Policy Briefs

Small Reactor Development Advances Energy, Environmental Benefits in New Markets

Small-scale reactors can complement large nuclear plant projects by expanding potential markets in the United States and abroad for carbon-free energy production. Smaller reactors provide energy companies and other users with additional options that help achieve critical energy and environmental policies.

June 2013

Key Points

  • Small-scale reactors can complement large nuclear plant projects by expanding potential markets in the United States and abroad for carbon-free energy production. Smaller reactors provide energy companies and other users with additional options that help achieve critical energy and environmental policies.
  • Their small size—less than 300 megawatts-electric—and modular construction will allow some new small reactors to be built in a controlled factory setting and installed module by module, improving manufacturing efficiency and cost while reducing construction time and financing costs.
  • The potential applications for small reactors include electricity generation and industrial process heat, desalination or water purification, and co-generation applications, such as in the petrochemical industry. Process heat produced by small-scale reactors may also be used to improve energy security by developing liquid fuels for use in transportation applications while reducing the overall life-cycle carbon footprint.
  • Small reactors can be manufactured in North America to meet growing domestic and export demand—creating high-tech U.S. jobs and improving America’s global competitiveness.
  • Small reactors expand the range of sites suitable for development and, when used to power older fossil plants, can use existing infrastructure such as transmission systems.
  • Public-private partnerships can accelerate commercial development of small reactors. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to help fund essential enabling research, development and commercialization through public-private partnerships to accelerate construction of small reactors.

Designs Target Diverse Applications
Many small reactor designs are in development to meet specific U.S. and international market needs and are attracting considerable attention from the electric utility industry, state and local government officials, Congress, and the business community.

Three small reactor technologies are under consideration. Each has unique development needs and a different timeline for reaching the market. Applications are expected within the next few years for U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission design certifications and combined licenses for construction and operation of the first-of-class plants.

 The three major types of small reactors are:

  • Light Water Reactors. These designs are the most compatible with the existing federal regulatory framework. They could be used to replace older power stations, benefitting from infrastructure, cooling water, rail and transmission facilities already in place, or for greenfield energy sites, including energy park concepts.
  • High-Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactors. These reactors are especially well-suited for providing process heat for the industrial and transport sectors in the medium term and hydrogen in the longer term while reducing the carbon footprint of these activities. It is in America’s strategic national interest to increase sources of energy by using these innovative small reactors to develop new domestic sources of liquid fuel.
  • Liquid Metal and Gas-Cooled Fast Reactors. Liquid metal and gas-cooled fast-reactor technologies also share attributes suitable for distributed nuclear applications for electricity, water purification and district heating in remote communities. These types of reactors also could provide nuclear fuel cycle services, such as improving the efficiency of nuclear fuel utilization and consuming recycled nuclear fuel. They could also support government-sponsored nonproliferation efforts by consuming material from nuclear weapons, thus eliminating it as a threat.

Essential Industry and Public Partnerships
The economic, energy security and environmental benefits of small reactor technologies make a strong case for accelerated market development. Work remains to design, develop and license small reactor designs. Evolving partnerships between technology developers, component manufacturers and end users are necessary to move these technologies to market. Additionally, support from the U.S. Department of Energy and other government entities will accelerate broader market acceptance of these new reactor technologies and provide a greater selection of nuclear energy options for the electric and industrial sectors.

Advanced Reactor and Fuel-Cycle Technologies
NEI supports programs managed by DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy to accelerate commercial development of new reactor technologies, sustain safe operation of the reactors that provide one-fifth of America’s electricity, and develop advanced fuel cycles to manage used nuclear fuel. NEI considers certain programs as extremely high priority:

  • Small Modular Reactor Licensing Technical Support
  • Fuel-Cycle Research and Development
  • Reactor Concepts Research, Development and Demonstration
  • Energy Innovation Hub for Modeling & Simulation
  • Integrated University Program

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)
As originally conceived, the SMR licensing support program was to promote accelerated development of these technologies by supporting cost-shared, first-of-a-kind activities for design certification and licensing activities for up to two SMR designs. One team was chosen from those that responded to the first Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA), and DOE has released a second FOA to support an additional team or teams. NEI supports the second FOA and encourages DOE to complete the procurement process by September 2013, as it has proposed.

Given the potential benefits—job creation, clean electricity supply and exports—the industry believes it is important that this program be effectively and expeditiously implemented. Accelerated near-term development is critical to ensure the international competitiveness of domestic SMR designs. However, this program has been underfunded by about 30 percent for the past two years. In order to achieve the proposed $452 million program, the industry has encouraged Congress to provide $114 million in fiscal 2014. The industry acknowledges that DOE has proposed a six-year cost-shared program to achieve the mission we support. However, the industry believes that additional funding may be required to accomplish the DOE’s expanded plan.

Small reactors in scalable facilities can fill a broader spectrum of new energy demands as well as replace inefficient electricity facilities, provide process heat for diverse industrial applications and generate electricity for remote locations. Modules can be added as needed—built in controlled factory settings and easily transported to the site.

Together with large reactors and other low-carbon energy options, such as wind and solar, small reactors contribute to a full line of safe, secure carbon-free energy sources.