Is One Small Reactor Breaking Out of the Field?

March 21, 2023

The GE-Hitachi small modular design might be breaking out of the field, but some questions remain – most prominently, as yesterday’s IPCC Synthesis report underlined – we are out of time. The very first GE-Hitachi design would not even be available for investors to evaluate until 2028 at the earliest.

World Nuclear News:

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) has completed a combined Phases 1 and 2 vendor design review (VDR) of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s BWRX-300 small modular reactor. The regulator said that no fundamental barriers to licensing were identified during the review.

The VDR is an optional service provided by the CNSC to provide an assessment of a nuclear power plant design based on a vendor’s reactor technology. It is not a required part of the licensing process for a new nuclear power plant but aims to verify the acceptability of a design with respect to Canadian nuclear regulatory requirements and expectations, providing early feedback during the design process.

The CNSC entered into an agreement with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) on 11 December 2019, to conduct a combined Phases 1 and 2 pre-licensing VDR of the BWRX-300 reactor. The purpose of the combined Phases 1 and 2 VDR was to determine whether GEH understands CNSC regulatory requirements and the extent to which the reactor design meets those requirements. Phase 3 of the VDR allows the vendor to follow-up on certain aspects of Phase 2 findings by seeking more information from the CNSC about a Phase 2 topic and/or asking the CNSC to review activities taken by the vendor towards the reactor’s design readiness, following the completion of Phase 2.

Below, GE-Hitachi executive discusses their design, and notes that a levelized cost of electricity of $60/MWhr is “achievable” – in other words, almost double what solar and wind are today – even with storage.

One question mark for many of the new small modular designs is that they rely on HALEU – High Assay Low Enrichment Uranium – as a fuel, – something that up to now has only been available from a single global supplier – in Russia. In the post-Ukraine war era, obvious security considerations have thrown a wrench in those plans. The GE design may have an advantage here, as it reportedly uses a fuel that GE is already producing.

Wilmington Biz:

Many next-generation nuclear reactor designs rely on fuel made with high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU. The nation’s existing nuclear fleet is powered using fuel enriched with 5% uranium; HALEU is enriched between 5% and 20%.  

Today, there’s only one commercial source of HALEU across the globe: the state-owned Russian company TENEX.  

Both X-energy and TerraPower had initially selected TENEX as their sole HALEU supplier in their ARDP applications, according to Beville.  

“We originally were going to buy the first load over in Russia,” Tara Neider, TerraPower’s senior vice president said at the October groundbreaking event for the fuel facility in Wilmington. “We absolutely will not do that now.” 

“On February 23rd of this year, everybody was thinking about nuclear for net-zero carbon,” Wileman said. “On February 24th … they started thinking about nuclear as energy security,” he continued, referencing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “So our phones have been ringing.”  

Wilmington’s fuel facility is anticipated to be among the first domestically to produce fuel using HALEU. Behind X-energy’s HALEU fuel production facility planned in Oak Ridge, Tennessee – which the company projects to be the nation’s first – the proposed Wilmington fuel plant is “probably the second-most” developed in terms of progress so far, according to Beville. 

Work will begin next year on the Wilmington fuel facility, which is slated to be operational by late 2025, GE Hitachi officials said. Construction at the Natrium reactor site in Wyoming is expected to begin in 2025.


In addition to work on the Natrium project, progress on GE Hitachi’s first-ever small-modular reactor (SMR) design also is key to the company’s growth.

This water-cooled design, the BWRX-300, is essentially a more compact and efficient version of existing boiling water reactors. In contrast, the Natrium design aims to use sodium as its coolant. 

Unlike the HALEU fuel needed for the Natrium design, the BWRX-300 would rely on the boiling water reactor fuel GE Hitachi is already producing in Wilmington.

“Another big benefit is the fuel for this is exactly what I’m making,” Wileman said. “I don’t need to qualify a whole new fuel for this small-modular reactor.”

The BWRX-300 is based on a previous, already-approved design, which officials believe will help fast-track its deployment.  

SMRs are smaller than traditional nuclear plants, and GE Hitachi’s design is more simplified, cutting down concrete and rebar by 90%, according to Wileman. The BWRX-300 is 300 megawatts (MW); by comparison, each element of the two-unit Brunswick Nuclear Plant has a generating capacity of about 930 MW. 

Though it’s smaller, the SMR’s performance-by-megawatt will be about 50% better than traditional designs, Wileman said. “We’re making a standard plant that you can repeat over and over and over again,” he said. “That’s not how this first wave of reactors was built back in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s.” 

Wileman said the smaller design was intentional “to help facilitate, really a relaunch of nuclear.”

Momentum is already building behind the design. 

Ontario Power Generation selected the BWRX-300 design for a planned facility, and GE Hitachi has potential deployment projects in the works with utilities ranging from the Tennessee Valley Authority to Polish-based Synthos Green Energy to SaskPower in Saskatoon, Canada.

Below, some skeptical notes from Electrical Engineer Arjun Makhijani PhD.


5 Responses to “Is One Small Reactor Breaking Out of the Field?”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    I like boring.
    Boring is good.

  2. John Oneill Says:

    It’s perhaps no wonder Arjun Makhijani has a jaundiced view of nuclear – he did his Ph.D. in nuclear FUSION ! He’s consistent, anyway, he ‘..was awarded the Josephine Butler Nuclear Free Future Award in 2001.’
    Reactors are really much simpler than aircraft, and the safety issues for the latter are way more onerous. It’s a good bet that, if the 9/11 hijackers had rammed Indian Point, as they had considered, the reactor would have come off much better than the plane – or the World Trade Center. Five feet of prestressed concrete dome beats a tenth of an inch of aircraft aluminum.
    In any case, the Chinese are showing that if you buckle down to it, supply chain issues for large reactors are a solvable problem. It’s not so long since Japan and South Korea were knocking them out in four or five years, too.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Yes, we all know about the heavy layers of reinforced concrete around nuclear reactors, including the one attacked by Russia in Ukraine.

      • John Oneill Says:

        Ukraine used to send all its spent fuel to Russia when it was part of the Soviet Union. That arrangement ended when they became independent, so they consulted with Duke Energy on a design for spent fuel casks. Having just been through the trauma of Chernobyl, they wanted to be damn sure the stuff was safe, so they modified the American design to fit Soviet VVER fuel, and then added another 50% to the thickness of the steel liner. i’d say Ukraine has far more pressing things to worry about, but of course Friends of the Earth and the like disagree. file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/rs_2002_1-2_4%20(3).pdf

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