While Big Nuke Projects Struggle, Can Newer Reactor Tech Overcome Barriers?

January 30, 2023

 BWRX-300 Small Modular Reactor (SMR)

There are a large number of advanced reactor designs currently in development. None in the western world, so far as I know, that will be in service before the 2030s.
China is moving on a small, experimental Thorium reactor, which will be a test bed for the technology. (below the jump)

Most important take-away is that the “pro-nuclear” and “anti-nuclear” labels are meaningless, and have been for a long time. What has held nuclear back has been the industry’s own failures to learn from mistakes, resulting in economic boondoggles like the current Vogtle plant in Georgia – which may, after 18 years, horrendous delays and cost overruns, and a major bankruptcy, be ready to start producing power, or not – see at bottom.
Point is, I hear people talk about nuclear as if it is a current live option for deployment as we shut down aged coal, (and some nuclear) plants, as if we could just go to the nuclear plant store and buy a nuclear plant. That’s not an option, and won’t be until well into the 2030s, and we need zero carbon power today. Yesterday, in fact.
Immediate need is to permit solar and wind energy as rapidly as possible.
Fingers crossed and hope for the best with these new technologies, but we have stuff that works now. Let’s get on with it.

General Electric:

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH), Ontario Power Generation (OPG), SNC-Lavalin and Aecon have signed a contract for the deployment of a BWRX-300 small modular reactor (SMR) at OPG’s Darlington New Nuclear Project site. This is the first commercial contract for a grid-scale SMR in North America.

“This contract is an important milestone and solidifies our position as the leading SMR technology provider,” said GEH President and CEO Jay Wileman. “We aim to deliver the first SMR in North America and, in doing so, lead the start of a new era of nuclear power that will provide zero-emission energy generation, energy security and energy reliability around the globe. We can’t express our appreciation enough for the leadership role that OPG and the Province of Ontario are taking for a project that will benefit Ontario, Canada and the world.

Here, a GE executive expresses confidence that nuclear electricity at a cost of $60 MW/hr is “achievable”.

Meanwhile, Georgia Public Service Commission estimates the Levelized Cost of Electricity from solar with storage at $30 MW/hr, (and falling).

Here, another addition to my collection of cool renderings of advanced nuclear plant kitsch, as well as an update on another approach.

Will Lockett:

When I say nuclear power is expensive and slow, I really mean it. Take the 3.2 GW Sizewell C nuclear plant being built in Britain. It is predicted to take 12 years to construct, but its actual date of arrival could easily surpass that. Plus, the total price to build the plant is estimated at up to £30 billion ($36 billion), which is monstrous!

Imagine trying to pitch this build to an energy company. It will cost tens of billions up front and won’t produce energy for over a decade. Meanwhile, solar farms and wind turbines cost a good chuck less and can be built in three to five years. No wonder nuclear power is falling out of favour.

But this is where Holtec’s SMR-160 comes in.

“SMR” stands for Small Modular Reactor. Unlike typical nuclear reactors, which use a handful of massive, custom-built reactors that need to be carefully built on-site, SMRs are small enough to be built off-site in a factory and then transported to a location where they can be stacked together to make a power plant. This makes SMRs far cheaper, faster to build, more flexible, and more scalable than traditional nuclear power. But this is a relatively new concept, and companies are still trying to design the reactors to meet regulations, so as of yet, no SMRs are commercially available.

However, Holtec’s 160 seems to be one of the most promising SMRs. It isn’t dependent on external water sources for cooling, allowing it to operate in arid areas, which is something traditional nuclear power and other SMRs struggle to do. Each module costs $1 billiontakes up around 15,000 m², produces 160 MW of powerrequires only three years to construct a power plant, and has a service life of at least 80 years, after which it can be hot-swapped for a new one.

This means that if we built Sizewell C with the SMR-160, it would use 20 modules, cost a tiddly £16.4 billion ($20 billion), require only three years to build, and be 2 hectares smaller. Moreover, the site can be expanded or shrunk over time to match demand, keeping operational prices as low as possible.

But Holtec has another trick up its sleeve.

The 160 produces power the same way as almost every nuclear power plant: through closed-loop steam-powered turbines. But the steam it emits is at a far lower pressure and temperature than others, at 700 psi and 313°C. Holtec has also applied for a patent for a multi-stage compressor to raise the pressure higher while keeping the temperature low. Because of these two factors, 160s can be used to recycle coal-fired power plants into nuclear power plants.

Coal-fired plants are surprisingly large, as they need plenty of space to handle coal and the ash it produces. This can be cleared, giving plenty of room to install enough 160s. Then the furnace can be removed, and the 160s and their multi-stage compressor can be hooked up to the coal turbine system to make a fully functional nuclear power plant.

Recycling coal plants like this makes construction even cheaper, as you don’t need to build the turbine system or the vast infrastructure required to connect it to the energy grid. This dramatically shortens construction times and costs. What’s more, a recent study by the US Department of Energyfound that hundreds of coal power plant sites across the USA could be converted to nuclear plant sites, which means there is plenty of opportunity to use this technique.

