Designs for a first-of-its-kind nuclear power reactor that cannot melt down are one step closer to production after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission deemed the plans worthy of a full review.
The NRC accepted designs for the first American small modular reactor, or SMR, from a company called NuScale. The design certification application was accepted this week, only two weeks after it was submitted to the NRC, meaning it met technical requirements to warrant a full-scale review.
Jim Marra, executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness, said the SMR concept simplifies nuclear energy production and makes a significant difference in risk and safety.
“The amount of fuel in the reactor is much less so you don’t get the same heating effect you get with the larger, AP1000 type reactors,” Marra said.
Both Unit 3 and 4 currently under construction at Plant Vogtle as well as the reactor at the VC Summer Plant in South Carolina use the Westinghouse AP1000 design.
The smaller reactors are designed so that the lesser amounts of material make cooling more efficient. So efficient that diagrams from NuScale show that water could evaporate from the system over a period of 33 days and would then be kept air-cool indefinitely; a nuclear reactor that cannot melt down.
The system doesn’t need the often expensive cooling systems with mechanical functions that wear down over time or could lead to complications in emergency situations. The SMR bypasses the need for pumps and unique, complex technological and mechanical systems in a design that Marra said simplifies everything about reactors.
“It’s a new avenue of approach,” he said. “You don’t need massive water supplies available. You don’t have to worry about the evaporation and water discharge back into the environment with this system. They don’t need cooling towers.”
Marra also said these systems could be utilized in remote locations to provide energy for residents in the desert or the tundra. He said you could move them into an area where you would no longer need to pump petroleum or liquid natural gas through pipelines to heat homes and businesses.
“One area that could see a dramatic impact from SMR’s is in military applications. If you had the availability of power in some of the remote areas of operation, it could be revolutionary,” Marra said.
In the national Defense Authorization Act of 2010, Congress directed the Department of Defense to “conduct a study to assess the feasibility of developing nuclear power plants on military installations.”
Marra said the SMR’s are also attractive because they take advantage of the economy of scale. The modular design can accommodate placing several units together, side by side. And because they are produced by manufacturers and not constructed on site, cost and supplier variability would be more easily controlled.
A spokesman for the NRC said, “Once the design is certified then any licensee or potential utility can build the design assuming they meet requirements.”
That means that if the NuScale design comes out of the review with an approval, a utility company like South Company or AREVA could apply for a license to build one. That isn’t likely to happen before 2020, though. The acceptance of the first SMR design in the U.S. is expected to take most, if not all, of the NRC’s 40 month process to gain approval.
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