Small reactor developers scramble for $452m in DOE funding

May 21 was the last day for developers of small modular reactors, or SMRs, to file their applications with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for up to $452m in cost-sharing grants to help commercialize the small power reactors within a decade.

It was also the date when a number of the companies seeking to share in the two DOE grants kicked off a two-day conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Platts around the theme of “making it happen.” DOE announced the grant program in late January. Applications were due May 21. Announcements on the program could come Aug. 21.

While Southern Co. (NYSE: SO) and SCANA (NYSE: SCG) continue to draw industry plaudits for winning Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses to develop new nuclear plants in Georgia and South Carolina, small modular reactors could be a more realistic hope for many utilities, speakers told the Platts gathering.

That’s because a couple of 1,000-MW utility-scale reactors can represent a $10bn investment – which Moody’s has described as a bet-the-company proposition, said DOE Nuclear Program Analyst Matthew Crozat.

Some small reactor prototypes borrow from technology developed for U.S. Navy nuclear submarines and virtually all of them tout “passive” safety systems that would not seem vulnerable to a Fukushima-type meltdown.

Likewise, NuScale Power COO Chris Colbert said his company does not plan to use any “new or novel” technology but stick with what’s already proven. Small reactors are also touted as a potential non-natural gas replacement for small, aging coal plants. A former coal plant developer, Colbert quipped that he was now devoted to nuclear, a non-CO2 emitting power source.

Various speakers said SMRs can be manufactured here in the United States and sold to an international market.

But they still have plenty of regulatory, financial and other hurdles to overcome. As one panelist observed, no small reactors are going to be built if natural gas stays at $2 mmBtu.

Here is a look at key projects discussed May 21.

** Westinghouse Electric is working with Ameren (NYSE: AEE) and various electric cooperatives in Missouri to secure an NRC license for a 225-MW Westinghouse small modular reactor at the Callaway nuclear station. The group hopes to achieve commercial operation in 2022 and have the first operating SMR in the United States, said Westinghouse Advanced Reactors Manager Michael Anness.

Anness also announced that Burns & McDonnell and General Dynamics Electric Boat were collaborating on the Westinghouse group’s small reactor effort.

** Babcock & Wilcox (NYSE: BWC) and Bechtel are working together to commercialize B&W’s mPower small modular reactor. They have an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to try and license a 180-MW small reactor at TVA’s Clinch River site in 2020.

** NuScale said in a May 21 news release that it has submitted its proposal to DOE and hopes to develop an SMR at DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The proposal has backing from SCANA subsidiary South Carolina Electric & Gas. NuScale has a design for a 45-MW reactor and said the best design would be to bundle a dozen of these small reactors together for a 540-MW nuclear station. NuScale last year picked up Fluor as a major financial backer.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.