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NuScale Power's small nuclear reactor clears the ultimate U.S. certification in an industry first

Two large nuclear reactors blow smoke into the air against a pink subset
Image credit: Unsplash

Nuclear pioneer NuScale Power received the first stamp of approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a small-scale nuclear reactor design. This is the ultimate regulatory hurdle for civilian advanced nuclear power in the states and is a key step in the next generation of nuclear power.

Nuclear has an important role to play on the road to net zero and because the majority of the reactors in the U.S. are decades-old, innovation in new nuclear technology is key.

This is a big moment because, according to the Office of Nuclear Energy, utilities can now reference NuScale’s small modular reactor (SMR) design when applying for a license to build and operate a reactor. As more reactors achieve the NRC green light, nuclear will be brought into the 21st century.

While NuScale’s design is considered “next generation” the blueprint for their reactor was drawn in the early 2000s at Oregon State University. Since 2014, NuScale and the Department of Energy spent over $600 million trying to get this design through NRC’s regulatory gate. This success comes after multiple attempts at the drawing board. Not only is NuScale’s 50-megawatt power module the first small reactor design to be certified, but it’s only the seventh to clear such a hurdle in U.S. history.

Years of more research will be needed to understand whether or not these advanced reactors can overcome the challenges that traditional nuclear power plants have faced. However, as Canary Media reports, the hope is that due to their small size, they will be more reproducible, take a short amount of time to construct, and reflect lower costs than their larger predecessors.

The development reflects the Biden administration’s goal to bring nuclear back. In order to decarbonize, cutting emissions by 40% over the next 7 years, solar and wind need a reliable zero-emission backup. Small-scale advanced nuclear has the potential to fill that spot. According to NuScale, by complementing existing renewable energy sources, the SMR will allow many utilities to decarbonize while increasing grid stability.

In 2029 NuScale, the DOE, and their partners at the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) will begin the operation of the first module in the six-module design. According to the DOE, by 2030 they expect the plant — a first-of-its-kind 462-megawatt project located in the Idaho National Laboratory — to be fully operational, producing “affordable, dispatchable electricity,” as NuScale puts it.

“The DOE has been an invaluable partner with a shared common goal – to establish an innovative and reliable carbon-free source of energy here in the U.S.” NuScale Power President and Chief Executive Officer John Hopkins said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our partnership and working with the DOE to bring the UAMPS Carbon Free Power Project to completion."

This is the first of three SMR plants NuScale plans to deploy. Known as VOYGRs, NuScale estimates that the Idaho “Carbon Free Power Project” will bring big bucks to the region, increasing labor income by nearly $48 million and economic output in the region by an estimated $81 million. NuScale says it will also bring ​​about

$14 million in additional revenue to local, state, and federal taxes.

Using NuScale Power’s “lightwater reaction technology,” the plant will also cut water use by 90%. On top of the resource and financial benefits, the company says that the SMR is safer than larger reactors because if necessary, it shuts itself down, self-cools, and requires no operator action.

Each SMR power module is capable of producing 77,000 kilowatts of carbon-free power. With six modules, this demonstrative plant has a total output of 462 megawatts. When the average U.S. home uses 10,632 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, the plant is enough to power a residential area of 43 homes annually.

More than $1 billion has been granted by the DOE to fund the project. Idaho is just the beginning, as NuScale already has projects slated with municipal utilities in Missouri and Wisconsin.

While the goal of the project is to supply affordable power, the costs have risen. As reported in Reuters, NuScale said this month the target price for power from the plant is $89 per megawatt hour, up 53% from the previous estimate of $58 per MWh. This reflects what NuScale refers to as the “changing financial landscape for the development of energy projects nationwide.”

The only other in-construction nuclear project in the U.S. is the Vogtle plant in Georgia, which is already billions of dollars over budget following years of delays. Price increasing with nuclear projects is nothing new. While the DOE is hopeful that small nuclear reactors can eventually escape the price hurdle, even these reactors will have to soothe public concerns about safety with regard to nuclear waste. According to DOE labs managing the waste will be “roughly comparable” with conventional reactors.

Despite the hurdles, this is a milestone for clean energy that has been decades in the making. After years of blueprints and ideas, “SMRs are no longer an abstract concept,” Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff in a statement.


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