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Business! Innovation! Startups! It must be nuclear power

Posting in Energy

If asked to name a nuclear power company, the average person might identify an electric utility, or might cite one of the world's large reactor vendors, like Toshiba's Westinghouse group, France's Areva, or General Electric Hitachi.

Ever hear of NuScale Power?

The U.S. Department of Energy has. DOE has just awarded the Corvallis, Oregon startup as much as $226 million to develop and build a reactor that departs from the conventional designs that have defined the industry for all of its 50-plus years.

NuScale is working on a “small modular reactor” (SMR) that is significantly smaller than traditional reactors, compared to which its hardware is potentially much less expensive, and safer. The NuScale Integral Pressurized Water Reactor will have an electrical output of 45 megawatts, roughly 3 or 4 percent of today's new reactors, which exceed 1,000 megawatts (1 gigawatt).

One of the main ideas behind SMRs is that they can be made assembly-line style and shipped on a truck to the end user, a process that would slash cost from the nuclear building process.

And end users such as utilities could buy new reactors in increments, thus reducing the enormous upfront capital expenditure for conventional gigawatt-plus reactors, which can soar to over $10 billion each. NuScale's approach allows up to 12 reactors on one site, for a 540-megawatt plant. Its cylindrical design measures 80-feet by 15 feet, including a steam generator (thus the “integral” in the reactor's name, as the generator normally resides on a separate "island" in a nuclear plant). The reactor would operate underground – protecting it from attack - in a pool of water that would cool it in an emergency.

NuScale is a 2007 spin out from Oregon State University, but at seven-years-old it is still a relative “startup” in the traditionally slow moving nuclear industry, even if it is now majority owned by $27.6 billion Irving, Texas engineering company Fluor. (For more on NuScale and its DOE grant, see my story on the Weinberg website).

NuScale is representative of a growing group of young nuclear companies that are trying to shake the industry out of its business-as-usual ways with reactor designs that can be superior in many ways – cost, efficiency, safety, waste and others - to the reactors that the industry has built for five decades.

As innovative as the Oregon company's shrunken reactor is, NuScale still applies a lot of convention, such as using water as the coolant that absorbs heat from nuclear fission reactions and transfers the heat to a steam turbine, and such as using solid uranium rods as fuel.

Other startup companies (and some older ones) from the U.S., Canada and around the world are working on designs that depart from convention in far more radical ways.

Between them, these companies are proposing reactors that yield less long-lived waste than conventional reactors, that can use “waste” as fuel (mitigating the need to store the waste), that run at safe normal pressure rather than in potentially dangerous pressurized environments, that can be virtually melt-down proof, that can make better use of fuel (today's uranium reactors use only a very small percentage of the uranium that feeds them which is one reason they yield a lot of troublesome waste).

To accomplish this, each is proposing their own unique set of changes that tend to include, among others, some combination of:  liquid fuel; alternative solid fuels shaped into pebble or brick form rather than rods; different coolants including salts and gases and metals instead of water; thorium fuel instead of uranium; and others, such as allowing neutrons to run "fast" rather than slowing them down as today's reactors do.

Most of these “advanced" or “fourth generation” reactors run at much higher temperatures than today's inefficient and inferior behemoths. (NuScale's reactor, for all its benefits, operates at conventional temperatures).

Higher temperatures improve the efficiency of electricity generation, which would help make nuclear more cost-competitive with what today is inexpensive natural gas, at least in the U.S.

And as U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz himself recently noted, with operating temperatures of between 600 degrees C and 900 degrees C, many of these reactors could work as clean sources of heat used in industrial processes such hydrogen production, steelmaking, cement making, and oil and petrochemical processing – replacing CO2-emitting fossil fuels.

I've written about many of the companies working on these designs, here on SmartPlanet. The young ones include, among others: Bill Gates' nuclear company TerraPower; Flibe Energy; Terrestrial Energy; Transatomic Power; Thorium Tech Solution; Northern Nuclear; Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd.; and Thor Energy. Among older companies, General Atomics in San Diego has an interesting high temperature reactor in the works that could burn spent fuel; and General Electric Hitachi has a reactor call PRISM that could use waste as fuel. Westinghouse and Areva are also quietly looking into alternatives.

(Meanwhile, several startup companies have emerged to chase the dream of fusion energy, which generates electricity by combining atoms rather than splitting them apart).

China is investing heavily in many of its own advanced nuclear projects, while Russia looks intent on developing a version called a “fast” reactor.

The government backing for advanced nuclear in those two countries exceeds the U.S. commitment. For U.S. advanced nuclear enthusiasts, the DOE's $226 million commitment to NuScale marks an encouraging step in the right direction. It's the second tranche in a $452 million funding initiative, coming a year after a similar award to small reactor maker Babcock & Wilcox.

But what many would like to see is for the U.S. to step up its involvement in advanced nuclear, and to do more to encourage the development of high temperature (and even fusion) reactors.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has become more vocal lately about the role that nuclear power can play in combatting climate change. Nuclear is a clean energy source that emits no CO2 in the electricity (or heat) generating process and that over its lifetime, including mining and construction, emits comparatively little CO2.

“Small modular reactors represent a new generation of safe, reliable, low-carbon nuclear energy technology,” Moniz said in announcing the award to NuScale late last week. “The Energy Department is committed to strengthening nuclear energy’s continuing important role in America’s low carbon future.”

Many of the advanced, high temperature reactors suit themselves perfectly to small modular design. In fact, some of the companies developing them applied for the funding that DOE granted to NuScale. 

Between them, these companies are the Googles, Skypes, Twitters and Facebooks of their industry. Google et al have already turned old media and old telecom on its head. It will take the NuScales, Terrestrial, Flibes, Transatomics and their like a longer time to do the same in nuclear, given the more complex and expensive regulatory and development environments.

But it will happen. Innovation is returning to nuclear in a manner that the industry hasn't seen since the early days in the 1950s and 60s. There is still not enough of it, at least not in the West. The will is there among the scientists, engineers and technologists. More money needs to flow into it. There are signs that the oil industry could help fund it - both as a user and possible vendor of nuclear power.

More supportive government policy would help in the West, where obstacles include vested interests of conventional nuclear, a general public and political squeamishness over the word "nuclear," and, in the U.S., the current craze for low-priced natural gas.

DOE's $226 million grant of NuScale is a step in the right direction. But it's a small step - in more ways than one. It's time to move on to the advanced round.

Cover photo is from NuScale via Charleston Regional Business Journal

Recent alternative nuclear developments:

For an archive of nuclear stories, click here

— By on December 16, 2013, 7:36 AM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure