NuScale Boosts SMR Module Capacity; UAMPS Mulls Downsizing Nuclear Project

In a breakthrough that could improve the economics of NuScale Power’s small modular reactor (SMR) technology—and reshape a project under development by its first potential customer, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS)—the Portland, Oregon-based company on Nov. 10 said it has determined its NuScale Power Module (NPM) can generate 25% more power per module. 

The significant uprate boosts the NPM’s capacity from 60 MWe to 77 MWe, and effectively expands the company’s flagship 12-module plant size from 720 MWe to 924 MWe. “Furthermore, the scalable, 12-module power plant will now approach a size that makes it a true competitor for the gigawatt-size market,” the company said.

But NuScale, which is eyeing a 2027 technology delivery timetable, on Tuesday also launched two smaller plant solutions—a four-module plant of about 308 MWe, and a six-module plant of about 462 MWe—to provide potential customers more options in terms of size, power output, operational flexibility and cost. The smaller plants would also have smaller footprints, and more simplified construction, which could reduce construction schedules and costs, it said.

While the initial small plant offerings are already “economically competitive” and leverage safety cases approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), “other configurations are possible,” it also said. The new “solution” is geared to open up bigger markets to NuScale, including for “small grids such as for island nations; remote off-grid communities; industrial and government facilities; and coal power replacements that require less power and help customers meet clean air mandates,” the company said. 

A 25% Power Boost 

NuScale said it determined the significant 25% NPM power increase was achievable “without any major changes” to NuScale’s module technology through “further value engineering efforts, using advanced testing and modeling tools.” 

“Through advanced testing and modeling tools, we concluded that for our customers more interested in 24/7 base load power (in comparison to those interested in operating with extensive power maneuvering for load following), additional thermal maneuvering was not necessary, which opened the ability for a higher thermal output and 25% more electricity production per module,” Diane Hughes, NuScale vice president of Marketing & Communications, told POWER on Nov. 11.

The uprate comes two years after the company first raised the module’s capacity by 20%, from 50 MWe to 60 MWe, a power increase the company said was also confirmed by advanced testing and modeling tools, including comprehensive testing of the fuel and helical coil steam generators. The company had then told POWER the power uprate from 50 MWe to 60 MWe would lower the cost of the 12-module facility from an expected $5,000/kW to about $4,300/kW with a “very minimal change in capital costs.” 

The latest uprate from 60 MWe to 77 MWe will further tamp down the overnight capital cost of the facility from an expected $3,600/kW to approximately $2,850/kW, the company said. That marks a significant overnight cost decrease that could put it on par with a number of new technologies, according to the January 2020 estimates from the Energy Information Administration. But it comes with some caveats.

“The original estimate of $5,000/kW reflected a total gross facility output of 600 MWe (gross) with the original 50 MWe modules installed. The cost per kW is based on an overnight cost of approximately $3 billion for that first 12-module plant deployed at a generic greenfield site in the southeastern region of U.S.,” Hughes explained. “The reduction in the cost per kW from $5,000/kW to $4,300/kW is only applicable to the first plant that we deliver at a cost of $3 billion,” such as UAMPS’s Carbon Free Power Project, which is expected to be the “first-of-a-kind” (FOAK) deployment, she added. 

“Subsequent plants delivered will benefit from the leanings derived from the first plant deployment and are expected to cost less than the first plant.  These are typically referred to as the “Nth-of-a-kind” or NOAK plants.  The estimated cost for the NOAK plant based on a delivery at the generic site mentioned above is lower at an overnight cost of approximately $2.45 billion,” Hughes said. 

“The 12-module power plant with the 60 MWe modules installed providing a total gross power plant output of 720 MWe at an NOAK cost of $2.45 billion results in a capital cost on a per kW basis of $3,600/KW. With the higher power 77-MWe modules installed in the 12-module plant, the total gross power output of the facility is increased from 720 to 924 MWe with very minimal change in capital cost resulting in a reduction in the cost per KW from $3,600/kW to $2,850/kW,” she said.

Regulatory Implications 

For now, at least, NuScale does not expect that the power increase will affect its 2027 delivery timetable. 

So far, the company has marked key regulatory milestones. On Aug. 28, notably, NuScale’s 50-MW (160 MWth) module became the first SMR to receive a final safety evaluation report (FSER) from the NRC as part of a Phase 6 review—the last and final phase—of NuScale’s Design Certification Application (DCA). 

The latest power uprate will be reviewed by the NRC as part of a Standard Design Approval (SDA) application, which NuScale on Tuesday said it is schedule to submit in 2022. However, Hughes said that while NuScale has not yet made a final decision on the size or configuration that will be reflected in the SDA application, it will seek approval of 250 MWth modules. “Our final decision will be announced soon,” she said.  

