Making Nuclear Energy Smaller, Cheaper And Safer An Oregon company plans a new kind of nuclear power plant that many consider the future of the industry. It's smaller and cheaper and could work well with renewable energy.
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This Company Says The Future Of Nuclear Energy Is Smaller, Cheaper And Safer

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This Company Says The Future Of Nuclear Energy Is Smaller, Cheaper And Safer

This Company Says The Future Of Nuclear Energy Is Smaller, Cheaper And Safer

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Nuclear power plants are so big, complicated and expensive to build that more are shutting down than opening up. An Oregon company wants to build a new kind of nuclear power plant that many see as the future of the industry. NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Power plants are so big because they're designed to take advantage of economies of scale.

JOSE REYES: What we've done is we've developed economies of small.

BRADY: Jose Reyes is co-founder of NuScale Power and says his company's reactors are more adaptable for a world moving away from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy.

REYES: We haven't just taken a large plant and shrunk it down. We've completely simplified it and changed how we operate those plants.

BRADY: And, Reyes says, the design cuts expensive construction time by about half. NuScale hasn't actually built a plant yet, though it does have models of its design about an hour and a half south of Portland, Ore. One is a simulated control room.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The room we're in is the same size as the room we expect the control room to be in.

BRADY: Outside, there's a mockup of one of the modules that would hold a NuScale reactor. It's a big, metal tank several stories tall but still much smaller than a typical reactor. And this one has a very squeaky door.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SQUEAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is kind of the main access port for when we want to...

BRADY: Inside, it's painted industrial gray, and only a few people can fit at a time. Instead of one big reactor powering a plant, NuScale plans a series of up to 12 much smaller reactors like this one. They'd be built in a factory and transported by truck. Karin Feldman is a vice president with the company and says that manufacturing will get more efficient over time.

KARIN FELDMAN: We know that the first one's going to take longer than the second one. But we anticipate by the time you get to, say, the third one or the fourth one, you've learned everything that you need to learn about that manufacturing process. And you can be very predictable.

BRADY: Feldman says this design is safer, too. The Fukushima disaster in 2011 happened when a tsunami knocked offline the emergency generators that cooled the reactors and spent fuel, leading to a meltdown. Feldman says NuScale's design is cooled passively. The reactors sit underground in a huge pool of water that can absorb heat.

FELDMAN: The reactor will fail to a safe position. It doesn't require additional water, doesn't require AC or DC power, doesn't require any operator action. And it can stay in that safe configuration for as long as it's needed.

BRADY: NuScale plans to build its first nuclear power plant at the Idaho National Lab. The electricity will head across the state border to a group of utilities called the Utah Associated Municipal Power System - or UAMPS. The group was looking for a carbon-free source of electricity to generate power when solar panels and wind turbines can't. While big nuclear reactors run all the time, this collection of smaller reactors can be ramped up and down relatively quickly to meet demand. Batteries can do that too, but UAMPS CEO Doug Hunter says NuScale's reactors are cheaper.

DOUG HUNTER: Each module will be - have enough fuel in it for two years of operation, so it's like we're a battery that has a two-year charge to it.

BRADY: NuScale still must convince regulators the plant is safe. That's a challenge because the design is so different that existing regulations have to be changed. That worries Edwin Lyman with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

EDWIN LYMAN: My concern about NuScale is that they believe so deeply that the reactor is safe and doesn't need to meet the same criteria as the large reactors that it's pushing for lots of exemptions and exceptions.

BRADY: So Lyman will be among those watching regulators closely as NuScale pushes to have its first power plant built and operating in 2026.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VINES SONG, "MARY JANE")

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