mPower: It’s Now or Never

Christofer Mowry, president of Babcock & Wilcox mPower Inc. and CEO of Generation mPower LLC, a joint company of Babcock & Wilcox and Bechtel to design and build the mPower small modular reactor that won a competition for a Department of Energy cooperative funding agreement, discusses the machine and the market.

The nuclear renaissance hasn’t quite fulfilled early expectations. Experts predicted 20-plus new nuclear units could be under construction by now, based on the number of combined construction and operating license applications submitted and industry surveys. In hindsight, two events made the predictions for new nuclear plants seem incredibly optimistic. First, demand destroyed by the global economic meltdown has yet to be recreated. Second, the enormous scale of unconventional gas finds over the past few years has exceeded the most optimistic predictions. The first casualty of our abundant natural gas was nuclear power construction. Despite these factors, some are sanguine about U.S. nuclear prospects, particularly for a new generation of factory-manufactured small modular reactors (SMRs). Contributing Editor Kennedy Maize met with Christofer Mowry, president of Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) mPower Inc. at February’s 9th Annual Platts Nuclear Energy Conference for a candid discussion about the future of his company’s SMR.

The mPower design appears to have many redundant safety systems, a “belt-and-suspenders” look. What’s the reasoning behind the safety features in the design?

Mowry: If you look at overall safety performance of the plant, it’s a combination of traditional safety-related systems as well as defense-in-depth features that augment the plant’s overall safety. This multilayered defense system is designed to take plants to the next level of safety performance.

We want to drive broad market adoption of nuclear. So we have to take that additional step on safety performance. To get there, we have to have multilevel defense-in-depth—basically the ability of the plant to be safe by itself for weeks on end, without any kind of external support.

One of the lessons from Fukushima was those plants needed power, they needed people, they needed water—all this was provided from the outside. With our design, these critical components will be contained underground, in the nuclear island. You will have a two-week supply, and that’s ample time. In principle, there’s enough water on site for a month or so, but that’s not in safety-related structures, so we don’t count that. I’m just talking about what is sitting inside that reinforced concrete bunker on the ground.

Is that also why you are isolating the turbine building away from the nuclear island?

Mowry: There are two reasons for that. One is to drive efficiency and security, to get everything that has to be protected away from everything that doesn’t have to be protected. Number two is that the turbine building is not nuclear. I am going to make that the same way I make a turbine for a combined cycle plant. In fact, we can go make that now. It’s outside the fence that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is most concerned about. You want to reduce the amount of work you have to do under a nuclear quality assurance program in a very controlled manner. We separate those things out, and that helps drive simplicity and cost-efficiency.

How important is it for B&W to produce the first SMR?

Mowry: It’s a jungle out there. It’s obviously important for us. But if I put the big industry hat on, the DOE wanted teams—and we’re one of them—to come forward with a game plan to demonstrate near-term deployment by 2022.

Do you fear that the money for this program could go away?

Mowry: No, not at all. If we keep moving the ball down the field, the support will be there, not only from DOE, but continued support from Congress. One of the things that’s nice is that, in today’s environment, this program has strong bipartisan support, and bicameral support. Being good stewards of the public’s money, they will look to us, and if we continue to show the kind of progress we are making now, we will continue to get strong support. We, together with Tennessee Valley Authority, need to focus on this program and this project. As long as we do our part, I’m confident the DOE and Congress will continue the support.

For our part, B&W and Generation mPower have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this program. Even with the cooperative agreement with DOE, that’s not going to cover most of the costs. I have this conversation with Congress quite a lot. The question is, “How do you know this is going to work?” The answer is that when you make industry pony up more than half of the money, then the industry starts looking very closely at whether this is something somebody is going to buy. It’s not just R&D funded by the DOE. It’s a partnership between private industry and government. One of the goals is making sure that, at the end of the day, it is a good use of public money. You do that by making private industry pay a substantial part of it so they are designing a product that is, in fact, useful.

You have been running your test model up and down at varying temperatures. Are you looking at load following?

Mowry: Absolutely. We are trying to create a more flexible solution here. As you get bigger deployment, you are going to want to be able to do load following. That’s an integral part of the design, and there are special features about mPower, including that it doesn’t have boron in the reactor cooling; you control the reactor with control rods, more like a boiling water reactor, which allows much more flexibility in terms of ramping.

Is that going to be a licensing issue? The NRC has never looked favorably on load following.

Mowry: We don’t anticipate it will be a licensing issue. For the NRC, the load-following issue has been, Who is at the controls? In the ’80s, the issue was whether a load dispatcher from the T&D side would be able to command from his offsite location changes in power levels in the reactor. That’s different than what I am talking about. We don’t think there will be a problem allowing a licensed operator. The challenge here is designing a machine that can ramp up and down in power and temperature over the life of the plant. As long as we’re not asking for nonlicensed operators to be able to control the plant, that won’t be an issue.

Do you see a larger market here or overseas?

Mowry: Total U.S. energy generation by 2020 will be a quarter of the total of the world’s generation, so by definition the energy market is bigger globally. But make no mistake about it, mPower America is about the U.S. We are trying to create a product that is designed here, is built here, and helps industry here transition toward clean energy. That’s job one, right now. Beyond that, we hope to see a big export market to drive more high-tech jobs, the way we export airplanes. I really don’t think you can say, “this is for export” or “this is for domestic.” They are complementary.

How can nuclear compete against gas with gas prices as low as they have been?

Mowry: No utility is going to have all of its power generation assets in a single fuel, gas. While gas is cheap, it is going to be a big, probably dominant, part of the portfolio; it’s not going to be 100%. U.S. generating capacity is 400 gigawatts. Even if 20% or 30% of that is nuclear, that’s still a lot of gigawatts. I don’t need 100% of the market to make a good business.

And gas isn’t going to stay at $3 forever. That’s the scenario in the U.S. In Asia gas is $10 or $12, and nuclear is the cheapest for baseload generation by far. If you go to Europe, it’s $8 to $10 and competitive in Europe. And in the long term, the only thing we know about gas prices is you don’t know what it is going to be tomorrow. It’s all risk management.

Kennedy Maize, POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER, conducted and edited this interview.