There is enough demand to start the licensing process for NuScale’s 60-megawatt small modular nuclear reactor to be built in Idaho by the mid-2020s. This news is a big deal, since the small reactor technology being proposed by the startup may make it to market before competitors in Russia and China.
NuScale’s miniature size is a radical departure from the norm and opens up regulatory avenues for smaller, more exotic and safer reactor technology. A group of municipal power authorities that supply several western states—the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems—secured power contracts worth more than 150 megawatts of power using NuScale technology. This was enough to convince the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to start the final regulatory countdown clock. Construction could begin as early as 2023, and the first reactor could be operating by 2026.
Unlike other industries, for nuclear power, bigger isn’t better. Bigger has come to mean large cost overruns and expensive demands on safety workers. NuScale’s technology is basically a miniaturized, less capital-intensive version of the dozens of second-generation light-water reactors designed and built around the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, back when nuclear power was expected to be “too cheap to meter.”
But nuclear accidents from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl to Fukushima have put an end to such optimism. Instead, the industry hunkered down for decades, and the main U.S. regulatory body, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, entered a state of confusion about its mission. Should the agency prioritize safety, or give new, breakthrough technology a chance to be tested and succeed?
Luckily, under new leadership the NRC realized those goals aren’t mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing! Technical advancements almost always lead to greater safety.
NuScale went through a decades-long entrepreneurial death march just to get to this point. The research upon which the company was founded was funded by the Department of Energy between 2000 and 2003. Then, after funding was cut, the program’s own scientists patented its technology in 2007 and started commercializing it before its chief investor went bankrupt in 2011. New investors arrived, but the company went through a years-long bureaucratic slog at the NRC, which couldn’t decide how to deal with new reactor technology.
Thankfully, the technology itself showed too much potential to be denied, and may allow the industry a path to escape its stunted past. Each reactor module produces 60 megawatts, 10-20 times smaller than many currently operating light-water reactors, and can be scaled to the population’s needs. In the case of the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, 12 individual modules will be linked together, creating a gross output of 720 megawatts of electricity. As incremental demand grows, a new module can simply be added, an option no current nuclear technology can offer. Again, it’s a big deal.