October 08, 2009

Events from Around Town: Nuclear Power Plants, Now Travel-Sized!

Yesterday, I attended the CSIS event Scaling Down Reactors: A Different Model for Nuclear Energy, moderated by Frank Verrastro, Director and Senior Fellow with its Energy and National Security Program. All of the panelists were CEOs, COOs, or directors of programs at companies now developing technologies to downsize nuclear reactors.

The event focused on different scaled-down nuclear technologies and their applications to the global market. Verrastro started the event from the premise that nuclear energy should play a role in meeting demand for low-carbon energy, but traditional large-scale reactors suffered from multiple problems.  Each of the participants then spoke about their own designs for a smaller reactor which, while interesting, was mainly information that can be found on their websites. All of the proposed technologies are portable (by railcar) and require companies to provide less financial outlay at the outset of production.  This decreases the risk factor of buying a nuclear plant because the way these modular plants are designed, you can start with a smaller production capacity and then increase it as more power is demanded.

As modular nuclear technology is relatively new, all of the participants integrated other resource concerns into their designs. Chris Mowry, the President and CEO of B&W Modular Nuclear Energy LLC, considered concerns about water supplies when his company designed a cooling system that used air rather than large amounts of water. Mark Campagna, COO of Hyperion Power Generation, looked at the role small-scale nuclear energy plants could play in decreasing dependence on coal and other fuels in developing countries without overloading fragile energy grids. Paul Lorenzini, CEO of NuScale Power, advocated using modular nuclear energy to aid in desalinization. The most innovative concept belonged to Lay Nam Chang, Dean of the Virginia Tech College of Science and the only panelist developing a technology from the academic-side. He is working on a project entitled GEM*STAR that utilizes a sub-critical system to use spent-Light Water Reactor fuel to prevent the creation of additional nuclear waste.  All of these speakers believe that their systems can be modified to use thorium based fuel supplies (something we’re keeping our eye on, especially as it concerns the Navy).

Outside of every panelist recognizing how interconnected all of our environmental problems are and agreeing that a scaled-down nuclear reactor would have global benefits, they largely disagreed. There was a tension in the room between those that utilized proven technologies that were within the regulatory framework and those that innovated outside of it. Those in the former camp believe that the most important aspect of a modular plant is to implement the technology as soon as possible in a user-friendly way. They continuously advocated the benefits of a reduction in risk and paid attention to public opinion and policymaker concerns. Others looked at how to maximize the benefits of these plants. Lay Nam Chang in particular wants to create a product that will decrease the proliferation risk and provide energy without inputs of highly enriched fissile material; he claims his reactor will be able to run on natural uranium combined with spent-LWR fuel. The scientist-types vs. the business-types were quite distinct in their marketing strategies.

None of these models are currently in production, but modular nuclear technologies certainly have potential to work in a global green energy framework (though some analysts do believe that this potential is overestimated). All of these products face challenges, but I’m hoping that they can be implemented successfully in ways that reduce proliferation and supply-chain concerns.