Idaho’s agenda for nuclear power is ambitious, but attainable. It draws on the deep strengths of the Idaho National Laboratory and a series of remarkable advances in technological innovation that can now be applied to the development of small modular reactors for electricity production.
These reactors — known as SMRs — vary in size from 50 megawatts to 300 megawatts. Although smaller-than-conventional nuclear plants — typically about 1,000 megawatts — SMRs, if arranged in a cluster, can generate a substantial amount of electricity for families and businesses. This electricity is clean, reliable and affordable.
NuScale Power, a company that’s working on an SMR based on a design developed at Oregon State University, was recently awarded cost-sharing funds by the U.S. Department of Energy worth $217 million over five years. The funds are being used to accelerate the development of NuScale’s reactor, one of a number of SMRs on the drawing board. DOE officials believe nuclear power generally — and SMRs in particular —could play an important role in reducing global carbon emissions.
NuScale’s first potential customer is the Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems, which will apply to license the first NuScale power plant, to be located in Idaho and operated by Energy Northwest. By the end of this year, NuScale expects to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for certification of its reactor design, a process that could take several years. NuScale estimates that construction of the reactor will be completed in 36 months and that electricity production will begin by 2023.
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But that’s not soon enough. NRC needs to expedite the certification process, so that NuScale can begin to market its reactor globally. China already has an SMR under construction between Beijing and Shanghai. A failure to act expeditiously will undermine the sale of U.S. reactors to other countries. It will place the nation’s nuclear industry at a disadvantage in competing for global nuclear sales that the Department of Commerce projects will be worth many hundreds of billions of dollars in coming decades.
Consider the potential value of the NuScale SMR. Its simple design reduces many of the complex and large systems such as pumps, valves and piping found in today’s nuclear power plants. As a result, the NuScale plant is safer and less expensive to build and operate than conventional reactors.
Climate change, moreover, is no longer a distant threat. Millions of people around the world are already seeing the effects — whether from droughts, rising sea levels, more severe storms, wildfires and vector-borne diseases. We need to cut carbon emissions by clean energy innovation — including the advancement of nuclear power technology. SMRs represent a critical step toward decreasing some of the worst effects of climate change.
Roger Mayes is a retired scientist and manager from the Idaho National Laboratory with advanced degrees in environmental and radiological sciences. He is a past chair and current board member of the Idaho Section of the American Nuclear Society.