced SMRs are “potentially game changing.”

Two public power utilities – the Tennessee Valley Authority and Utah Association Municipal Power Systems – are currently involved in SMR projects.

The House Subcommittee on Energy on Feb. 6 held its second DOE modernization hearing entitled, “DOE Modernization: Advancing the Economic and National Security Benefits of America’s Nuclear Infrastructure.”

The hearing consisted of two panels. Among the witnesses appearing as part of the first panel was Ed McGinnis, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, DOE, Office of Nuclear Energy.

In his opening remarks, the DOE official said that the federal agency is working to develop the country’s next generation of advanced nuclear reactors “including potentially game changing advanced small modular reactors.”

In his opening statement, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that Oregon-based NuScale is an example of an innovative nuclear company.

“Nuscale’s small modular reactor proposed design recently received approval for a significant milestone when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission signed off on the design’s passive cooling system. This decision is a gamechanger for the regulatory framework and I applaud both NRC and NuScale on their breakthrough,” he said.

The NRC recently concluded that application of NuScale Power’s unique safety design approach eliminates the need for class 1E power for its small modular reactor. NuScale explained in a news release that Class 1E is the regulatory standard set for the design of safety-related nuclear power plant electrical systems.

The first commercial 12-module NuScale power plant is planned to be built on the site of the Idaho National Laboratory.

UAMPS in 2016 took a step forward in the development of its Carbon Free Power Project by identifying a preferred site within the boundary of the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory site near Idaho Falls, Idaho. The site selection process was conducted in collaboration with the DOE.

The Utah public power agency, which provides electricity at wholesale to more than 40 community-owned electric utilities in the Intermountain West, previously noted that it is studying the feasibility of deploying up to 12 small modular reactors at the Idaho site. One of its partners on the project is NuScale Power. Another public power entity, Energy Northwest, will operate the SMR plant.

SMRs are just one of the three elements of the UAMPS Carbon Free Power Project. Distributed generation and energy efficiency are the other key components.

SMRs and renewables integration

Walden asked McGinnis whether the modular nature of SMRs offers greater flexibility in terms of integrating renewables onto the grid.

“Indeed, the flexibility is exactly why we’re now looking and doing R&D on hybrid generation,” the DOE official said.

“We’re literally looking at pairing [an] advanced small modular reactor” with a wind turbine or a solar plant, McGinnis said. “The benefits of both can be very significant,” he said.

“How close are we seeing small modular reactors as a mainstream possibility and how could that revolutionize the nuclear industry?” Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, asked McGinnis.

“Very close, in my view,” the DOE official said. He said that NuScale “represents probably the most mature from a deployment perspective of those advanced light water reactor small modular reactors. That is one reason why we have invested in a technical partnership with them.”

McGinnis said that 2026 is an important target date. The NuScale SMR plant in Idaho is expected to begin commercial operations by 2026.

“We are facing, in my view, a cliff sooner than we thought with regards to the drop in our” fleet of nuclear reactors, he went on to say.

“It’s very important that we see these new advanced SMRs coming into pipeline and coming into market by the late 2020s – 2026 is the right time,” he said.

TVA SMR project

Meanwhile, Victor McCree, executive director of operations at the NRC, noted in his testimony that in May 2016, the NRC received an application from TVA for an early site permit at the Clinch River nuclear site in Tennessee to evaluate the suitability for a potential new SMR.

NRC staff’s related review is progressing on schedule, he said.

A report recently released by the DOE details how SMRs can provide energy resilience for federal agencies and focuses on the SMR project being developed by TVA.