The Department of Energy is setting aside $452 million for a program designed to stimulate the development of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).
The first award under this program is going to a group lead by Babcock & Wilcox and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The new reactors will be designed to generate 180 MW of power—adequate for 200,000 households—and will be two-thirds smaller than most conventional reactors.
According to the Energy Department, the government plans to foot half the bill and coordinate matters so that the new reactors are up and running within a decade. The total value of the award, however, was not announced.
"Restarting the nation's nuclear industry and advancing small modular reactor technologies will help create new jobs and export opportunities for American workers and businesses, and ensure we continue to take an all-of-the-above approach to American energy production," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement announcing Tuesday's decision.
Some benefits of the SMRs include their ability to be built underground, longer lifetimes using conventional nuclear fuel, and the ease of expansion by adding more modular units. That, of course, means the new design is much more scalable and thus flexible to adjust for power needs.
Currently, U.S. nuclear power accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s power consumption, but most of the reactors are older than 30 years.
Under the Obama administration, a new generation of nuclear reactors is being developed; the government provided $8 billion for two new plants in Georgia.
The new design holds lots of possibilities, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has yet to sign off completely on the proposed designs.
Another potential problem on the horizon relates to the natural gas boom; if existing reactors already face pressure from the cratering costs of natural gas, how are new reactors going to solve the problem?
Even if the underground capabilities of the SMR units raise their resistance to seismic shocks, the prospect of smaller units and fewer employees remains a matter of concern following events at Fukushima.