China’s entry described below:


When China switches on its experimental reactor, it will be the first molten-salt reactor operating since 1969, when US researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee shut theirs down. And it will be the first molten-salt reactor to be fuelled by thorium. Researchers who have collaborated with SINAP say the Chinese design copies that of Oak Ridge, but improves on it by calling on decades of innovation in manufacturing, materials and instrumentation.

Researchers in China directly involved with the reactor did not respond to requests for confirmation of the reactor’s design and when exactly tests will begin.

Compared with light-water reactors in conventional nuclear power stations, molten-salt reactors operate at significantly higher temperatures, which means they could generate electricity much more efficiently, says Charles Forsberg, a nuclear engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

China’s reactor will use fluoride-based salts, which melt into a colourless, transparent liquid when heated to about 450 ºC. The salt acts as a coolant to transport heat from the reactor core. In addition, rather than solid fuel rods, molten-salt reactors also use the liquid salt as a substrate for the fuel, such as thorium, to be directly dissolved into the core.

Molten-salt reactors are considered to be relatively safe because the fuel is already dissolved in liquid and they operate at lower pressures than do conventional nuclear reactors, which reduces the risk of explosive meltdowns.

Yoshioka says many countries are working on molten-salt reactors — to generate cheaper electricity from uranium or to use waste plutonium from light-water reactors as fuel — but China alone is attempting to use thorium fuel.

China’s reactor will be “a test bed to do a lot of learning”, says Forsberg, from analysing corrosion to characterizing the radionucleotide composition of the mixture as it circulates.

“We are going to learn so much new science,” agrees Simon Middleburgh, a nuclear materials scientist at Bangor University, UK. “If they would let me, I’d be on the first plane there.”

It could take months for China’s reactor to reach full operation. “If anything along the way goes wrong, you can’t continue, and have to stop and start again,” says Middleburgh. For example, the pumps might fail, pipes could corrode or a blockage might occur. Nevertheless, scientists are hopeful of success.

Molten-salt reactors are just one of many advanced nuclear technologies China is investing in. In 2002, an intergovernmental forum identified six promising reactor technologies to fast-track by 2030, including reactors cooled by lead or sodium liquids. China has programmes for all of them.

Some of these reactor types could replace coal-fuelled power plants, says David Fishman, a project manager at the Lantau Group energy consultancy in Hong Kong. “As China cruises towards carbon neutrality, it could pull out [power plant] boilers and retrofit them with nuclear reactors.”

Meanwhile, in Georgia:

WRDW Augusta Georgia:

Startup of a new nuclear reactor at Plant Vogtle will be delayed since its operator found a vibrating pipe in the cooling system during testing.

Georgia Power Co., the lead owner of Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, announced the delay Wednesday. The company said the third reactor at the plant is now scheduled to begin generating electricity for the grid in April. The unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co. had previously given a startup deadline of March.

The problem was found during startup testing in a pipe that is part of the reactor’s automatic depressurization system, said Georgia Power spokesperson Jacob Hawkins. He said the pipe needs to be braced with additional support.

Southern Nuclear Operating Co., which will operate the reactor on behalf of Georgia Power and other owners, must get approval for a license modification from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the company said in an investor filing.

The plant includes two operating nuclear reactors and the first two nuclear reactors being built from scratch in the United States in decades. The fourth reactor is still under construction and is supposed to start generating electricity sometime in 2024.

The delay will cost Georgia Power and other co-owners at least $30 million.

A third and a fourth reactor were approved for construction at Vogtle by the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2012, and the third reactor was supposed to start generating power in 2016. The cost of the third and fourth reactors has climbed from an original cost of $14 billion to more than $30 billion.

Finally, for balance, Mark Jacobson, one of the leading critics of new nuclear tech, outlines the challenges ahead for that industry.


3 Responses to “While Big Nuke Projects Struggle, Can Newer Reactor Tech Overcome Barriers?”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    It would be nice to have
    modular reactors
    with no need for external water
    that can be produced without gross cost overruns
    and can generate cost-competitive electric power
    in a timely fashion.

    Also, I want a pony.

  2. Jim Torson Says:

    I had a good laugh when I read this delusional hype about small modular nuclear reactors.

    So… Now we are (again) going to be told that the answer is… THORIUM. Ha! Here is a discussion of thorium by someone who actually knows what he is talking about:

    Dr. Arjun Makhijani on the downsides of the proposed thorium reactors and why solar power will save money and save lives

  3. John Oneill Says:

    Meanwhile gigawatt-scale nukes are being built in Pakistan, India, Bangla Desh, China, South Korea, UAE, Turkey, and Egypt, apparently at reasonable costs and timescales. The fact that, for a simple pipe brace, the Vogtle plant needs three weeks, 30 million dollars, and a special exemption from the NRC (No Reactors Constructed, now, in 48 years) might give a clue as to why that hasn’t been happening in the West.

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