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New nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors (SMR), have reached a point where they are able to help utilities address growing concerns about fulfilling their core mission: delivering safe, affordable, and reliable electric power.
Several industry trends are challenging utility executives’ abilities to balance those three key objectives.
A July report from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) highlighted the growing threats to reliability, including extreme weather events, the growing proliferation of “inverter based resources” such as photovoltaic solar power and energy storage, and increasing reliance on natural gas-fired generation.
The growth of renewable resources aimed at meeting state and federal goals aimed at addressing greenhouse gas emissions has been impressive. In the first half of the year, 24 percent of utility-scale generation in the United States came from renewable sources, according to the Energy Information Administration. However, as NERC pointed out this summer, as renewable resources have proliferated, gas-fired generators are becoming “necessary balancing resources” for reliability, leading to an interdependence that poses “a major new reliability risk.”
In this environment, if utilities are going to stay on track to meet their clean energy targets while providing secure, safe and reliable electric power to meet growing demand, they are going to need a new solution.
“NuScale Power’s SMR technology offers a carbon-free energy solution with features, capability, and performance not found in current nuclear power facilities,” Karin Feldman, Vice President of NuScale’s Program Management Office, said in an interview.
Several utilities have already begun exploring the potential of a new generation of nuclear technology to help them meet both their clean energy and reliability needs as they work toward meeting growing demand.
NuScale’s project portfolio includes a six module, 462-MW VOYGR™ SMR power plant. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) plans to develop at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls for their Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP).
NuScale also has memorandums of understanding to evaluate the deployment of its SMR technology with Associated Electric Cooperative in Missouri and Dairyland Power Cooperative in Wisconsin.
“What we bring to the table is a technology that is smaller and simpler; that lowers total costs while providing high reliability and resilience, and greater safety,” said Feldman, who develops and manages NuScale’s portfolio of projects and establishes and maintains project controls, cost estimating, and risk management standards. She is also NuScale’s primary interface with the DOE.
The smaller scale of NuScale’s reactors – 77 MW versus 700 MW or even 1,600 MW or more for conventional reactors – brings several cost advantages, Feldman said. Smaller reactors can be fabricated in a factory, which is cheaper than field fabrication, because it involves repetitive procedures that foster iterative improvement and economies of scale, she said. Smaller reactors also take less time to build, which lowers construction costs.
Because they are modular, an SMR does not force a utility to commit to participation in a nuclear project in the 1,000-MW to 2,000-MW size range. An SMR project can be scaled to meet demand, and modules can be added as demand requires, Feldman said. That helps reduce financial risk for a utility, she said.
Another, related consideration, highlighted by the supply chain disruptions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is that much of NuScale’s technology can be locally sourced. “We are taking advantage of the U.S. supply chain to the greatest extent possible,” Feldman said. “We have some overseas manufacturers, but we are also engaged to develop additional U.S. capabilities in areas such as large-scale forgings."
Reliability and Resiliency
Nuclear power plants generally have high reliability, over 92 percent, nearly twice the reliability of coal and natural gas plants, but the smaller, compact design of SMR technology can offer additional reliability advantages, Feldman said. Because NuScale plants are designed to scaled up in incremental steps, if any one of the individual reactors has an issue, the other reactors can continue to generate power, she explained.
NuScale’s SMR technology also enhances resiliency, Feldman said. The design calls for the reactors to be housed in a building below grade, hardening their vulnerability to airplane strikes and very large seismic events, she said.
An SMR plant also is designed with black start capability so that it can restart after a disruption without using the surrounding electric grid. “So, in the event of an emergency, it could be a first responder to the grid, one of the first generators to start up,” Feldman said.
And because the design calls for multiple reactors, a problem with one reactor does not require the entire plant to shut down. An SMR plant can also operate in island mode, serving as a self-sufficient energy source during an emergency, Feldman said.
In some ways, a NuScale SMR power plant resembles a microgrid. In fact, NuScale’s technology team has done a lot of analysis on microgrid capacity, Feldman said, noting that the analysis found that a 154-MW SMR plant could run for 12 years without refueling. “The technology is very good for mission critical functions and activities,” she said.
Cost and resiliency are important considerations, but if a power plant, especially a nuclear power plant, is not safe, other considerations pale in comparison.
Safety is built into NuScale’s SMR design, Feldman said. “The SMR has a dual walled vessel design that gives it an unlimited coping period,” she said. “If an incident does occur, the plant can shut down without operator intervention or action and be safe and secure,” she said.
NuScale’s integrated design encompasses the reactor, steam generators and pressurizer and uses the natural action of circulation, eliminating the need for large primary piping and reactor coolant pumps.
If needed, the reactor shuts down and self cools indefinitely without the need for either alternating current or direct current power or additional water. The containment vessel is submerged in a heat sink for core cooling in a below grade reactor pool housed in a Seismic Category 1 reactor building as defined by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In essence, the unit continues to cool until the decay heat dissipates at which point the reactor is air cooled, Feldman said.
In 2018, the NRC found that NuScale's SMR safety design eliminates the need for class 1E power, that is, power needed to maintain reactor coolant integrity and remain in a safe shutdown condition.
In August 2020, the NRC approved the overall design of NuScale’s SMR. In a next step, the NRC in July directed staff to issue a final rule certifying NuScale’s SMR design.
If approved, the certification would be published in the Federal Register and have the effect of law, providing even greater comfort to any entities exploring SMR technology to provide clean, emission free, reliable and affordable power, Feldman said.
The rulemaking is on NRC’s docket for a decision in November.
Finally, after a rigorous years long review by the NRC, the Final Safety Evaluation Report (FSER) regarding NuScale’s Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) methodology was issued. This is another tremendous “first” for NuScale’s technology. With the report’s approval of our methodology, an EPZ that is limited to the site boundary of the power plant is now achievable for a wide range of potential plant sites where a NuScale VOYGR™ SMR power plant could be located.