Small modular nuclear reactors cut costs for a diverse portfolio

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Recent scholarly studies cast doubt on whether wind and solar power alone can address global climate change without support from nuclear power.

One of the reports, “The Future of Nuclear Power in a Carbon-Constrained World,” written by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, acknowledges concerns about the costs of nuclear power but says that a generation portfolio that does not include nuclear power, particularly new, alternative nuclear technologies, could ultimately raise the cost of fighting global climate change.

NuScale Power is working with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) on the nation’s first commercial small modular reactor project. Twelve small modular reactors will be installed in Idaho, each capable of delivering 60 megawatts of zero-emission energy. UAMPS plans to have the plant in operation by 2026.

UAMPS is a public power joint action agency that provides wholesale electricity to more than 40 community-owned electric utilities in the Intermountain West.

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 Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls. The site selection process was conducted in collaboration with the DOE. Another public power entity, Energy Northwest, has the option to operate the SMR plant.

UAMPS says the Carbon Free Power Project helps it achieve two goals. It is cost effective and has zero emissions, so it will provide the flexibility to ramp up and down to support greater penetration of renewable resources while providing a hedge against higher natural gas prices. Other elements of the Carbon Free Power Project include energy efficiency and distributed generation.

UAMPS already has wind, hydro and distributed solar on its system, as well as aging coal plants that will need to be replaced. “They are looking for nuclear to be the foundation for that portfolio,” Chris Colbert, chief strategy officer at NuScale, said.

One of the problems with wind and solar power is that the power generated cannot be shifted effectively to be used when it is needed. The electrical output could be captured in batteries and discharged when needed, but “the MIT Report shows you would end up over building pretty dramatically,” Colbert said.

Similarly, the intermittency of wind and solar power means that those facilities have to be sized to exceed expected demand. In terms of meeting load, a 1,000 MW nuclear plant is roughly equivalent to a 3,000 MW wind or solar plant, Colbert said. “If you don’t have nuclear in your portfolio, the cost of decarbonization increases dramatically, by a factor of three or four times,” he said citing the MIT Report. “Having some slice of nuclear makes renewables much more effective.”

Including nuclear power in a low carbon generation portfolio conforms with the findings of recent studies by researchers at Harvard University and MIT.

In a paper, “Climatic Impacts of Wind Power,” published in the scientific journal Joule, authors Lee Miller and David Keith of Harvard found that while wind power reduces emissions overall, it also raises temperatures, particularly at night, because the turbine blades redistribute heat in the layers of the atmosphere. So, while wind power’s overall environmental impact is less than fossil energy, it is not zero, the researchers concluded.

In another paper, “Observation-based solar and wind power capacity factors and power
densities,” the same Harvard researchers found that other studies have underestimated the impact wind and solar power have on land use. Measuring the output of wind and solar plants, Miller and Keith found the current rate of electricity consumption would require 12% of the continental United States to be covered with wind turbines. Solar power, they found, has a higher power density, but it would still require 1% of the continental U.S. to be covered with solar panels. Nuclear power, on the other hand, is the densest form of power generation.

In the MIT study, the authors found that nuclear power plays an important role in decarbonization. “The least-cost portfolios include an important share for nuclear, the magnitude of which significantly grows as the cost of nuclear drops,” they wrote. They also acknowledged that uncontained costs have made the prospects of traditional nuclear power “decidedly dim in many parts of the world.”

The greatest promise for reducing capital costs lies in advances in plant design, the MIT study’s authors say. Among the recommendations they make are changes in how nuclear plant construction is handled, such as a shift away from field construction and a shift toward passive safety features. That is the approach taken by NuScale.

NuScale’s SMR design uses a passive safety feature that “vastly simplified the design,” Colbert says. “It eliminates two-thirds of the systems and components in a typical large reactor.”

NuScale also has moved a lot of the work for its SMRs from the field to the factory. Steam supply and containment are all done in a factory. In all, Colbert said about 80% of the work on NuScale’s SMR will be done in a factory. He said a rule of thumb in construction is “what takes one hour in a factory, takes three hours on site and eight hours in the hole,” and less construction leads to lower prices.

“People want clean energy, but first they want affordable energy,” Colbert said. Under its arrangement with NuScale, UAMPS set a price to beat of $65 per MWh on a levelized cost of electricity basis. If the price goes above that, UAMPS can exit its contract with NuScale. For comparison, a new gas-fired, combined-cycle costs about $55 per MWh.

Douglas Hunter, CEO & general manager of UAMPS, said NuScale’s technology “is ideal for public power utilities given its small footprint and other favorable siting features, scalability, compatibility with other energy resources, and its competitive cost. Joint action agencies should consider development of a 12-module installation.  It will allow their members that desire a clean portfolio to bring on 60 MW modules as needed for load. SMRs are also a great replacement for retiring coal plants.”

Like a gas plant, Colbert says NuScale’s SMR design can provide the flexibility to ramp up and down to support the variability of wind power, but the nuclear plant also provides a hedge against the volatility of gas prices and fuel security by having a two-year supply of fuel on site.

The quest for secure, reliable and clean baseload power is still on. NuScale is working on providing that through SMRs.

For more information about NuScale and its SMR technology, click here.