Observations from the 2019 International SMR and Advanced Reactor Summit

June 11, 2019

Published by James Carter for the Nuclear Energy Insider, May 3, 2019

The 9th Annual International SMR and Advanced Reactor Summit was held last month in Atlanta, Ga. Most attendees were providers of goods and services, although many technology developers and potential owners were in the mix.

There were over 300 attendees, with a significant and noteworthy Canadian presence. It’s very clear that Canadian interest in SMR and advanced reactors is genuine, backed by proactive efforts to support commercialization and deployment in Canada.

Day two of the conference consisted of a U.S. track and a Canadian track. There was light-hearted competition between both tracks to draw the most attendees, but it seemed that many people were moving back and forth to participate in the sessions of most interest. Unofficially, I judge the competition to be a draw.

Projects in Development

The presentation from NuScale Power seemed to draw considerable attention from the attendees. Tom Mundy, NuScale’s chief commercial officer, kicked off the conference with a review of NuScale’s role in the global market. He said that over 1 billion people have no electricity and many more are in “energy poverty.”

Mundy announced that NuScale will be rolling out plans for developing new, smaller units to target smaller markets and remote areas. Scott Bailey, NuScale’s supply chain vice president, presented NuScale’s procurement status and future plans. He projected that the first NuScale power module will be delivered to Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) at its Idaho site by the end of 2025.

Ken Canavan from Westinghouse discussed the continuing global need for large reactors such as the AP1000, especially in Asia. However, the primary focus of the Westinghouse presentation was on the eVinci micro reactor. This reactor is a very interesting concept and, while it is in early stage development, Westinghouse plans to have a demonstration system in operation in 2020.

Dr. Jon Bell discussed the GE/Hitachi BWRX300, a water-cooled, boiling water SMR. GE/H is targeting to deliver this system as early as 2030. GE/H is also continuing its long-time pursuit of PRISM, a sodium-cooled, fast breeder reactor based on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Experimental Breeder Reactor (EBR) from the 1960s.

Funding, Commercialization Challenges

NuScale’s Bailey indicated that his company will spend $1.4 billion before the first shovel of dirt is moved on its project at UAMPS. Obviously, this is an enormous amount of money that is spent over a long period of time in the face of many challenges and uncertainties. (Note: I will be speaking at the Canadian Nuclear Society’s June 2019 Annual Meeting on the challenges of commercializing new nuclear technology.)

An international panel of financial experts discussed funding for SMR and AR development. One panel member stated that there is plenty of money sitting on the sidelines. While that may be true, accessing it for the risky, long and uncertain path of new nuclear technology is the challenge, in my opinion. The panel representative from Citigroup offered that his bank will provide debt financing to advanced nuclear technologies – if they are backed by a large, credit-worthy company with a balance sheet to collateralize the loan. Not all advanced reactor developers have that backing, and they will likely require considerable early-stage funding even to gain access to the big players. Diane Cameron, nuclear energy director of Natural Resources Canada, indicated the Canadian Innovation Fund may be a source of early-stage funding for SMR and AR entrepreneurs.

To improve the SMR and AR commercialization success rate, panelists offered the following strategic recommendations:

  • Improved and accelerated licensing process
  • Pre-approved siting
  • Access to laboratory expertise and high-speed computing
  • Consolidated effort for jointly resolving common issues facing similar technologies

These are all good ideas, but they probably need industry/government support. Perhaps the roadmap from the Canadian Small Modular Reactor Roadmap Steering Committee will help address some of the issues.

The Future Outlook

Looking to the future, speakers also addressed the need for a new generation of engineers to support the industry as those who navigated through the past decades move on. Fortunately, the consensus seemed to be that availability of this new workforce should be no problem. Shane Johnson from the U.S. Department of Energy told attendees that nuclear engineering program enrollment in the U.S. is at an all-time high. And Bruce Power indicated that they see many employment applications from nuclear engineering graduates.

Representatives from several Canadian utilities pledged their support for SMR and advanced reactor technology. They included Dominique Miniere, formerly chief operating officer of EDF, who recently joined OPG as Nuclear President; Paul Thompson, who touted New Brunswick Power’s commitment to generation solely from renewables or nuclear power, with a focus on SMR and advanced reactors; and Frank Saunders, who discussed Bruce Power’s interest in SMRs for small grid applications and indicated that Bruce Power is evaluating potential customers throughout Canada.

Overall, the conference attendees reflected a strong, optimistic outlook for SMRs and advanced reactors.  Obviously, it was a biased crowd, but the optimism was supported by both factual and aspirational bases.

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