First small nuclear reactor design approved in the US

Future nuclear power plants could one third the size they are today.
Ameya Paleja
The NuScale demonstration power plant
The NuScale demonstration power plant

Office of Nuclear Energy 

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued its final rule in the Federal Register, paving the way for certification of approval of the first small modular nuclear reactor design, the Office of Nuclear Energy said in a press release.

Nuclear energy is poised for a major comeback as countries look to move away from the carbon emissions of fossil fuels but haven't completely figured out a way to tide over the intermittency of renewable energies. Wind and solar power plants can neither deliver continuous energy nor can their generation capacity be tuned up during higher demand.

Nuclear energy fits neatly into this requirement as energy production can be increased or decreased as per demand, and even though controversial, energy production does not lead to carbon emissions. Advancements in nuclear reactor design are looking to make power plants smaller and built more quickly.

The Small modular nuclear reactor

Conventionally, nuclear power plants are built at the site, and their massive scale means that project construction can take up to a decade or even more. This results in cost escalations, a significant criticism for the energy source.

Small modular reactors (SMR) look to address this issue with nuclear power plants and are made using parts that can be manufactured at a factory and then shipped to a site where they can be assembled. The smaller footprint of the reactors means they also require less site space and less time to build up.

NuScale, an Oregon-based company's SMR design, is based on a light water reactor where each power module can generate 50 MW of electricity. The power module uses natural processes such as convection and gravity to cool the reactor, thereby removing the need for additional water, energy or workforce.

NuScale's design certification application was accepted in 2018 by the U.S. NRC, which then completed its final technical review by 2020. The design was certified in July 2022, and with the recent rule change, the NRC has approved the first-ever SMR in the U.S. Starting February 21, 2023, applicants seeking a license to build a nuclear facility in the U.S. will be able to pick NuScale's SMR design, the press release said.

The road ahead

Apart from being the first SMR design to be certified by the U.S. NRC, the NuScale reactor is also the seventh reactor design ever approved by the regulator, which is also an indication of how slow the pace of progress is in the industry.

NuScale's demonstration plant with six modules is currently being built in Idaho and is only expected to be completed by 2029 and will take another year to become fully operational.

Worse still, the company also expects its energy costs to increase by as much as 50 percent when the plant is ready, bringing back concerns associated with larger nuclear energy plants to the SMR design as well.

Apart from that, SMRs also produce nuclear waste, which needs to be contended with, and building too many of them will generate new problems than the ones we are trying to solve now.

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