A new era in nuclear energy: US nuclear regulator approves the first modular reactor design

These reactors can be transported and then installed at power generation sites.
Ameya Paleja
The NuScale SMR design
The NuScale SMR designNuScale
  • NuScale's modular reactors can be mass-produced.
  • The small modular reactor can shut down without operator input and power requirements.
  • Idaho National Laboratory could be the first site of installation.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has agreed to certify the first small and modular nuclear reactor, paving way for the design to be used in the U.S. This is the seventh nuclear reactor to be certified, the regulator's press release said, but the first small reactor to have this milestone.

With reducing carbon emissions the priority target for power generation, nuclear energy is poised to make a major comeback. As nations look to secure their energy requirements, nuclear reactors offer a viable option. However, nuclear plants using conventional reactors are not only land intensive but also need investments of time.

Smaller nuclear reactors are being touted as the solution that can address the drawbacks of larger nuclear plants. However, these reactors are still in their design and testing phases and are still significant time away from actual deployment, except for the Oregon-based NuScale Power, whose small and modular reactor will soon be certified.

How does NuScale's modular reactor work?

Unlike conventional nuclear reactors that need to be built on site, NuScale aims to mass-produce its reactors and then ship them to a power generation site for assembly and operation. NuScale has deployed a modular design for its small reactors, with each module no bigger than 65 feet (20 m) tall and nine feet (2.7 m) in diameter. Each of these modules can generate 50MW of energy, and a power generation plant could have anywhere between four to 12 such modules to deliver a total power output of 600 MW.

All of the modules need to remain submerged underwater and, in case of an emergency, have the ability to shut themselves without the need for an operator input or power requirement, the latter of which could have saved the world from the disaster at Fukushima.

In an emergency scenario, the reactor module will automatically shut off the feedwater and steam exit valve while opening a secondary set of valves to depressurize the reactor core and circulate the steam into the containment vessel. In addition to this, the modules will be housed in a giant water tank built of concrete and resilient to earthquakes and major impacts.

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When and where will be the first installation?

Mass production of the reactor and the low land requirements of the power generation site are aimed to bring down the costs of installation and operation of the nuclear-capable facilities, the company claims.

The NRC's nod is the final step that NuScale needs to complete before its design can be deployed on the field, a process that began in 2016.

The Idaho National Laboratory is expected to be the first site of installation with the Carbon Free Power Project scheduled to generate power using six modules and distribute it for a period of 40 years, New Atlas reported. The modules at the facility are expected to be online by the year 2030. As the regulator, the NRC will continue to oversee the operations of the sites. Radiant could provide safe, portable nuclear energy within the next five years.

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