With a design that has just emerged from a rigorous safety evaluation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and a customer—Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS)—getting ready to prepare a combined license (COL) application, what is next for Oregon-based NuScale Power and for near-term small modular reactor prospects in the United States? As milestones are reached, many want to know.
NuScale plans to supply twelve 60-MWe modules for a 720-MWe plant—called the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP) by UAMPS—to be sited at Idaho National Laboratory. A smaller, 50-MWe module version of NuScale’s design recently became the first SMR to receive a final safety evaluation report (FSER) from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“The NRC design approval represents a significant de-risking factor for the CFPP,” said UAMPS spokesperson LaVarr Webb. The project is “making steady progress,” Webb said, adding that “UAMPS General Manager and CEO Doug Hunter has said it is much more important to do the project right than to do it fast.”
Clean energy: Despite its name, UAMPS’s 47 members—mostly municipalities—are based in six states: Utah, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming. UAMPS members can choose which generation projects they join, and at contractually agreed intervals they can increase or decrease their subscription levels or withdraw from the project. Despite decisions made in August by the Utah cities of Logan and Lehi to withdraw, the majority of UAMPS members remain committed to the project.
For some of those members, power generated from the CFPP will replace coal-generated power, Webb said. On aggregate, 24 percent of UAMPS’s resource mix is coal, and that number does not include fossil-generated power purchased by UAMPS from the market. UAMPS’s coal plants are expected to reach their end-of-life around 2030 when the CFPP is coming on-line.
“Most UAMPS members are increasing their renewable resources,” Webb said, “but need a steady, dispatchable, carbon-free resource to back up intermittent renewable energy and maintain grid stability.” As of September 3, Webb told Nuclear News, 33 UAMPS members were participating in the CFPP and a new utility was expected to join, which could bring the total to 34.
UAMPS in phases: UAMPS begins a new phase of development on October 1, focusing on developing a COL application for the project. “After submitting the application, the NRC will have more than three years to review and approve. If all goes well, construction on the CFPP could begin at the end of 2025,” Webb said. Despite recent increases in estimated costs, UAMPS reports that the CFPP is on track to meet a price target of $55/MWh or less over the plant’s 40- to 60-year life.
UAMPS’s latest budget extends the operational date of the first module to 2029 (from 2026), with the other 11 modules coming online in 2030. “That schedule gives UAMPS enough time for project development and gives members sufficient time to work through their approval and governance process for the various stages of the project,” Webb said. “It also makes CFPP power available around the time coal plants will be retired, and when member communities will need additional power, based on the growth of their populations and their projected power needs.”
When asked about the change of schedule, Diane Hughes, vice president for marketing and communications at NuScale Power, told NN that UAMPS had provided a “new timeline that best aligns with their members’ needs, and NuScale complies with its customer’s schedule that meets these needs.”
Support for NuScale: Organizations including the American Nuclear Society and the Nuclear Energy Institute have applauded the issuance of NuScale’s FSER as a milestone for SMR developers and the NRC alike. The Department of Energy’s support for the NuScale Power Module can be traced back to the inception of its design at Oregon State University in 2000. Since then, the DOE has provided more than $400 million to support NuScale’s design, licensing, and siting work, as well as initial design efforts for other SMR designs.
“This is what successful private-public partnerships look like,” said Rita Baranwal, assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy, when the NuScale FSER was announced. “DOE is proud to support the licensing and development of NuScale’s Power Module and other SMR technologies that have the potential to bring clean and reliable power to areas never thought possible by nuclear reactors in the U.S., and soon the world.”
ANS Executive Director/CEO Craig Piercy also congratulated NuScale Power. “The deployment of advanced nuclear energy will be vital in meeting America’s clean air targets, halting climate change, and decarbonizing our economy,” Piercy said. “Advanced reactors will shore up the power grid’s reliability by supplying industries and communities with a constant stream of carbon-free energy.”
Others look to sway UAMPS members: With the next UAMPS budgeting and planning meeting scheduled for October 1, others have encouraged UAMPS members to withdraw support from the CFPP. A group called Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, which includes among its goals, “Preventing construction of new nuclear power plants in our region, including small modular reactors,” recently published a report on its website that was presented during a September 2 news briefing.
The briefing was produced by the Hastings Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm that lists the Union of Concerned Scientists among its clients. The Hastings Group has also promoted messaging from the Utah Taxpayers Association, a group that has recently issued a spate of press releases encouraging municipalities to withdraw from the CFPP.
Speaking at the briefing were Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and M. V. Ramana, the author of the report and a professor in the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. No members of the Oregon-based group that published the report took part in the webinar.
Ramana, who has written critically about nuclear power and SMRs in the past, said that he had concluded that investment in NuScale represented “a risky proposition” for UAMPS members, and claimed that using currently available solar, wind, energy storage, and energy efficiency technologies would be “a more reliable path” to a carbon-free energy future. Ramana pointed to levelized cost of electricity per MWe figures to support his assertions—figures that don’t reflect all costs or the intermittency of solar and wind generation.
Under the hood: Lyman encouraged potential NuScale customers to “take a hard look under the hood of these reactors themselves.” A potential customer looking to do just that can head to the NRC’s website to view application documents and related content in the agency’s ADAMS public document database. NuScale said that it submitted some 12,000 pages for the application, 14 separate topical reports, and more than 2 million pages of supporting information. Taken as a whole, the documents provide evidence of an exhaustive regulatory review process that represented a departure for the NRC from the large LWR designs that it has certified in recent years.
The NuScale SMR uses “passive” processes such as convection and gravity in its operating systems and safety features that the company says permit the plant “to safely shut down and self-cool, indefinitely, with no need for operator or computer action, AC or DC power, and no additional water.” NuScale bases its request for a smaller emergency planning zone (EPZ) on these features and asserts that the likelihood of core damage due to reactor equipment failures while at full power conditions is 1 event per module approximately every three billion years.
The core of a NuScale reactor is about 5 percent the size of a large light-water reactor, according to the company, and all 12 modules sit in a below-grade pool. The modular reactor core’s small size (about 5 percent the size of a large LWR core) yields a smaller source term.
“When we talk a site-boundary emergency planning zone, the only way that gets approved is if the safety warrants that,” said NuScale co-founder and chief executive officer José Reyes during a webinar titled “Nuclear Power for the Modern Grid” presented in June. “It’s the regulator who is overseeing that. . . . [SMR] designs will have smaller boundaries because they warrant the smaller boundaries.”
Next steps for NuScale: The FSER that NuScale received on August 28 indicates that the NRC staff has determined that the plant’s design meets certification requirements. The NRC must now prepare a rulemaking to certify the NuScale design. A proposed rule is scheduled for publication by the end of 2020, with publication of the final rule currently targeted for August 2021.
While NuScale’s active role in the recently completed safety review may be complete, the company will soon be back for more. According to the NRC, NuScale will soon apply for standard design approval of a 60-MWe-per-module version of the design. That will require additional NRC review and further investment by NuScale and its majority investor, Fluor Corporation. NuScale is also engaged with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in a pre-licensing vendor design review, and the company has secured exploratory agreements with potential end-users in Canada, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Jordan.
NuScale’s Hughes added that “NuScale is focused not only on design and licensing activities, but also on supply chain readiness. We are actively engaged with our manufacturing partners and will be ready to deliver the first NuScale Power Modules to a client in 2027.”