Since 2016, engineering firm NuScale has been striving to gain a license for a first-of-its-kind nuclear reactor, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved it late last week.
The company’s small nuclear reactor has significant safety advantages over larger reactors. In addition, its tiny size allows it to be built at a centralized facility before shipping it to its final destination.
NuScale claims that its small modular reactor (SMR) addresses these difficulties. It is based on a “Multi-Application Small Light Water Reactor” developed in the early 2000s at Oregon State University. The same steel reactor vessel houses a compact uranium nuclear core and helical coil steam generators. So, it creates power like a typical reactor does (no fancy uranium or thorium salts here). Still, each SMR produces only approximately 50 MWe (megawatts electrical), compared to 1,000 or more in present reactor designs.
NuScale’s small SMR can be built in one site and relocated to another, avoiding many of the expenditures associated with building a bespoke reactor chamber at a power plant’s final location. It also has safety features that could make nuclear accidents a thing of the past. For example, if the control rods are left unattended, gravity will drag them down into the reactor, and the design also calls for SMRs to be immersed in water, which works as a heatsink. This eliminates the need for water pipes, which can be a source of failure in typical reactors.
The NRC’s test configuration calls for 12 SMRs, each around nine feet tall, all buried in a reactor pool. They both produce 160 MWt (megawatts of energy).
The designs will be published in the Federal Register once certification is complete. This is only the eighth reactor design to be certified for operation in the United States.
Following publication, new energy projects can specify that they are employing the NuScale SMR without repeating the certification process.