A bright spot in the future of nuclear
By Henry T.Curry,
Technical Consulting Manager Global Technical Training Services, Inc.
Whether you subscribe to the concept of global warming or not, you have to acknowledge the fact that we need to continue to diversify our energy portfolio and wean our dependence on fossil fuels. Fossil fuels such as coal, oil, diesel, and natural gas, provide the bulk of the US power generation and do so in a safe and efficient manner. But as demand for power grows, we must continue to find other sources of energy and power, because fossil fuel is limited and there is a significant pollutant byproduct. Each type of power (fossil, nuclear, solar, wind, hydro) has its benefits and drawbacks and in every case there are folks who actively tout or refute each source. However, we cannot solely base our energy portfolio on any one single type. The time to develop more creative sources of energy is now while there is margin to do so. We cannot wait until crisis mode. I believe that if we wait until we have to develop a new source of power we will end up with the adage, “If we want power really bad, then that is that we will get, really bad power.”
I recently had the honor of visiting an organization that is in the business of developing a creative power source by redesigning existing technology,. NuScale Power, LLC is developing a new generation of nuclear power plant that is engineered to be inherently safer than existing nuclear plants, takes up less space, and can be sized for the need. The safer design comes from the implementation of lessons learned from the previous design plants in production today. The nuclear power industry is an ever-evolving one that changes as a result of each event large or small. With current plants, these changes are significant and usually require the addition of systems or processes to maintain this margin to safety. NuScale has taken into account all these safety features currently being used and is creating a new design reactor and steam generation plant that uses more natural systems to run the plant during normal operation and in the unlikely event of an accident.
The biggest safety design improvement is that they have taken the concept of a large reactor with multiple steam generators down to a series of smaller 50 MWe reactors each with a self-contained steam generator. The entire containment unit is 76 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter. Compare this to the containment buildings you see at nuclear plants. These smaller reactors houses approximately 5% of the fuel of a current 1000 MWe nuclear reactor. Less fuel per reactor means less environmental impact in the unlikely event of an accident.
Another significant safety feature is the use of “natural circulation” for normal operations. This eliminates the need for large pumps and supporting piping that can lead to loss of the reactor cooling medium.
The smaller reactors and steam generators are encased in their own containment units providing the same 3 levels of defense of current plants. These containment units are submerged in their own cooling medium which is housed in an underground pool structure. So in the highly unlikely event that all plant support fails, the units will be safely shut down and self-cooled indefinitely with no operator action, electrical power, and no need to add water.
These smaller reactors can be set up in series to provide the needs of the area. The plant are designed for a maximum of 12 reactors. The user can set up as many as they need for the area. For example a small remote island or city may only need 3 or 6 units vice all 12. With the scalability, the plants can also operate independent of the power grid which may improve reliability.
Without the need for all the safety systems of current plants, the footprint and cost of building these plants are significantly reduced. The need for fewer systems results in less startup costs, and the smaller footprint translates to less security costs.
IN A PERFECT WORLD, we would have an energy portfolio that is all sustainable, non-polluting, inexpensive, not dependent on foreign governments, and with no long term waste issues. However, we are far from it. In our current state, we have to have a balance of all of these until we reach this goal. Nuclear has to remain a viable source of power for the U.S. and with plants closing at a much faster rate than they are being build, I am concerned for the future of nuclear power. NuScale is shining new light in this industry and I appreciate the work being done by innovators in this field. Check them out at www.nuscalepower.com and actively support a balanced energy portfolio.