Since 2016, engineering firm NuScale has been working toward getting approval for a first-of-its-kind nuclear reactor, and late last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) gave it the green light. The company’s pint-sized nuclear reactor has numerous safety benefits over larger reactors, and the small size makes it possible to build them at a centralized facility before shipping them to their final destination.
Nuclear power seems to flip between savior and boogeyman every few years. As climate change escalates due to the use of fossil fuels, nuclear is seen as a way to reduce carbon emissions while maintaining high electricity generation. However, all it takes is one accident like Fukushima or a reminder that Chernobyl is still incredibly dangerous decades later to make people second-guess the construction of new fission generators.
NuScale, which has been anticipating approval of this design since the last technology review in 2020, says its small modular reactor (SMR) addresses these concerns. It’s based on a “Multi-Application Small Light Water Reactor” developed at Oregon State University in the early 2000s. It has a compact uranium nuclear core along with helical coil steam generators inside the same steel reactor vessel. So, it generates power through the same mechanism as a traditional reactor (no fancy uranium or thorium salts here), but each SMR only produces about 50 MWe (megawatts electrical) compared with 1,000 or more in existing reactor designs.
The compact SMR designed by NuScale can be produced in one place and then moved to another, eliminating many of the costs associated with building a bespoke reactor chamber at a power plant’s final location. It also includes safety features that could make the horror of nuclear accidents a thing of the past. If left unattended, gravity will pull the control rods down into the reactor, and the design also calls for SMRs to be completely submerged in water that acts as a heatsink. That eliminates water piping, which can be a failure point for traditional reactors.
The configuration tested by the NRC calls for 12 SMRs, each about nine feet tall, all sunk in a reactor pool. They each generate 160 MWt (megawatts of thermal energy) with a yield of 50 MWe for a total of 600 MWe.
With certification now complete, the designs will be published in the Federal Register. This is only the seventh reactor design approved for use in the US. After publication, new energy projects will be able to specify they are using the NuScale SMR without duplicating the design certification. One project is already aiming to use NuScale’s technology, but the “Carbon Free Power Project” at Idaho National Lab won’t be ready to begin operation until 2030 at the earliest.
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