1st small modular nuclear reactor certified for operation in the US

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has certified the design for what will become the United States’ first small modular nuclear reactor.

The rule certifying the design was published Thursday in the Federal Register. It means companies that want to build and operate a nuclear power plant can choose the design for a 50-megawatt, state-of-the-art light-water small modular nuclear reactor from Oregon-based NuScale Power and apply for a permit from the NRC.

It is the final determination that the design is acceptable for use, so it cannot be legally challenged during the licensing process when someone applies to build and operate a nuclear power plant, NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said Friday. The rule will take effect at the end of February.

The US energy department said the newly approved design “equips the nation with a new clean energy source to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.”

It is the seventh nuclear reactor design approved for operation in the United States. The rest is for traditional, large light water reactors.

Diane Hughes, NuScale’s vice president of marketing and communications, said the design certification is a historic step toward a clean energy future and makes the company’s VOYGR power plant a near-term deployable solution for customers. The first application package for designing small modular reactors contained more than 2 million pages of support material, Hughes added.

However, David Schlissel of the Ohio-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis expressed concerns about costs. Schlissel, who has studied the history of the nuclear power industry and the finances of the NuScale project, expects them to continue to rise, which could limit the number of NuScale reactors being built. He said he thinks they are not price competitive with renewables and battery storage.

Hughes said that from wind and solar to hydrogen and nuclear power, energy projects have seen cost increases due to changing financial market dynamics, interest rate hikes and inflationary pressures on the industry’s supply chain not seen in decades. NuScale’s VOYGR power plant continues to be a cost-competitive source of reliable, affordable and carbon-free energy, she added.

For many, nuclear energy is emerging as the answer as states and countries move away from coal, oil and natural gas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst effects of a warming planet.

Worldwide there are about 40 serious concepts in development for the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors. China was the first to connect a next-generation reactor to its grid to produce about 200 megawatts of electricity. A high-temperature gas-cooled reactor will be commissioned in 2021.

The U.S. Department of Energy said it has provided more than $600 million since 2014 to support the design, licensing and site of NuScale’s VOYGR small modular reactor power plant and other domestic small reactor concepts. The department is working with Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to demonstrate a six-module NuScale VOYGR plant at Idaho National Laboratory. The first module is expected to be operational in 2029.

NuScale has signed 19 agreements in the US and internationally to deploy its small reactor technology. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff said small modular reactors are no longer an abstract concept.

“They are real and ready for deployment thanks to the hard work of NuScale, the university community, our national labs, industry partners and the NRC,” Huff said in a statement. “This is innovation at its best and we are just getting started here in the US”

NuScale has also applied to the NRC for approval of a larger design, at 77 megawatts per module, and the agency is reviewing the application for completeness before launching a full review, Burnell said.

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