Sunday, March 11, 2012

Why Big Utilities that Reject Full Sized Nuclear Reactors Might Just Go For Small Modular Reactors: Achieving a Nuclear Renaissance via Scalability

Pete Sena, president of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Co., the utility's nuclear subsidiary, said the company no longer can afford full-scale nuclear reactors, but small, modular reactors are manageable investments.

"What really excites me about nuclear energy is the new technology," Mr. Sena said.

Todd Schneider, a FirstEnergy spokesman, confirmed that the company is greatly interested in modular reactors.

In fact, FirstEnergy is among 15 utilities who last year joined Babcock & Wilcox Co., a nuclear engineering and design firm, to form the mPower Industry Consortium. The group is providing oversight and pre-licensing funding for development of the 125-megawatt "mPower" reactor -- a small, modular light water reactor that is 83 feet high, weighs about 700 tons, and can power about 125,000 homes. _ToledoBlade
A scalable approach to nuclear power such as small modular reactors (SMRs) puts safe, reliable power in the same price category as new coal or gas plants -- making them affordable and competitive for utilities. Full-sized nuclear plants, on the other hand, can bankrupt companies that are not prepared to jump through all the hoops, weather the delays, finance $10 + billion dollar loans over indefinite time frames, and deal with all the bureaucratic seismic shifts and frivolous lawsuits which are likely to occur over the decade or more it will take to get the thing built and operating.
Currently, the price tag for a new baseload nuclear plant that can produce 1,100 to 1,200 megawatts is about $7 billion to $8 billion, Mr. Mowry said.

Atlanta-based utility the Southern Co. recently announced it would spend $14 billion to build two reactors at its Vogtle plant site south of Augusta, Ga., that will begin operating in 2016.

"By the end you're going to be at $15 billion-plus, so for a company whose whole market capitalization is that amount or less, you're basically betting the entire company on that one plant," Mr. Mowry said. "And Southern Co. is a regulated utility. FirstEnergy is not. Who's going to give [FirstEnergy] a loan for that one asset?"

So if a new nuclear plant "is a nonstarter even if the company is interested in betting the company on that one plant," Mr. Mowry said, "the question is: How do you cut this thing down to size? How do you cut the cost and manage the risk for a utility like FirstEnergy?"

The answer, the Babcock & Wilcox executive said, is to get the total cost under $2 billion, or about the price tag of a new coal-fired or combined-cycle natural-gas fired plant.

With small, modular reactors, that $2 billion or less price is achievable because about 70 percent of the reactor and its systems are contained within the unit and built in the factory. They do not require separate external cooling and other systems.

In fact, for $2 billion, a utility should be able to buy two modular reactors with a total output near 360 megawatts, Mr. Mowry said.

SMRs "truly are innovative but in a retro kind of way," said Paul Genoa, director of policy development at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry lobbying group.

The concept of small, modular reactors was explored in the early 1950s and 1960s, but the concept gave way to large reactors, he said.

But the costly economics of big plants has revived the idea of smaller reactors that could serve niche markets. _ToledoBlade
The article linked above provides an insightful look into many of the problems faced by any utilities which want to add safe, reliable nuclear power to their portfolio of electric power sources.

The fact that SMRs appear to solve many of the budgetary and financing problems of adding scalable nuclear power to the energy mix, is likely to attract the attention of the energy starvationists within the Obama government. So don't be surprised if the thug-monkeys of the skankstream media are sent out to attack SMRs in some of the larger mass media outlets.

Just so long as it is not too easy for voters to trace the trail of energy starvation back to the White House. At least, not until after November.

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