The challenge of keeping nuclear power construction on budget and on schedule, and other hurdles, must be resolved if advanced nuclear reactors are to play a larger role in the energy transition, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine says in a new report.

Myriad technical, regulatory, economic and societal hurdles must be overcome “to reach commercial and globally competitive viability,” says Richard A. Meserve, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission who led the research team. While "development, testing and widespread deployment of these reactors could take several decades," he adds, “the U.S. should address [barriers] now.”

The report says advanced nuclear technologies probably will not contribute in a meaningful way until the 2030s at the earliest, but they can compete with other energy technologies in the long term. Innovative reactors may provide on-demand power generation to complement more variable clean energy sources, such as solar and wind. They also could help decarbonize industrial sectors such as hydrogen, steel and cement production. 

One key factor is that U.S. utilities do not have adequate technical and engineering staff to manage a nuclear construction project. The U.S. Energy Dept. says 375,000 skilled workers are needed for the goal of 200 GW of new reactors to be developed by 2030.

The authors cite need for the U.S. to form a “whole of government partnership” to identify gaps in critical skills needed to support rapid deployment of advanced reactors and fund training to close them. Public and private developers also must "take full advantage of existing efforts at commercial nuclear facilities and national labs that already have well-established training and workforce development infrastructure in place,” says the Academies.

Nuclear projects in the U.S. and Europe have not been built on budget or on schedule in recent decades, with significant cost growth in civil works, report authors say.

“While it is vital to demonstrate that advanced reactors are viable from a technical perspective, it is perhaps even more vital to ensure that the overall plant, including the onsite civil work, can be built within cost and schedule constraints,” the report contends. It recommends that DOE increase support for technologies that could streamline and reduce costs and expand R&D for nuclear construction. 

Some advanced reactor vendors are eyeing modular construction to improve schedules and reduce risk, but the challenge of cost-effective onsite civil works remains, according to the report. It recommends that nuclear owner-operators create a consortium or joint venture to more completely develop the skilled engineering personnel to boost project construction. 

Advanced reactor developers should also consider equity partnerships with a nuclear sector experienced engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractors for site-specific project planning, design and execution.

The prospect of using nuclear energy for purposes beyond electricity generation also must be addressed along with strong assurances of safety and security to obtain critical buy-in from communities, say Academies researchers.

Small Nuclear Reactors Press Forward

Meanwhile, the race still is on for small nuclear reactor (SMR) developers to find the design that DOE will choose to build for up to 10 units by 2025, each to generate between 50 MW and 300 MW, the agency says. The smaller, simpler project scale and standardized process management could create a “playbook” for project construction, its officials say.

“First-of-a-kind reactors may be expensive, but repeat deployments are expected to drive substantial cost reductions,”  they say.

The latest is Westinghouse, which announced on May 4 its AP-300 design, a 300-MWe single-loop pressurized water reactor scaled down from its much used full-sized AP-1000 model, with two units currently installed at the Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia to start commercial operation this year. 

The firm aims to start building the AP300, possibly in Ohio or West Virginia, by 2030 and have it operating by 2033, but did not disclose clients or locations. Westinghouse also did not initially disclose cost, but later said it would be about $1 billion. According to the firm, the AP-300 will not use special fuels or liquid metal coolants and is designed for a life cycle of more than 80 years. Westinghouse says it expects NRC design certification by 2027.

“The AP300 is the only small modular reactor offering available that is based on deployed, operating and advanced reactor technology,” said Patrick Fragman, company president and CEO.  "Westinghouse has been looking a lot at SMR designs in the past, but the market was never really there. Having a derivative of the AP1000, leveraging [its] DNA and offering very attractive economics ... was effectively the best chance to be among the first."

AP1000 installation at Vogtle, and in Finland also just coming on line, have faced major cost overruns and schedule delays, with their respective 2005 and 2012 construction starts. Four AP1000s also operate in China. Despite those issues, Westinghouse said its reliance on the AP1000 design for the new SMR would expedite its licensing and construction.

Leading AP300 development is Rita Baranwal, company chief technology officer, who is named to a new role as senior vice president in the energy systems business unit. She also is former DOE assistant secretary of nuclear energy and former director of the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear initiative at the Idaho National Lab.

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Ontario Power Generation and Poland-based clean energy technology firm Synthos Green Energy also have signed a technical collaboration agreement to advance global development of GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300 small modular reactor. 

GE Hitachi also has awarded an engineering contract to BWX Technologies for the SMR reactor vessel, which contains the unit’s reactor core and associated internals—its  largest component. Work includes engineering analysis, design support, manufacturing and procurement preparations. John MacQuarrie, president of BWXT Commercial Operations said recently the firm would be “one of the first to execute an SMR design contract for a North American deployment.” 

Site preparation is underway for a BWRX-300 to be built at Ontario Power’s Darlington nuclear power site in Clarington, Ont. TVA also is preparing a construction permit application for the reactor at the Clinch River site near Oak Ridge, Tenn. and is eyeing other SMR sites in its service area. Synthos Green Energy has submitted an application to Polish nuclear regulators to assess the design. 

Dow and X-Energy also agreed to demonstrate a four-unit Xe-100 advanced nuclear reactor that they say would be the first at grid-scale for an industrial site, to be located at a Dow plant along the Gulf of Mexico, the company said in March. Dow would become a sub-awardee under X-Energy’s DOE-awarded Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program grant, a 50/50 cost share award of $1-billion-plus to demonstrate the reactor.

The project is expected to provide low-carbon power and steam to the plant by 2030. A construction permit application will be submitted to the NRC, with site selection expected before the end of the year. The companies also have agreed to license and share technology and lessons learned from its development.

NRC also said in March that it has begun technical review of NuScale Power’s second standard SMR design, which has changes that improve its economics and expedite commercialization, CEO John Hopkins said. The company’s VOYGR SMR plant is a pressurized water reactor that can generate 77 MW of power and be scaled to meet customer needs. NuScale plans to build a power plant using several of those reactors at a site in Idaho for Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which has DOE funding. 

Other companies developing small modular reactors include TerraPower and Holtec International. 

Even smaller micro-reactors also are gaining momentum. A new initiative known as Nuclear in District Energy Applications, developed by the Electric Power Research Institute and a group of universities, energy developers and engineers that include Burns & McDonnell and Sargent and Lundy, could result in nuclear energy as an option for the district energy market by 2026.

There also is “significant” market potential for using small or micro nuclear reactors to charge heavy duty electric vehicles, said the Idaho National Laboratory.

Westinghouse Electric Co. said it would file for joint design approval for its 5-MW eVinci micro reactor for deployment in the U.S. and Canada, a transportable unit that can deliver combined heat and power and is fully factory built, fueled and assembled. It is designed to operate for eight years or longer without refueling, the firm added.