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PDX firm seeks nuclear revival

by: COURTESY OF NUSCALE ENERGY - Simulated photo shows how a truck could haul  NuScales modular nuclear reactor, which is 82 feet long with a 15-foot diameter. The modules also could be shipped via barge or rail. Oregon is an unlikely birthplace for new nuclear power production.

Since 1980, nuclear power plants have been banned in the state. But that hasn’t stopped NuScale Energy, headquartered in Portland, from advancing to the cutting edge of nuclear power technology. NuScale, based on technology pioneered at Oregon State University, is developing small, modular reactors that Mike McGough, the company’s chief commercial officer, says “will truly change the way the world looks at nuclear energy.”

Smaller NuScale reactors can, in theory, be cheaper to make and safer to operate than the hulking power plants of today. A single NuScale power plant would consist of one to 12 reactors, maxing out at about half the power output of current reactors.

The smaller reactors could be built in factories, taking advantage of assembly-line efficiency, and they could be transported around the world. The smaller size also incorporates safety features that, the company says, make the reactors much less vulnerable to a Fukushima-type incident.

No meltdowns possible?

McGough compares the NuScale reactor to a big Thermos bottle, about 82 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter. A traditional reactor containment dome rises about 200 feet above ground. But the small NuScale modules would be kept underground, in a pool of water so large that additional water wouldn’t be needed to prevent a meltdown.

Both types of reactor use enriched uranium to generate massive amounts of heat, and water to transfer the heat to turbines that create electricity.

But the NuScale reactor is more self-contained. Water inside the reactor circulates freely — the hotter water constantly rises, the cooler water constantly falls — rather than relying on pumps.

 “You don’t need pumps; you don’t need valves; you don’t need motors,” McGough explains. “So, if you don’t need any of those, you don’t need electricity” to shut down the plant in an emergency. That gives the NuScale reactor a huge safety advantage in the case of a natural disaster like the earthquake and tsunami that damaged the Fukushima plant in Japan.

 “That plant would still be operating today if they had not lost power,” McGough says. “Our plant design will shut itself down and cool itself off indefinitely, with no operator action.”

 Testing for past decade

Since 2003, NuScale has been testing a one-third-size prototype in Corvallis, where most of its Oregon staff works. To continue with testing, the project needs permission from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the company is currently working on the complicated application process. Company officials expect to submit their application in about two years, followed by a minimum 39 months for the commission to review it.

At the same time, several other companies also are working on designs for small modular reactors, and competing for government funds. NuScale’s model is the smallest of the group, and the only one on the West Coast.

Fluor Corp., a Fortune 500 engineering and construction company based in Texas, is majority owner of NuScale, providing some financial muscle for up-front costs.

Currently, it costs at least $6 billion to build a standard-sized nuclear power plant. NuScale believes that its plants can be built more cheaply, and that the modular design will make the planning and financing process easier. Modular reactors could be sold internationally, because they are small enough to transport by truck, barge and rail. (Uranium fuel would be transported separately.)

“We want to be able to transport our plants via common modes of transport anywhere in the world,” McGough says. “It allows the economic development benefit of manufacturing or building one of our plants to accrue to the United States, as opposed to some country where we might export.”

 Billions in subsidies needed?

A recent report by nuclear power critic Arjun Makhijani, titled “Light Water Designs of Small Modular Reactors: Facts and Analysis,” argues they are not financially feasible without billions of dollars in government subsidies, and are liable to end up costing taxpayers plenty of money.

While the modular design would reduce the cost, Makhijani suggests the financial risk would shift from the reactor site to the supply chain and assembly lines.

“You have to be reasonably sure that you’re going to have a stream of orders to set this up,” he says. “Otherwise the whole cost of the factory would go into the first 100 reactors, which would make them completely unaffordable.”

He questions where that steady demand would come from. If a country such as China wanted a large volume of reactors, why wouldn’t they build their own factory?

Proliferation of nuclear weapons is another major concern, Makhijani says. More uranium being enriched in more places means an increased danger of nuclear weapons, because the same plant can be used to make weapons-grade plutonium as reactor-grade uranium. (Hence the international concern about Iran’s enrichment program.)

Another concern is that smaller reactors, dispersed more widely, would stretch the resources of inspection agencies like the International Atomic Energy Agency.

For some critics, the economic argument is still the strongest.

“It’s the biggest problem that nuclear power has had, generally,” says Chuck Johnson, director of the Oregon/Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility Joint Nuclear Power Task Force.

During the boom of the 1970s and 1980s, Johnson says, only about half of the started plants were completed, “and the losses were enormous.”

Portland General Electric’s Trojan plant — Oregon’s only commercial nuclear plant — closed prematurely in 1992 under a dark cloud of cost overruns, safety concerns, and political opposition. The Washington Public Power Supply System scheme to build five nuclear plants in that state was a fiasco, resulting in only one plant and the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history.

Waste issue still radioactive

Then there’s the unanswered problem of how to dispose of the radioactive waste that’s a byproduct of nuclear power plants.

“We believe that it’s irresponsible to keep generating this waste when we don’t know what to do with it,” Johnson says.

A 1980 Oregon ballot measure placed a moratorium on nuclear power plant construction until a permanent federal disposal site is established for high-level waste. Such a site is no closer to being established than it was 33 years ago.

On the flip side, global climate change has become an urgent priority, and nuclear power produces far fewer carbon emissions than energy derived from fossil fuels.

That’s prompting state governments, including Oregon, to take a second look at nuclear power.

NuScale, learning a lesson from the Washington Public Power Supply System’s oft-belittled acronym WPPSS — usually pronounced “whoops” — announced a new initiative in June called the Western Initiative for Nuclear, or WIN. It’s a collaboration between NuScale, the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, Utah and Wyoming, and regional utilities.

The goal is to build a demonstration plant by 2024, probably in Idaho, to test its viability for commercial use.

Gov. John Kitzhaber hailed the news, issuing a statement praising NuScale as a home-grown, carbon-free technology that can create jobs, “showing how Oregon-based ingenuity is once again at the forefront of energy innovation.”