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Department of Energy seeks comments on plans to fund first SMRs

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By James T. Hammond
jhammond@scbiznews.com
Published Jan. 23, 2012

The U.S. Department of Energy has called for comments from the private industry on plans to fund the first demonstration models of small modular nuclear reactors, which could revolutionize the nuclear power industry and the way electric power is generated.

The current comment period ends Feb. 17, according to the DOE announcement that was posted Friday. The federal agency is seeking industry comments on the draft Funding Opportunity Announcement prior to issuing a final request for proposals later in March.

The DOE announcement anticipates one or two federal awards totaling up to $452 million to companies that win the competition to build the first of the small modular reactors, or SMRs. The request for comments specifies that the DOE grant include at least a dollar-for-dollar match from the private partner to receive the federal grant. In other words, to receive the maximum grant, a participating company would be required to put up a similar amount.

Westinghouse Electric Co., which has a nuclear fuel manufacturing plant in Columbia, immediately issued a statement from Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President of Research and Technology Kate Jackson that said: “Westinghouse will apply for DOE’s small modular reactor investment funds with a consortium of utilities.

“Access to this investment fund helps lower the barrier to market entry for American companies,” Jackson added. “Virtually all energy sources that feed the national grid have been developed through public investments in public-private research and development partnerships. Westinghouse is well positioned to be the first to market with the most economic small modular reactor.”

Neil McLean, executive director for EngenuitySC, said the Midlands, working through the recently formed collaborative called NuHub, will seek to become a partner with one of the SMR designers to increase the chance that the demonstration project will land here. Potential partners could include a university, an electric utility, the Savannah River National Laboratory and other companies that are engaged in the nuclear power industry.

“We are working on a plan to respond to the Department of Energy,” McLean said. “We want to ensure that whatever happens, we are working with SRS. Manufacturers will seek to partner with a regional consortium that includes a utility.”

South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., which operates the V.C. Summer nuclear station in Fairfield County, has said it would be interested in participating in an SMR demonstration project. And the Savannah River Site, a 300-square-mile federal reservation, has been mentioned as a potential location for such a project.

In concept, small modular reactors would be built in a factory, be of a size and weight that could be transported on a rail car or large truck, and have power generation capacity of 300 megawatts or less. For comparison, the two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors being built in Fairfield County by the South Carolina Electric and Gas Co. are about 1,110 megawatts apiece.

Small modular reactors, approximately one-third the size of current nuclear plants, have compact designs that are expected to offer a host of safety, siting, construction and economic benefits. Specifically, they could be made in factories and transported to sites where they would be ready to “plug and play” upon arrival, reducing both capital costs and construction times. The small size also makes SMRs ideal for small electric grids and for locations that cannot support large reactors, providing utilities with the flexibility to scale production as demand changes.

A variety of concepts for SMRs of various sizes have been floated by companies seeking to participate in the next generation of nuclear reactors. A representative of Holtec, an SMR design firm, said at a conference in Columbia last year that his company could build a 140 megawatt reactor for $700 million.

The Department of Energy described the request for proposals as “the first step toward manufacturing small modular nuclear reactors in the United States, demonstrating the administration’s commitment to advancing U.S. manufacturing leadership in low-carbon, next generation energy technologies and restarting the nation’s nuclear industry.”

“America’s choice is clear — we can either develop the next generation of clean energy technologies, which will help create thousands of new jobs and export opportunities here in America, or we can wait for other countries to take the lead,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Friday. “The funding opportunity announced today is a significant step forward in designing, manufacturing, and exporting U.S. small modular reactors, advancing our competitive edge in the global clean energy race.”

The federal grants would support first-of-a-kind engineering, design certification and licensing through the cost-shared partnership. The full FOA will fund up to two SMR designs with the goal of deploying these reactors by 2022.

Friday’s announcement comes on the heels of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s certification of Westinghouse Electric’s AP1000 nuclear reactor design, which was supported through a cost-shared agreement with the Energy Department.

The department’s efforts, in coordination with the NRC and private industry, have helped American companies lead the way in obtaining certification and licensing approvals for new reactor designs, which will further streamline these processes for future investments in the U.S. nuclear industry.

For more information on SMRs, visit the Office of Nuclear Energy website.

DOE is not requesting applications or proposals at this time. Rather, DOE is seeking input from industry and other interested parties. The draft FOA is available on Grants.gov here and under reference number DE-FOA-0000371. Interested parties are invited to submit any comments, questions, concerns or suggestions regarding the draft FOA for DOE’s consideration to the contract specialist, Layne Isom, at isomla@id.doe.gov.

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