OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New Company, Reactor Design May Boost Nuclear Energy

07/08/2008

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The future of safe, environmentally benign nuclear power will be able to fit on top of a railroad car, be hauled to wherever it is needed and be cost-effectively manufactured in a factory setting, according to the vision of a new spinout company that has evolved from research in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University.

It won’t be quite as simple as churning cars out of an automobile factory assembly line – but conceptually, that’s the idea.

This approach will help to address key concerns about plant safety, terrorist attack and nuclear proliferation, officials say, as well as minimize up-front investment costs, speed the completion of new energy facilities, and produce larger amounts of nuclear electricity with no greenhouse gas emissions.

The company that hopes to bring this concept to fruition, NuScale Power, announced its plan at the recent annual meeting of the American Nuclear Society in Anaheim, Calif.

The key to the new approach is a comparatively small “modular” nuclear reactor core that would produce 45 megawatts of power – enough for about 45,000 homes – and yet be manufactured with factory efficiency and transported via truck, railcar or barge to wherever a plant is needed.

The design will also incorporate all of the latest “passive safety” nuclear reactor concepts that, in any malfunction, would allow a reactor to shut down and cool automatically through natural forces such as gravity or convection. It has applications in domestic and foreign markets, and includes advanced safeguards implemented for nuclear proliferation concerns. Whatever number of reactors are needed could be grouped at a site to provide the optimal amount of energy required.

“There will still be a significant role for larger nuclear power plants, but modular designs such as this will be ideal to address many of the smaller power markets,” said Jose Reyes, professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at OSU, and chief technical officer of NuScale Power. “This approach also provides the answer to many of the obstacles faced in the construction of new nuclear plants, whether they relate to safety, cost, or ease of construction.”

“We believe that this type of design could lead to the renaissance of nuclear energy all over the world, with significant impact on developing countries,” Reyes said.

In the last 15 years OSU has been a leader in the development and testing of “passive safety” systems that have already been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and form the core approach to nuclear plants now under construction in China and soon, the United States. More than 30 new plants are in the planning stages in the U.S., and interest in the whole field of nuclear energy has exploded – among other things, Reyes said, the student enrollment in OSU’s nuclear engineering programs has tripled in the past four years.

Passive safety concepts have taken safety levels to a higher level than ever before, Reyes said, and nuclear power remains attractive because it can produce electricity at competitive rates but is not based on the use of fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

The move toward a modular approach, Reyes said, started with collaborative work by OSU, Idaho National Laboratory and Nexant/Bechtel, with support in the early 2000s by the U.S. Department of Energy. With a partnership in place with Kiewit Construction, a major power plant constructor, NuScale Power now plans to take the approach from a research concept to a working reality.

"Cost is important, but safety in every sense is the real key to modular reactors," said Reyes. "This is a post 9-11 design in which the reactor core will sit underground inside a concrete container, with resistance to air attack by terrorists one of the considerations. All things considered, it should be the safest light water reactor that's ever been built."

Among the virtues of this approach:

  • The smaller amounts of nuclear fuel used in any one reactor, in itself, provides an additional level of safety, as do the "passive" systems that are engineered to shut the reactor down and allow it to cool uneventfully in the case of any malfunction.
  • The entire nuclear energy facility would be low-profile and bear little resemblance to traditional plants with their large cooling towers and containment domes.
  • Cost savings and efficiency of construction should be possible by building the reactor itself in a mass-produced, factory facility, while existing, off-the-shelf systems for other parts of the power plant are already available.
  • Depending on the type of fuel used, the modular reactor could operate for 2 ½ to 5 years without need for refueling.
  • Monitoring equipment and instruments could be incorporated into sealed reactor units, as needed, to address any concerns about nuclear proliferation.
  • By an incremental buildup toward the capacity of a nuclear plant, a utility company could bring new power supplies online much more quickly and begin recovering its investment earlier, a key business consideration and economic advantage.
  • No foreign manufacturers would be needed to build key parts of the reactor, as is now the case with other plant designs. The plant could be completely manufactured in the U.S., along with the jobs and economic growth that would provide.

    A pre-application meeting is already scheduled with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in July to outline concepts for the new reactor, Reyes said.

    On the issue of waste disposal, the U.S. Department of Energy has initiatives under way to develop advanced nuclear fuel recycling technologies, aimed at significantly reducing the volume of nuclear waste, shortening the period that used nuclear fuel must be stored, and offering improved proliferation resistance. The new modular reactor has been specifically designed to take advantage of these programs. OSU researchers are also actively involved in developing key aspects these new recycling technologies.

    OSU has applied for three patents that helped bring the research to this point. The university will continue to play a role in testing of the design, and final design certification may be possible within five years, Reyes said.