As the NRC notes, however, neither an SDA nor a DCA constitute approval to build or operate a reactor. Full certification essentially only allows a nuclear plant developer to reference the design when applying for a combined license  (COLA) to build and operate a plant.

Asked about a tentative timeframe for when NuScale expects to obtain full certification, Hughes said that its current plan with UAMPS is to use the NRC’s 10 CFR, Part 52, subpart E process, which she noted “has been used for all new designs to date.” 

Under that process, the SDA application must be submitted with or before a COLA, but the SDA must be approved before the COLA. “Those approvals can be close together (that is, within weeks),” she said. However, “Not all construction activities must wait for approval of the COLA. Some general construction, and under an NRC-approved limited work authorization (LWA) some nuclear-related construction, can occur in the period prior to approval of the COLA,” she said. 

NuScale’s Announcement Gives UAMPS’ Options to Downsize Carbon-Free Power Project 

When UAMPS will submit a COLA for its Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP), a 12-module NuScale power plant that is developing for a site at an Idaho National Laboratory (INL) site in Idaho Falls, Idaho, is not clear. UAMPS has so far developed the much-watched project as a 720-MWe plant, and it has said it expects the first of the 12 proposed NuScale modules could be operational in 2029 with the other 11 modules operational in 2030. But NuScale’s new power increase and its launch of smaller plant sizes now gives the project much-needed flexibility that could affect it current timetable. 

The newly announced uprate is significant because it “facilitates plant downsizing,” UAMPS told POWER in a statement on Tuesday. “An important early task in the UAMPS [CFPP’s] next phase will be evaluating these new options in plant size and configuration. UAMPS will evaluate the possibilities of building a [308-MWe] 4-module or [462-MWe] 6-module plant instead of a 12-module plant,” it said. 

UAMPS, notably, just wrapped up the first phase of the CFPP on Oct. 31, securing financial commitments for a potential 720-MW plant from 27 of its 48 members, which are mostly cities in Utah but also scattered across California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming. 

During the tumultuous first phase, at least eight cities—Lehi, Logan, Murray, Kaysville, Bountiful, Beaver, Heber, and Salmon River Electric—dropped out of the the project, and at least one, Idaho Falls halved its share. The withdrawing cities cited a long list of reasons for their reluctance to commit to the project, but costs—which could increase for remaining subscribers—and uncertainty led their concerns. 

As UAMPS spokesperson LaVarr Webb told POWER on Nov. 3, now that the first of three “off-ramps” has passed, the project “is going forward into the next phase.” In the new phase, which began on Nov. 1, UAMPS will prepare a COLA for the project. The next off-ramp will likely be in April 2023, when UAMPS is expected to submit the application to the NRC. The final off-ramp would be in December 2025, before the start of the construction period. 

As POWER has reported, the 720-MWe CFPP is currently estimated to cost $6.1 billion, and UAMPS is expected to shoulder $4.76 billion of that figure, which is based on a Class 4 estimate (and could decrease by about 10% or increase by 30%). The Department of Energy (DOE) will fund the remaining $1.355 billion through an award announced on Oct. 16. The award, which will be subject to yearly Congressional appropriations, replaces the DOE’s Joint Use Module Plant (JUMP) program.

UAMPS, however, has maintained that the “most important” cost-associated figure for the project is its levelized cost of energy (LCOE) over 40 years, which currently stands at $55/MWh. “The decrease in the LCOE is attributable in large part to the additional output being generated—the original design had a total gross plant output of 600 MW and the current projected gross output is 720 MW. The DOE cost-share award also helped improve the LCOE. The $6.1 billion includes all costs cradle-to-grave for a LCOE of $55/MWh for 40 years,” as Webb explained to POWER in October.

On Tuesday, UAMPS again stressed that the project’s LCOE will play a crucial factor in any decisions it makes. Before it can agree to a change in plant size or configuration—including to move forward with NuScale’s newly launched smaller power plant solutions—“UAMPS would have to be assured that the [LCOE] of $55/MWh (or lower) would be preserved. UAMPS would also want assurance that the current schedule/timeline would be followed,” the agency said. 

However, UAMPS also noted: “An increase in the energy output of each reactor module may reduce development and construction costs for UAMPS members and ensure [LCOE] targets will be reached.” 

It also expressed confidence in the project’s continuity. “We are confident that with these options and increased flexibility, the Carbon Free Power Project will deliver affordable, stable, carbon-free energy to participating members, complementing and enabling large amounts of renewable energy,” it said. “This project will allow UAMPS coal generation to be retired, and many members will be on a path to completely de-carbonize their energy portfolios.” 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel@POWERmagazine).

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