Commentary / News

Nuclear Energy & the Environment: Bring on Small Modular Reactors

By Nancy Spannaus

December 29, 2018—Surprise! The worst news for the environment last year was not President Trump’s energy deregulation, but the continued momentum toward shutdown of the fleet of U.S. nuclear reactors. Fortunately, there’s good news on the horizon. But, first, where we stand.

Suicidal Shutdown

Despite the actions taken by the New Jersey legislature to save its nuclear plants, one more plant closed (Oyster Bay), and upwards of 20 more nationally are under threat of closure over the next several years. The fleet, which produces 20% of the nation’s electric power, has already been reduced from 104 to 98 units over the past few years. Pleas to the Trump Administration by some energy companies, former military brass, and informed citizens to declare the closures a national security threat and intervene in the “market” to save them, have so far gone unheeded.

The Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ohio.

As nuclear advocates have stressed, nuclear power should be the energy source of choice for anyone concerned about clean water, clean air, and human health. It’s kind to the environment, “carbon-free,” has the highest efficiency, and does not lead to the wholesale slaughter of trees or other ugly violations of the beauty of nature. Longtime leaders of the environmentalist movement such as James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, Jeffrey Sachs, and scientist James Hansen have abandoned superstitious fears of nuclear fission.

Equally important is the fact that nuclear fission (and nuclear fusion even more so) represents a qualitative leap in energy efficiency and intensity (power per square unit), and opens up the potential for revolutionizing levels of productivity throughout the economy. A society reliant on nuclear is one which calls for a more educated workforce, a cleaner work environment, higher living standards, and greater return on investment. When I toured the North Anna nuclear plant in Virginia decades ago, I was amazed to learn that the workers there spent a considerable amount of their work time in mandated education.

What’s killing nuclear power is not only ignorance of its benefits and safety, but the malevolence of the current financial elite, which has presided over a nearly 50-year process of de-industrialization and deregulation that has both artificially increased the cost of nuclear plants relative to other sources of energy, and made the expansion of the nuclear fleet look almost physically impossible.

To solve this problem is going to take the creation of an adequate source of long-term, low-interest credit (such as that this blog recommends in the National Infrastructure Bank), as well as political will. That credit is needed not only for the power companies, but to build up the array of necessary support industries which have been allowed to disappear during the recent period of de-industrialization. But the process of expanding nuclear doesn’t have to wait.

The Promise of Small Modular Reactors[1]

In May 2018, the Portland, Oregon-based company NuScale Power announced that its design of a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) had passed the Phase 1 review of its design certification application (DCA) by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

According to analysts, Phase 1 is the most intensive phase of the six-phase review, taking more hours and effort than the remaining five phases combined.

What NuScale’s SMR is offering is a combination of twelve 50 MW reactors, which can be put together module-by-module to develop a generating capacity of 600 MW. NuScale says its SMR will produce 20 percent more power than what it was designed for.  Because the plant has not been constructed and no power has yet been generated, such claims must remain hypothetical until proven.

Cross-section of NuScale small modular reactor (world nuclear news)

It’s evident that the 12-50 MW SMR designed by NuScale, or any other small modular reactor, will be, megawatt-for-megawatt, more expensive than large nuclear reactors, which produce up to 1600 MW. However, that cost differential can be reduced significantly if the SMRs are mass-produced. According to a report on “Small Nuclear Power Reactors,” which can be found on the World Nuclear Association’s website, Small modular reactors (SMRs) are defined as nuclear reactors generally 300 MW equivalent or less, designed with modular technology using module factory fabrication, pursuing economies of series production and short construction times.

While the nuclear fission industry began with construction of SMRs, and they are still standard fare on Navy ships, where they are used for water desalination as well as power, they have been largely superceded by larger reactors for commercial energy generation. Their size and reduced requirements make them uniquely suited for nations without an advanced infrastructural base, as well as for rural areas of the industrialized nations. But SMRs have another feature which recommends them for a program of rapid development, namely that the United States (and most of the rest of the world) no longer has the industrial infrastructure to produce an adequate supply of larger reactors!

