Small Modular Reactors Vie for DOE Funding

Within the two months since the Department of Energy (DOE) flourished $452 million in cost-shared federal funding to support engineering, design certification, and licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for up to two small modular reactor (SMR) designs over five years, four developers of reactors under 300 MW have submitted applications: Westinghouse, Babcock & Wilcox (B&W), NuScale, and Holtec (Figure 3). Each has solicited and won endorsements from a variety of major power sector players.

3. A lightweight fight. Four developers of reactors less than 300 MW—Westinghouse (whose 225-MW design is shown here), Babcock & Wilcox, NuScale, and Holtec—are contending for a five-year, $452 million cost-sharing program with the Department of Energy to support engineering, design certification, and licensing for up to two first-of-a-kind small modular reactor designs. Courtesy: Westinghouse

In a move that backs the president’s “all of the above” approach to energy, the DOE has called for construction of a fleet of SMRs by 2030 for domestic power production and export. The funding opportunity, which closed in late May and was open only to SMR projects that have the potential to be licensed by the NRC and to be in commercial operation by 2022, essentially seeks to jumpstart the industry.

Experts have pointed out that the price of any factory-built SMR today could exceed $6,000/kW, requiring SMR vendors to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to set up shop. And Wall Street’s lukewarm reception to nuclear power—particularly since the Fukushima crisis, and compounded by cost overruns afflicting many reactor projects—means that federal funding could be critical to the development of SMRs. The DOE’s decision about which two vendors will receive the funding is expected in September.

Reactor design developers, meanwhile, have separately formed alliances to help secure investment funds from the DOE. In late May, engineering firm Burns & McDonnell joined Westinghouse and Ameren Missouri–led Missouri Electric Alliance’s NexStart SMR Alliance to provide architectural and engineering support for the design of Westinghouse’s 225-MW integral pressurized water reactor. Submarine designer Electric Boat also recently joined that alliance to provide modular design support. Dozens of power utilities and other entities are already members of the coalition, including Exelon, Dominion Virginia, FirstEnergy, Tampa Electric Co., Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp., and Savannah River National Laboratory.

NuScale Power, whose technology comprises individual 45-MW nuclear modules that would be factory-made and shipped in sets of 12, is flanked by the South Carolina–based NuHub economic development organization, as well as SCANA Corp. subsidiary South Carolina Gas & Electric, which has agreed to operate the first NuScale plant at the DOE Savannah River Site. The agreement stems from a March-signed memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the DOE to develop deployment plans for SMR technologies at the site in South Carolina (Holtec and Gen4 Energy also signed similar MOUs). Several prominent entities have endorsed NuScale’s design, including the Customer Advisory Board (whose 17 members include utilities and organizations), and Energy Northwest, another group comprising public and investor-owned utilities. The company’s financial and technical backing will come from engineering firm Fluor Corp.

B&W has partnered with engineering firm Bechtel Power Corp. to design, license, and build the mPower reactor—a 180-MW light water reactor design. Unlike other SMR vendors, the firms signed an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the federal corporation was to apply for a construction permit from the NRC to build the first mPower reactor by 2020 at the federal corporation’s Clinch River site in Roane County, Tenn. Look for more about the mPower reactor in an upcoming issue of POWER.

New Jersey–based Holtec International’s proposal is for a 160-MW passively safe plant. Holtec’s SMR-160 is backed by AREVA and The Shaw Group, and the companies are reportedly tackling development work in a common project management framework. Holtec’s SMR design has also been endorsed by Exelon, Entergy, PSEG, FirstEnergy, and SCE&G; SCE&G agreed to operate the plant should it be built at the DOE’s Savannah River site (along with NuScale and Gen4’s reactors). In a statement announcing Holtec’s application for the DOE funds, CEO Dr. Kris Singh pledged to return “every dollar of public’s money spent on… staff” if Holtec failed to secure a license from the NRC for its SMR-160, a commitment repeated formally in the company’s application.

As the competition heated up, one vendor pulled out of the race. Gen4 Energy, a company formerly known as Hyperion Power—developer of the 25-MW G4M reactor module, in late April withdrew from the SMR funding contest, concluding that “well-known” light water reactors technology had a much higher probability of success than its self-moderated uranium hydride design, given the maximum of two awards. “We have a unique, next generation product for a very specific market” said Bob Prince, CEO of Gen4 Energy. “We have targeted and will continue to target small, remote or off-the-grid markets that tend to rely on diesel power.” Gen4 Energy would continue to look forward to DOE funding opportunities to support Generation IV reactor technologies, Prince said.

—Sonal Patel is POWER’s senior writer.