As oil prices fall, making everything from natural gas to fuel oil the cheapest it has been in two decades, the energy industry – once busy making plans for a clean, renewable energy future– now seems to be refocusing its efforts on utilizing very cheap combustion fuels in order to advance profits.

Meanwhile, a convocation of scientists, analysts, policy makers, and heads of business at the Economic Forum in Davos (Switzerland, Jan. 20-23) has issued a warning: 

“Humanity must stop burning coal, oil, and gas to power the global economy or face an irreversible climate catastrophe.”

There is a middle ground. It is nuclear energy. But not necessarily your parent’s nuclear power plant – the 1,000-megawatt electrical (MWe) boiling water (BWE) or pressurized water (PWE) reactors, generally known as light water reactors, or LWRs, because they use plain water as a coolant.

Instead of these behemoths, most of which are approaching their third twenty-year licensing cycle (in the United States), future nuclear power plants will be scalable, affordable, and use a variety of high-temperature coolants (like molten salts, liquid metals, and even gases like natural gas).


Small modular reactors

Some of these small modular reactors, or SMRs, will no longer require enriched uranium, but run on depleted or "used" uranium instead, and the best of these advanced reactor designs will even have built-in safety features so redundant that the units don’t require an onsite operator.

The goal of several types of SMRs is to reduce the waste stream by “using up” all the isotopes in spent fuel that would otherwise remain radioactive, making it much safer to use storage casks and onsite storage. This fuel is called MOX (or mixed uranium-plutonium oxide).

Light water-type (LWR) SMRs will use enriched fuel, and spent-fuel storage techniques like their larger cousins, but at a much slower rate given their greater heat and consequent efficiency. These are pebble-bed and molten-salt reactors, and current NRC standards would apply.

A third type of SMR involves a sealed nuclear battery, good for the lifetime of the unit, which is small enough to be portable – on a ship for example, and without the typical associated nuclear power plant infrastructure.

SMRs are also less dependent on water, which Argonne National Laboratory notes is at the end of a “golden age” of almost ubiquitous availability and purity.

An additional reason for interest in SMRs is that they can more readily slot into brownfield sites in place of decommissioned coal-fired plants.

Not only smaller in size, but also smaller in complexity - and thus larger in safety - these micro-reactors are so manageable that they might even be considered “huggable”. Or, as one pundit has suggested, they are the “pit bull puppies” of the nuclear energy world – creatures whose dangerous reputation far exceeds their actual ferocity.

These SMRs, ranging in output from 50 to 300 MWe (a size defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA), are as much as 30 times smaller than the typical third-generation nuclear reactors of today, which provide from 1000 to 1600 MWe. They also cost less to build, ranging from an average of $200 million for 45 MWe to about $2 billion for a 540 MWe plant (at an average $4,000 per kilowatt-hour electric, or kWe). This is still considerably less than the $10.93 billion(€10 billion) for the traditional nuclear power plant (at approximately $6,125 per kWe in the developed world today).

Nor is funding a problem, as it once was. Thanks to a partnership between government and the private sector, approved by a House committee on Jan. 12, federally operated research labs and private enterprise will be able to collaborate without the red tape that once strangled both funding and innovation in nuclear energy.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy, or DOE, on Jan. 19 announced $40 million in funding, to both X Energy, LLC and Southern Company (NYSE: SO), to develop alternative reactor designs which have already received a PR boost from U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

Moniz, speaking at the recent COP 21 climate conference in Paris, suggested that SMRs could solve the transition problem from fossil-fuel energy to clean, renewable energy technologies like solar and wind. Later, referring to the DOE-NuScale development award, Moniz said:

“The Energy Department is committed to strengthening nuclear energy’s continuing important role in America’s low carbon future, and new technologies like small modular reactors will help ensure our continued leadership in the safe, secure, and efficient use of nuclear power worldwide.” 

The message is clear: the Obama administration is front and center behind nuclear energy, which makes up 19 percent of the nation’s energy fuel mix, second only to natural gas at 27 percent. Moreover, of the three main fuel components of U.S. electricity generation – coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy – nuclear is the only one to produce no greenhouse gases – an important factor as investor-owned utilities begin focusing on their sustainability reporting and the dollar cost of emissions in a carbon-restricted economy.

As Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) noted in a recent EnergyBiz Magazine interview, conservation, efficiency, and distributed energy are not the entire solution to a clean, stable, safe baseload supply of energy. To bridge the gap, the utility has chosen a small modular reactor project using technology supplied by NuScale Power. Plants that UAMPS says are: 

“ …as different from the enormous, large-reactor plants built in the 1960s as a 2015 Prius hybrid is to a 1960s-era Cadillac with its flamboyant fins and terrible gas mileage.”

SMR industry

NuScale and BWX Technologies (NYSE: BWXT) have both submitted Design Certification applications. Holtec International has asked for a construction permit and operating license for its SMR-160. The Clinch River Site in Tennessee, under the auspices of the Tennessee Valley Authority, has applied for an early site permit. And in Georgia, the Vogtle power plant has received the last major permit required to commence operations in 2019. 

The SMR concept has also attracted Microsoft founder and businessman Bill Gates, whose startup TerraPower is working with Toshiba Corp (TYO: 6502) to build a traveling-wave reactor. Small enough to fit in a hot tub, and needing fuel only about every 75 years, the unit will use depleted uranium – the kind sitting around in spent fuel storage pools at nearly every nuclear energy power plant site in the U.S. 

In fact, wait a few years and it may be possible to buy a miniature nuclear power plant (micro-fusion generator) for the home! The size of a shoebox, it fits inside a reinforced, lead-shielded housing about the size of a 60-gallon hot water heater.

For those investors who wonder where nuclear energy falls in the government’s future power plans, it might be beneficial to know that on Jan. 28, the U.S. Senate voted 87 to 14 in favor of S. 2461, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act.


Companies to Watch:

BWX Technologies, Inc. (NYSE: BWXT) subsidiary, BWXT mPower, Inc., designs small modular reactor (SMR) technology. In June 2009, BWXT announced plans to develop an SMR. The BWXT mPower™ reactor, is scalable, modular, uses passive safety systems, is housed below ground, and can (as NuScale notes) be delivered in a boat. Or a large truck.

Gen4 Energy (formerly Hyperion Power Generation) makes the Gen4 Module mini reactor. Licensed through Los Alamos National Laboratory, or LANL, one of 13 Department of Energy laboratories working in the fields of energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Gen4 Module is small, safe, clean, sustainable, cost-efficient, and easily transportable.

Fluor (NYSE: FLR), a global engineering and project management firm, is a major investor in NuScale Power. Fluor operates in the areas of chemicals and petrochemicals, commercial and institutional (C&I), government services, life sciences, manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, power, renewable energy, telecommunications, and transportation infrastructure.

Areva (OTCBB: AREVA SA – ARVCY) will manufacture fuel assemblies for NuScale’s small modular nuclear reactors (SMR), and will supply the initial cores for the reactors as well as subsequent reloads. The HTP fuel assemblies have been designed for use in the SMRs currently under development. Mechanical and thermal hydraulic testing of these new fuel assemblies are underway as part of NuScale’s 50-MW SMR design certification application, which the company plans to submit to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2016.

Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Americas Inc. (OTCPK: MHPS)  High-efficiency steam turbine packages are available from Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems in single, dual, and multiple-casing configurations spanning output ratings 30MW to 1,600MW. Hitachi-General Electric also manufactures PRISM liquid metal cooled fast reactors, an SMR which uses uranium-plutonium oxide (MOX) fuel assembled from surplus plutonium.

SMR, LLC, a division of Holtec International, makes the SMR-160, a reactor that requires no onsite monitoring. Resistant to natural and manmade disasters, the SMR-160 will not release radioactivity or “pose any risk to public health and safety”.

Jeanne Roberts is an award winning freelance writer covering the environment, sustainability, social justice, health, politics, and the natural world. She has roots in the corporate world as a California reporter and a communications specialist at a large public utility and has spent the past 10 years working as an editor for a small-cap stock site, and as an environmental/political/social justice blogger for The PanelistCelsias,Cooler PlanetDeSmogBlogEnergy, the Clean Tech Blog,EarthTechling, and various other online publications. Ms. Roberts has written a book on alternative energy sources, sustainable home building, and environmental initiatives for homeowners available on Amazon.