Thus SMRs could be the reactors of choice to beginning a real nuclear revival in the United States, because the capability for starting assembly line production of these modules still exists.

The Destruction of the Industrial Base

To produce a nuclear power plant of today’s standard size requires the ability to manufacture ultra-heavy forgings—each of which weighs greater than 400,000 pounds. At this point, the United States is today simply incapable of producing these components.

 In a 2009 article entitled “U.S. Cedes Capability for Largest Nuclear Forgings,” Peter B. Alpern detailed the problem.  “Four of the most complex parts of a nuclear power plant—the containment vessel, the reactor vessel components, the turbine rotors and steam generators—are made from over 4,000 tons of steel forgings, and almost none of those components are manufactured in the United States. The reactor vessel functions like the outer shell of an egg, protecting all the vital internal pieces, including the components in which the nuclear reaction takes place. The outer vessel alone weighs over 500 tons and is made up of seven very large forgings, including several that make up the nozzle.”

“The newest nuclear plant design on the market, the Generation III Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR), from the French nuclear engineering group Areva, uses four steam generators—each of which weighs up to 500 tons. A generator rotor weighs in excess of 200 tons, according to Craig Hanson, vice president and product line manager for nuclear plant builder Babcock & Wilcox. And, for each nuclear plant, there are three to four turbine rotors….”

Part of Bethlehem Steel, once a premier American producer, now demolished for a gambling casino. (Wikicommons)

The largest reactors require steel ingots weighing between 500 to 600 tons each, Alpern reports. No steel producers in the United States can handle that size or weight, according to Chris Levesque, Areva’s president and general manager at its Newport News, VA, facility for fabricating heavy reactor components. Alpern elaborates: “Forgers are limited because while [a forger] can make his press bigger and he can make his machine tools bigger, he needs a larger ingot. He’s limited by the steel mill and the ability of not just a mill that can make that big of an ingot, but [can] also transport it to him by rail. You’re talking about a piece of metal that’s huge and needs to stay hot and get from the mill to the forge. One of those mills can’t exist just to supply the forge.”

The largest U.S. ingot manufacturer, the now defunct Bethlehem Steel, could produce an ingot of about 380 tons—good enough for the medium reactors, but not so for the most modern (Generation III). And that Bethlehem Steel capability no longer exists.

Thus, Alpern reports, Japan Steel Works (JSW) provides 80 percent of the large forged components for all nuclear power plants being built in the world today outside Russia, including the steam generator, reactor pressure vessels and turbine shafts. While other countries are intent on building up their capacity, they are not there yet.

Let’s Start to Build

Neither the United States, nor the rest of the world, can afford to wait. The opportunity now exists for pursuing the assembly-line production of small reactors, to supplement the already-existing plants.

It should go without saying that, to the extent that they are based on any but real safety considerations, the shutdowns of the currently operating plants should be put on hold. They are the most reliable aspect of the U.S. power-generating supply, providing backup for the intermittent power of wind and solar, and the best performance under extreme weather conditions.

But, while we build new industrial capability under a National Infrastructure Bank, the construction of Small Modular Reactors should proceed. The decline of U.S. electrical consumption must be reversed, if the nation is to be able to build the modern high-speed rail, water systems, and power plants it requires. We need a power surge right now to meet those needs. (I can elaborate in a future article.) The sooner modular production can be brought on line, the better.

This effort should be supplemented, of course, by the long-delayed funding of a crash effort to develop nuclear fusion power as a viable commercial energy source. Breakthroughs have been being made in this field as well, which I will deal with in future posts.  

[1] The following report on modular reactors and the state of the U.S. nuclear industry is based on an article by Indian nuclear engineer Ramtanu Maitra.


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