Babcock & Wilcox subsidiary Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy Inc. (B&W NE) and Bechtel Power Corp. today announced they have entered into a formal alliance to design, license, and deploy a Generation III++ small modular nuclear power plant based on B&W mPower small modular reactor (SMR) technology. The new alliance will be known as Generation mPower and could deploy its first units by 2020.

The 125-MW B&W mPower SMR development program has been under way for the past two years. The alliance expects to submit a design certification application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of 2012. The advanced light water reactor is already in the preapplication phase.

"This alliance is about two companies maintaining America’s historic leadership in the nuclear energy industry," said Chris Mowry, president of B&W NE in a press release. "The formation of our Generation mPower alliance demonstrates a new level of commitment by American industry to address the growing challenge of climate change in an economical and practical way with small modular reactor technology. It brings together industry leaders in the areas of nuclear technology, manufacturing and construction."

"The formation of Generation mPower is a turning point in the nuclear power plant industry—it has the potential to be a real game changer," said Jack Futcher, president of Bechtel’s power business. "This alliance intends to advance the development and deployment of nuclear power in a way that makes nuclear power more accessible to utilities and more affordable to consumers. Bechtel brings the plant engineering, procurement and construction capability to complement B&W’s expertise in nuclear engineering and manufacturing. Together, we have the resources, experience and expertise to deliver on the promise of a new clean energy option."

Both Bechtel and B&W are making a “substantial commitment” in forming Generation mPower and have an exclusive "perpetual" agreement. Such an agreement is necessary, explained Mowry during a press conference today, because only when the utility, OEM, and EPC contractor are aligned can cost and schedule certainty be ensured.

An mPower utility industry consortium has also been formed that includes Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), First Energy Corp., Sunflower Electric Power Corp., and nine others. A press release from a year ago noted that a letter of intent had been received from TVA "to begin the process of evaluating a potential lead plant site for the B&W mPower reactor."

In testimony before the Committee on Science and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives on May 19, Mowry explained that the mPower reactor would have "a 4.5 year operating cycle between refueling outages (compared to 18 or 24 month refueling cycles for currently operating large reactors)." The air-cooled reactor would be installed underground, increasing its security. "The design also includes a spent fuel pool capable of holding 60 years’ worth of spent fuel inside the underground containment."

Other companies are also developing SMRs, but none has the long history of developing and building nuclear plants that the mPower Generation alliance partners have.

Futcher noted that though it was "very untypical" of Bechtel to link itself with a particular technology, this opportunity was compelling because of the strong market demand for low-CO2 power generation. The company had met with other SMR developers, he said, but determined that mPower was "the most commercially viable."

The alliance’s goal is to provide turnkey deployment of SMRs in North America and globally. Mowry said the technology is "ideal for the developing world" and places where water supplies are limited.

B&W will focus on designing and testing the nuclear steam supply system (NSSS) and nuclear island, including the design certification application development and submission, and NSSS production. Bechtel will focus on  integrated engineering and project management leadership. But Mowry commented that Generation  mPower is an "alliance" rather than the work of two project teams. Futcher noted that, though Bechtel is usually thought of as taking action later in a specific project’s development, it would be involved in turbine and balance-of-plant design aspects going forward.

Other speakers at the press conference included Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.), Congressmen Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) and "Brad" Ellsworth (D-Ind.), and executives from First Energy Corp. and TVA. Webb, who attended the U.S. Naval Academy and served as secretary of the Navy, has been a leading proponent of nuclear energy and said he has been "frustrated" over the past several decades by the U.S. putting nuclear power on hold while the rest of the world moves ahead. SMRs open up new avenues to energy independence and environmental benefits and have "incredible potential worldwide," he said.

Sen. Webb, who had just returned from a week in Vietnam, said that everywhere he travels in Southeast Asia, for example, people are looking for different ways to produce electricity that avoid environmental damage, including the damage caused by large hydro dams. The SMR concept, he noted, can work for countries with smaller economies where large nuclear plants would not.

Aside from the jobs to be created, and bracketing the debate about climate change, "eventually, we will run out of fossil fuels," said Rep. Davis. SMRs, he said, offer an opportunity to revive American industrial prowess and to export U.S.-created technology.

That theme was echoed by Rep. Ellsworth, who expressed the view that jobs "are almost a sidebar" because this technology is "about the future of energy in this country."

Ashok Bhatnagar, senior VP for TVA’s Nuclear Generation Development and Construction business, explained why a large utility would be interested in small, modular reactors. Though TVA continues to build large reactors like Watts Bar Unit 2, it sees that in the future "we may need power in much smaller increments" and could also use SMRs to replace decommissioned coal-fired plants.

In related news, our sister publication, The Energy Daily, reported yesterday that a draft bill making its rounds on Capitol Hill includes provisions for small modular reactors: "For small reactors, the draft bill authorizes $55 million for 2011, $16 million more than the Obama administration requested. That amount would increase under the bill by $10 million per year in fiscal 2012 and 2013.

"Among other provisions, the small reactor section would authorize DOE to ink cooperative agreements with private parties, with DOE providing no more than half the cost, for projects ‘to support SMR designs.’ The bill directs DOE to select projects based on the potential to reduce costs and attract private capital; to reduce water usage and to boost manufacturing efficiency, among other criteria."

In today’s press conference, Mowry emphasized that a public/private partnership is required to manage the "first-mover risk" involved in SMR development.

Sources: POWERnews, B&W, Bechtel, The Energy Daily