Small reactors may be key to nuclear power's future

The cutaway drawing shows a Babcock and Wilcox plant that has two reactors. The small, modular reactors are cost-effective for firms, like FirstEnergy, that must fund the cost of building their own plants.
The cutaway drawing shows a Babcock and Wilcox plant that has two reactors. The small, modular reactors are cost-effective for firms, like FirstEnergy, that must fund the cost of building their own plants.

In the mid-1980s, FirstEnergy Corp. spent $6 billion to build the Perry Nuclear Power Plant on the Lake Erie shoreline -- a hefty price that chilled future thoughts of expanding the utility's nuclear generating fleet.

But a new wave of nuclear reactors is causing FirstEnergy, owner of Toledo Edison and the Davis Besse nuclear plant near Port Clinton, to reconsider its future in nuclear power.

The Akron-based utility is intrigued by an emerging concept: small, modular reactors about the length of a bowling lane that generate 250 megawatts or less and could eventually cost as little as $500 million.

There are no fewer than 11 companies designing such reactors.

Last month, a Pittsburgh business publication reported that 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.

By contrast, Davis Besse, commissioned in 1978, generates about 940 megawatts.

"For a utility, I think the interesting and unique thing about a small nuclear reactor is they could be installed on a current [nuclear station] site and could be installed incrementally," Mr. Schneider said. "They are easy to locate and give you some flexibility as to where you put them in your system when you are deciding about generation for the future."

Chris Mowry, president of Babcock & Wilcox's Modular Nuclear Energy subsidiary, said what excites utilities like FirstEnergy who operate in competitive, deregulated environments is that the new small, modular reactors, or SMRs, are cost-effective for companies that must fund the cost of building their own plants.

Ohio deregulated electric utilities in 2000 and now electric rates are determined through a competitive bidding process.

Utilities such as FirstEnergy can no longer build new plants and have the state Public Utilities Commission order the cost be passed onto ratepayers.

"At the end of the day, this is an economic and a business discussion. The whole premise behind SMRs is the injection of a way of de-risking these projects," Mr. Mowry said.

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.

Reactor size

Small modular reactors would be housed mostly underground in a building complex about the size of a small strip mall on a site about 37 acres. Their design is such that they could be clustered in groups of four to six units, usually near existing nuclear plants, and tie into existing transmission lines.

But they also could be standalone units because their low output -- just 10 megawatts for a design by Toshiba -- means they could tie into a grid at most locales with minimal difficulty.

"These will be very suitable for replacing old retired coal plants to provide low carbon energy footprints, for regions of the country with small growth or for municipals and co-ops," Mr. Genoa said. "We tend to forget that while co-ops supply 30 percent of the people, they serve 70 percent of land," he said.

"In the nuclear world there is no choice. They're all supersized plants," he said. "These small modular reactors would not be replacing [big plants] but rather providing other choices."

Mr. Genoa and other experts say the earliest one of the new small modular reactors could be approved for use in the United States is 2020.

Because no SMRs exist other than on a computer screen, there are a lot of questions still about the technology.

Scott Burnell, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman, said Babcock & Wilcox hasn't sought a certification for its mPower design, but it has made a preapplication.

The company has an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority to build an mPower prototype at the TVA's Clinch River site at Oak Ridge, Tenn. Babcock & Wilcox and its partner, Bechtel Corp., plan to build the prototype with an NRC permit, then request NRC certification, a process that most likely will begin in 2015 and take five years, Mr. Burnell said.

"If the TVA carries out its plan and gets an application in by 2015, you're still looking at the end of the decade before the reactor design could be certified," Mr. Burnell added.

After that, a utility wanting an mPower reactor could seek an operating license referencing that design, the NRC spokesman said.

Licensing fees

But licenses are not cheap. As the system is now, NRC operating licenses are based on large reactors and cost tens of millions of dollars, plus annual operating fees of $4.6 million.

"Even for a small, modular design the licensing process is still not cheap. A company would have to consider that they're going to have to put in a lot of resources for a design that is still under review," Mr. Burnell said.

"To a point, there are parts of the licensing process that are, shall we say, size-neutral. But a policy question is: How do you go about charging the NRC's normal fees for one of these smaller designs?" Mr. Burnell said.

"The fees are based on plants that are 1,100 and 1,200 megawatts. It doesn't make sense for 150 megawatts."

As the modular concept gains momentum, the agency could reduce its licensing costs to account for smaller nuclear reactors, making the process economically feasible for deregulated utilities like FirstEnergy, Mr. Burnell said.

But such discussions, the NRC spokesman added, are 8 to 10 years off.

"No one's at the starting gate yet. But B&W has certainly started the conversation," Mr. Burnell said. "But that's still a conversation about a horse that's still in the stall ... ."

Contact Jon Chavez at: or 419-724-6128.