By John Upton
The Department of Energy is working on a strategy that could see as many as 50 small modular nuclear reactors built by the private sector every year by 2040. Many would be sold to the U.S. government; others would be exported and some more might even be imported.
The strategy is being pitched as a way to plug energy holes as the nation’s coal power plants are retired. Never mind all that cheap wind and solar that’s coming online, hey Obama?
“We have a vision of having a whole fleet of [small modular reactors] produced in factories,” [DOE nuclear power official Rebecca] Smith-Kevern told a regulatory conference in Bethesda, Md. “We envision the U.S. government to be the first users.”
DOE this week announced a second wave of million-dollar cost-share grants to help the industry design and license the modular reactors, which the administration defines as factory-built plants of less than 300 megawatts that are shipped by truck, barge or rail to construction sites for assembly.
The department awarded the first grants under its $452 million cost-share program to veteran reactor designer Babcock & Wilcox, which is building two small units at the Clinch River site in Oak Ridge, Tenn.
Some are skeptical that these small reactors would be as cost-effective as the government anticipates:
Ed Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said capital cost per kilowatt — not the cost of building a reactor itself — is what matters.
“Small plants, of course, cost less than large plants, but they also generate less electricity,” Lyman said. “And with the economies of scale factor, small plants will cost more per kilowatt than large plants unless there is some major cost savings somewhere to offset this factor.”
If mini-reactors do spread far and wide, might we then start seeing some of the most darling nuclear meltdowns ever?
John Upton is a science aficionado and green news junkie who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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