The prospects for building a new fleet of full-sized nuclear power plants in the US is growing dimmer by the minute, but a tiny candle of hope has begun to flicker in the emerging area of small modular reactors. In the latest development, the Department of State has partnered with Ukraine to launch an SMR pilot project. The aim is to decarbonize hydrogen and ammonia production, among other industrial sectors. If the project is successful, it could open the door for small nuclear power plants to proliferate around the US, too.
The End Of The Road For US Nuclear Power Plants…
The state of affairs for new, full-sized nuclear power plants in the US is a dim one. Practically the entire existing fleet went into operation back in the 20th century. The only unit to come online since 1996 is the Watts Bar Unit 1 plant in Tennessee, which commenced operation in 2016.
Though nuclear accidents are rare, they do happen, and they have contributed to public pushback against new construction in the US.
The 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan reawakened bad memories of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania, and Russia’s murderous rampage through Ukraine has focused renewed attention on the lingering impact of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. Among a long list of alleged war crimes, Russia has also attacked thousands of civilian facilities in Ukraine, raising concerns over the safety and security of nuclear power plants in wartime.
Another key area of concern is cost. Now that zero emission wind and solar technology is relatively inexpensive, the idea of building new nuclear power plants is beginning to lose any bottom line luster that it ever had. The VC Summer project in South Carolina bit the dust in 2017 after a series of delays and cost overruns. The similarly encumbered Vogtle power plant in Georgia is finally lumbering towards a startup date in 2023, years behind schedule and billions over budget.
…Is Not In Sight (Yet!)
Nuclear advocates have proposed the small modular reactor (SMR) model to keep the US nuclear industry afloat. The idea is to ship a pre-permitted, prefabricated reactor to a site. That would cut construction costs and help prevent delays. Existing nuclear power plants would the main candidates for SMRs, as well as former coal power plants and other industrial sites.
If all goes according to plan, the factory-built approach could also help allay public concerns over reactor safety. Instead of reinventing the wheel at each construction site, safety systems are built-in and standardized.
That’s a big “if,” but that is the plan envisioned by the US Department of Energy, which has been a leading advocate for next-generation SMRs. The agency’s leadership role may seem a little odd until you remember that the Energy Department is a key stakeholder in the nation’s atomic energy profile, with deep roots going back to World War II.
A (Small) Nuclear Pilot Project, With Green Hydrogen
Aside from the SMR angle, two new energy-sucking industries could help prop up the US nuclear energy industry. One, for better or worse, is bitcoin mining. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.
The other is green hydrogen. The general idea is to deploy zero emission electricity from nuclear power plants to produce hydrogen from water during off-peak hours.
CleanTechnica has spilled plenty of ink over hydrogen as a fuel. Hydrogen is a heavy hand in other fields, too, including food processing and pharmaceuticals. Green hydrogen also has a cousin, green ammonia, which is on its way to becoming a linchpin of the fertilizer industry.
That brings us to the new SMR pilot project in Ukraine. It was announced on November 12 by the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and the Ukraine Minister of Energy German Galushchenko.
The new “Ukraine Clean Fuels from SMRs Pilot” project aims to demonstrate that SMRs can be paired with electrolysis systems to produce hydrogen from water.
“Building on existing capacity-building cooperation launched under the U.S. Foundational Infrastructure for Responsible Use of SMR Technology (FIRST) program, the project seeks to support Ukraine’s energy security goals, enable decarbonization of hard-to-abate energy sectors through clean hydrogen generation, and improve long-term food security through clean ammonia-produced fertilizers,” explained the State Department.
The State Department also emphasized that the project “aims to demonstrate Ukraine’s innovative clean energy leadership through the use of advanced technologies.”
That remark about clean energy leadership is a significant one in the context of Ukraine’s pitch to join the EU. In past years the country would have emphasized its gas reserves, but now Ukraine is highlighting its potential to contribute to the decarbonization of EU economy by exporting clean kilowatts to the west, leveraging its considerable wind and solar resources. Exporting green hydrogen gilds the decarbonization lily with additional export options including pipelines, railways, roadways and marine shipping.
How Does It Work?
For those of you keeping score at home, the new pilot project comes under the umbrella of a consortium including the Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory and Ukraine’s Energoatom state-run nuclear power company, along with Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, and its State Scientific and Technical Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety.
In addition to NuScale, the private sector partners are Clark Seed, Doosan Enerbility, FuelCell Energy, IHI Corporation, JGC Corporation, Samsung C&T, and the green ammonia firm Starfire Energy.
The FuelCell Energy angle is of particular interest. Much of the activity around green hydrogen deploys PEM (polymer electrolyte membrane) technology. In contrast, FuelCell Energy has focused on the relatively new field of solid oxide fuel cell technology. Electrolysis is the next logical step, considering that fuel cells are basically electrolysis systems, in reverse.
“Our Solid Oxide Electrolyzer Cell (SOEC) has demonstrated hydrogen production at nearly 90 percent electrical efficiency and can increase efficiency when using waste heat,” FuelCell Energy explains, adding that “hydrogen produced from electrolysis can be stored long-term and transported, allowing energy from wind and solar to be available anytime, anywhere.”
Whether or not the US experiences a ripple effect is an open question. If you ask Alice Caponiti, the Energy Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Reactor Fleet and Advanced Reactor Deployment, the answer will probably be a big yes.
In an article posted last September, Caponiti noted that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced its intent to issue a final rule certifying NuScale’s 50-megawatt SMR, making it the first SMR to pass the certification hurdle for use in the US.
“The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has invested more than $600 million in the development of NuScale’s SMR since 2014,” Caponiti also added.
Hold on to your hats. The Ukraine pilot project has a two-year timeline, so stay tuned for updates.
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Image (screenshot): Small Modular Reactor under construction, courtesy of NuScale Power.
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Source: Clean Technica