Westinghouse Enters the Race for Small Modular Reactors

Standing in front of the local Missouri media, Democratic Governor Jay Nixon is still struggling to adapt to the volatile global economy; and jobs, construction and nuclear engineering jobs, high-paying and revenue-generating jobs, are the prize in a high stakes race to win DOE shared-funding - $452 million - to bring a small modular reactor to market. Along with state-wide utility Ameren Missouri, a powerful but vulnerable ally, the Governor promotes Westinghouse Electric's application to get a revolutionary SMR up and running by 2022. Today, he wants to give voters hungry for good news something to chew on during the 6 o'clock newsfeed before they snack on the Wheel of Fortune.

Fighting job loss

Gov. Nixon warms up, chumming the local media, tossing them upbeat morsels because they're hanging back, sullen from a steady diet of local crime stories. "With a partner of Westinghouse's power capacity and technological advantage, I'm as positive as everyone else." After the painful industry exodus that has already fled the state for China, Nixon knows he has to throw the political red meat: building high tech SMRs in a Missouri factory will create jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Then he adds the Westinghouse secret sauce:"They've been through this process before. There are very few players in this bandwidth." Watch the video press kit above or the full press conference. The Governor is also worried that out-of-state tech rivals Babcock & Wilcox and Nuscale have already beaten him to the front of the buffet line, literally sucking the juicy PR marrow out of a contest that will only have one winner or, at best, maybe two. A governor and a state willl walk away hungry. Then, as a skilled politician always alert to forces beyond his control, he tries to read the reporters for signs of force-feeding. Sensing they're already soundbite-resistant, antsy to uplink their stories, Nixon probably wishes he were a member of the Chinese politburo dishing out piping-hot, high speed rail projects or new technology parks for freshly poached western companies. But the Governor pushes on, heaping on a 225-MW light water reactor design based on the firm's 1100-MW

AP1000, all the primary components ingeniously stuffed inside a small reactor vessel with a passive safety system. At this point, reporters' intellectual lap-bands strain from the technical information. (Westinghouse SMR video) After living on a steady diet of uncertainty, Nixon knows anything can happen and remembers that just over a year ago experts were talking about a nuclear renaissance. Even though Westinghouse is now building four AP1000s in China and four in the US (see video), the earthquake and tsunami in Japan put large-scale reactors in serious doubt, and the company is scrambling to make this former nuclear turducken turned bonbon appetizing.

SMRS might solve Ameren's coal problem

Similarly, Ameren, Missouri's largest utility, is coping with a nearly intractable problem, an aging batch of coal-burning plants, all of which are past their expiration dates. The company has spent

years trying to build a second nuclear reactor at its Callaway nuclear site, but has been thwarted by a 1976 Missouri law that bans utilities from charging customers during construction, before operation. Modular reactors would allow Ameren to add nuclear capacity in small increments by breaking up costs into more digestible bite-sized chunks.

Westinghouse officials also say these smaller reactors can be produced in less than half the time, because they can be put together in factories and delivered to the site by truck, rail or barge, thereby lowering manufacturing costs; then, once on-site, the parts of the smaller reactors snap together so easily that the DOE calls them "plug-and-play" technologies.

Shorter construction cycle

The modular reactors will be placed underground in a hole that measures about 100 feet deep

and 100 feet wide. All of the components - from the power-generating core to the coolant pumps filled with water - are housed in the 90-foot tall reactor vessel not visible to the casual observer. The streamlined 18 month construction cycle, compared to five or six years for the AP1000, will move the process closer to predictable prix-fixe from chancy pay-as-you-go. "This project can spark a new global industry right here in the Show-Me State," Nixon deftly reminding voters when constructing the local Callaway nuclear plant brought a wealth of new jobs during the late 1970s and early 1980s. He's hoping that if the Westinghouse-Ameren efforts are successful, Missouri would be poised to take a lead role in a new technology, becoming home base for the construction and distribution of SMRs throughout the world. "This investment is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that could spark a next-generation manufacturing industry in Missouri," Nixon then adds: "This is our moment to bring these jobs to the state."

Overseas markets

Essentially, Westinghouse and the other SMR builders are hoping to land a working reactor to sell overseas. Looking for new markets for the SMRs, Africa sits at the top of the list, because of the energy demands tied to skyrocketing cellphone adoption. With cellphone users in Africa expected to hit 265 million by 2015, surging from 12 million today, reliable power would attract other businesses, clustering in population centers big

enough to need a SMR. Then, back in the US, a large home-grown industry would fill the growing demand, exporting SMRs by container ship all over the world. A win-win situation: reliable power, easily cheaper than diesel fuel (a 3rd world staple), creating thousands of new, sustainable, high-paying jobs. Kate Jackson, Westinghouse Senior VP, who also understands the new technology's economic benefits, follows up, "Missouri's highly skilled workforce, strong foothold in the nuclear industry and central location create a competitive advantage to rapidly deploy SMR units here in the United States and elsewhere in the world."

The competition heats up

The press conference over, Governor Nixon will have to wait, and won't know the outcome for months; unfortunately, this is a regional zero-sum game. Rival Babcock & Wilcox, partnered with construction giant Bechtl and the TVA for two units at the utility's Clinch River site in Tennessee, already has its own supply chain in Ohio and Indiana that has been building small reactors for the NAVY fleet since the 60's. And industry newcomer NuScale, which recently announced it would develop a unit for the DOE's Savannah River Site, is partnering with NuHub, an economic development organization, to create thousands of jobs for high-wage starved South Carolina workers. Now the competition's been served, and Governor Nixon knows this is just the first course of a long seven course meal, and in the end, there will be no leftovers, doggy bags or table scraps for the losers - just indigestion.

Is this the best nuclear solution?

Images: Jay Nixon, MoGov1; SMR & logo, Westinghouse



harrington.kent's picture

Thanks for your kind comments.