Artist’s rendering of the new Westinghouse AP300, a small modular reactor.

Artist rendering courtesy Westinghouse

Westinghouse It displays a smaller nuclear reactor in an effort to expand access to nuclear energy as the demand for clean energy grows.

The company announced the launch of a smaller version of its flagship nuclear reactor, the AP1000, on Thursday. The new reactor, called the AP300, is intended to be available in 2027, and will generate about a third of the power of the flagship AP1000 reactor.

Westinghouse’s move is a marked inflection point in the nuclear industry’s efforts to reshape itself as a way to tackle climate change. The electricity generated from a nuclear fission reactor does not produce greenhouse gas emissions.

The AP300 will generate approximately 300 megawatts of power, which will power approximately 300,000 homes, versus 1,200 megawatts for the AP1000, according to David DurhamPresident of Power Systems at Westinghouse.

Small nuclear reactors are less expensive to build, which is a major selling point. The AP300 is estimated to cost about $1 billion per unit, Durham told CNBC. A 2022 study from MIT, which Durham cited for CNBC, estimates that It should cost about $6.8 billion To find out the AP1000.

Vogtle Power Plant in Georgia adds two AP1000 units, and this project has been widely criticized for going over budget and schedule. But Durham says advertised cost estimates It reached more than 30 billion dollarsincluding things like interest on money borrowed to pay for the project.

Because small modular reactors are smaller and less expensive, they are also more versatile.

“Unlike the previous generation of nuclear power plants, which were used only by large integrated utilities, advanced reactor sizes ranging from micro-reactors of half a megawatt to 300 megawatts or more mean that there are many more facilities that can benefit from These technologies,” Jeffrey S Merrifield, a Nuclear lawyer And Former commissioner of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for CNBC. (News of Westinghouse’s AP300 wasn’t public until Thursday morning, so Merrifield was chatting with CNBC about general trends in the nuclear industry.)

Merrifield told CNBC that industrial producers view small nuclear reactors as carbon-free sources of heat.

“One aspect of many advanced reactor technologies, including high-temperature gas reactors, molten salt and sodium fast reactors, is that they can produce industrial heat for non-energy purposes or combined heat and power applications for industries such as steelmaking, chemical production and cement production,” Merrifield said. and milling and mining among many others.”

It is also easier to connect small reactors to the power grid. In the United States, transmission lines are actually being tapped. Connecting new sources of energy can take years because they often require upgrading transmission capacity. But the AP300 nuclear reactor will produce roughly the same amount of electricity as a typical coal plant, so replacing a coal plant with a small nuclear reactor would be easier.

For the AP300 to be available to customers at the end of 2027 in the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Authority will have to provide approval, but Durham said he is confident that will happen.

“We have absolute confidence, because the NRC has already licensed every bit of this technology,” Durham told CNBC. “This is exactly the same thing.”

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Durham said the AP300 also has the same safety features as the AP1000. The passive cooling system is particularly critical on both models.

The water keeps the fuel rods cool, preventing them from overheating. When a nuclear reactor is shut down, the fuel rods still need to be kept cold, which requires backup sources of electricity.

“If you don’t have back-up sources of electricity, or back-up sources of water, you can have a situation where the fuel overheats, as happened in Fukushima,” Durham said. “Passive safety systems keep the fuel cold on their own without any human action, and there is no backup source of electricity, and there is no backup source of water, because everything you need to keep the fuel cool is inside the reactor.”

In a passive cooling system, a large pool of water is located above the reactor. If the reactor needs to be shut down, the water is released and falls onto the fuel rods. As the water heats up, Durham said, it creates vapor that rises and condenses back into the water and then continues cycling for about three days. At the end of three days, if the reactor is still out of order, more water must be added in the tank on top of the reactor.

“This is a game-changing technology,” he said. “If the AP1000 had been in operation at Fukushima, it would have been a no-brainer.”

Demand for large nuclear reactors is strong abroad

While small nuclear reactors are a new area of ​​interest for industry, demand for large reactors remains strong outside the United States.

“In most countries, the facilities are state-owned,” Durham said. “If the country commits to decarbonization, the utility is the means to implement the decarbonization process.”

In most parts of the United States, the cheapest energy wins out, and nuclear energy isn’t usually the cheapest.

There are two AP1000 reactors in the US at the Vogtel Power Plant – one will be operational later this year, and the second by early 2024. But four are operational in China, and six more are under construction.

Durham told CNBC that Westinghouse has an agreement to build nine AP1000s in Ukraine, has been selected to build three AP1000s in Poland, and is in the works for 11 more AP1000s across Europe.

There is also interest in large nuclear reactors from several other countries in Africa and Asia, including Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others, according to Merrifield.

Larger reactors, while more expensive to build, will produce electricity more cheaply.

“SMR will be very valuable, and play an important role in many areas,” Durham said. “Their electricity is going to be a little bit more expensive than the larger units. And so if a country is looking for substantial carbon-neutral electricity generation base capacity, they usually look at those larger units.”

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