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  (Source: Washington Times)
Smaller reactors means lower costs, which in turn mean lower risk to investors

Argonne National Laboratory's former chief scientist and director, Robert Rosner, is on a mission to sell the nation on a clean "small modular reactor" (SMR) nuclear power solution.

I. Good Things Come in Small Packages

As the new director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), Mr. Rasner has devoted much his energy into guiding public policy towards financially optimal "green solutions."

With funding from his former research facility, Professor Rasner and his colleague Stephen Goldberg -- a special assistant to Argonne's new director -- examined reactors ranging from the tradition gigawatt scale, down to smaller megawatt-scale designs.

The report simplified the equation a bit, removing interest and construction time.  It dubbed this simplified metric "overnight construction costs".  It puts the cost of a kilowatt of new nuclear capacity at $4,210 USD for a large plant -- nearly twice what large-scale capacity cost in 2004.  The remedy, it argues, is smaller reactor designs.

Professor Rasner cites "commodity price changes and other factors".  While he does not explicitly elaborate on those "other factors" in his press, release, he's likely referring to the strong public animosity for nuclear power in the U.S., in the wake of the Fukushima Japanese nuclear disaster.

But the veteran researcher says those who lump modern nuclear reactors with decades old legacy designs like the reactors at Fukushima are ignorant of the scientific reality.  He states to the contrary, "[Modern reactors] would be a huge stimulus for high-valued job growth, restore U.S. leadership in nuclear reactor technology and, most importantly, strengthen U.S. leadership in a post-Fukushima world, on matters of nuclear safety, nuclear security, nonproliferation, and nuclear waste management."

CSIS president and CEO John Hamre concurs, commenting that the new reactors are virtually meltdown-proof.  He remarks, "The entire heat load at full power can be carried passively by thermal convection. There's no need for pumps."

Critics, it would seem -- tend to write a blank check to solar and wind power when it comes to environmental impact, land impact, safety, government funding, and risk -- while looking to sharply admonish nuclear power firms from seeking those same benefits.

II. Modular Mass Production Holds the Key to Profits, Halting Lawsuits

Again, he says the cheapest way to get their is to develop a modular construction process, perhaps somewhere around the 600 MW scale.  Rather than being custom-built on site, parts could be mass-produced at factories and then shipped to the new reactor for "easy assembly".

Mr. Hamre says its not just public sentiment that's holding reactors back -- it’s the staggering scale of large reactor cost.  A gigawatt scale reactor would cost a company $10B USD to deploy and would not see a pay for 7 to 9 years.

He opines that small reactors currently look like the best energy solution, other than natural gas use.  He says natural gas is less desirable too, because it's a commodity and its cost in 15 years could radically shift.

Mr Hamre and Professor Rasner say that the government must step in as a customer to help small nuclear manufacturers build up factories and deployment networks.    Even at small scales, initial costs will likely be too high versus traditional "dirty" power technologies like oil and coal, they argue.  

"The faster you learn, the better off you are in the long term because you get to the point where you actually start making money faster." says Professor Rosner.  But while there is a rush to get these solutions out there, he warns that he's not advocating a rush to judgment.  He adds, "It's a case that has to be argued out and thought carefully about.  There's a long distance between what we're doing right now and actually implementing national policy."

Another good thing about SMRs mentioned in the report is that they could serve as direct replacements to fossil fuel power plants.  Given the fact that many coal plants produce around 200 to 400 MW, a SMR could be fitted as a direct drop-in, versus current larger designs, which require special grid accommodations.

Another positive not mentioned in the report, is that SMRs would likely strike a blow to opponents who hope to cripple the clean power technology with lawsuits and protests.  Rather than having just one target to focus their wrath on, landowners and "environmentalists" would be forced to divide their time and money between several deployments per state, depleting their resources.

Georgia Plant
U.S. nuclear power stands at a crossroads.  Proponents want it to move ahead to new technologies, and they have backing from some top scientists.  But for every ounce of science leverage in support of nuclear there's and equal violent emotional backlash from public critics [Image Source: Georgia Times Blog]

So what do you think?  Should the U.S. follow in France's bold footsteps and invest big in nuclear, even if it requires mild government "seed funding"?  Or should it go in the opposite direction and pull a Japan, turning its back on nuclear energy?  Or should politicians simply sit there and keep their mouths shut, as President Obama has appeared to do (a reversal of his vocal pre-Fukushima support of nuclear development) -- in an effort to avoid angering either side?

For more reading, dive into the full report below.

Sources: Univ. of Chicago, EPIC

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The problem with using many smaller reactors
By Natch on 12/15/2011 7:42:27 AM , Rating: 3
....versus fewer large reactors, is the manpower it takes to run the plants.

The USA's first nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, uses 8 nuclear reactors (4 power plants, each having a pair of reactors in parallel service) to drive the ship (as well as generate electricity, make steam for the catapults, etc).

Every subsequent aircraft carrier, in the Nimitz class (and now in the new Ford class) uses TWO nuclear reactors, each of which is approximately 4.5 times larger capacity than the Enterprise reactors.

Why? Fewer power plants equals fewer trained operators to run those plants.

And we want the human version of Homer Simpson running our nuclear power plants, in reality?

RE: The problem with using many smaller reactors
By Ringold on 12/15/2011 9:38:07 AM , Rating: 2
And we want the human version of Homer Simpson running our nuclear power plants, in reality?

If there were a future in it, and the government stopped subsidizing student loans for artsy majors, I bet enrollment in nuclear physics courses would leap. Right now kids might be interested, think its cool, but think its a dead end so bright people may be passing the field over.

I just don't think there's necessarily a need to lower standards, but a push for nuclear today would require a simultaneous education push, with reforms and nuclear PR (the latter being the job of industry, the former the government) so that when these plants come online the first waves of students have graduated and been adequately trained.

RE: The problem with using many smaller reactors
By kattanna on 12/15/2011 11:02:20 AM , Rating: 4
and the government stopped subsidizing student loans for artsy majors

but if they did that then who would be serving me my coffee??

RE: The problem with using many smaller reactors
By lagomorpha on 12/15/2011 1:44:11 PM , Rating: 3
Someone less stuck up and with a less ridiculous haircut.

By JediJeb on 12/15/2011 5:30:37 PM , Rating: 2
I wish I could rate you up!

By Skywalker123 on 12/15/2011 11:50:38 PM , Rating: 2

By JediJeb on 12/15/2011 5:39:36 PM , Rating: 2
Honestly there are a lot of chemist and physicist out there that could do the job if it was available. Many science graduates end up in jobs far outside their field of study simply because there is a lack of those types of jobs. I am a chemist and I was lucky to find a job in chemistry, but my training in school was focused on coal chemistry, specifically to be a chemist in a goal gasification plant, but I finished just as those were being scrapped, so I am working in environmental compliance testing which pays half of what an autoworker makes or less. Believe me, if a bunch of these small nuke plants were spread across the country there would be plenty of skilled people to run them.

"Intel is investing heavily (think gazillions of dollars and bazillions of engineering man hours) in resources to create an Intel host controllers spec in order to speed time to market of the USB 3.0 technology." -- Intel blogger Nick Knupffer

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