South Carolina lost out on federal money to create small modular nuclear reactors, but a coalition of public and private firms vows to continue moving forward with the project.
The U.S. Department of Energy announced its second and final round of funding last week from a pool of $452 million set aside for the development of mini-nukes, which can be built and shipped around the world to power small cities that have unstable electricity sources or temporary military bases.
“There are international markets for this all over the world,” said Meghan Hughes, senior project manager for NuHub, a nuclear initiative of EngenuitySC, which is working on the project with Holtec International. “It’s really a global mission.”
In the United States, companies are racing to be the first to build a viable reactor and gain licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission so they can sell the portable reactors on the commercial market. Nuclear-heavy South Carolina had hoped to be a leader in development of the technology.
But missing out on the grant funding was a setback. Any projects based here now would require private funding, Hughes said.
Privately owned Holtec has the capacity to pursue development of the reactors initially, Hughes said. But, she added, “It’s such a huge investment, they’re going to have to have investment partners.”
The money awarded last week went to NuScale Power, and the project to develop the innovative reactors will be based in Oregon, according to a release by the Energy Department. Last year, the Energy Department issued the first funding round to a project in Tennessee.
EngenuitySC, an economic development nonprofit, had been working with Holtec to land federal money to bring development and manufacturing of the miniature reactors to Aiken’s Savannah River Site.
“It’s a setback, but it’s not an insurmountable hurdle,” Hughes said.
The decision puts Holtec’s project in the back of the line – behind the two federally funded projects – to gain approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the new technology reactors, Hughes said.
A timeline on when the reactors could make it to the commercial market is “anybody’s best guess at this point,” she said.
It could be as short as six years or as long as 15 years, she said. “But what we do know is, there’s a market.”
Nuclear power critic Stephen A. Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said the small modular reactor program is “on life support” amid a pushback against nuclear power.
“The market conditions for nuclear power have changed dramatically in the past five years,” he said, citing dropping natural gas costs and increasing interest in renewable energy, including wind and solar.
“It’s doubtful that many investors would want to bet on something that is against the headwind with the market conditions, has a long regulatory lead time with the NRC and has never been demonstrated significantly (to work),” Smith said.
While there is a need for stable power sources in many parts of the world, shipping nuclear power to other countries comes with a whole set of new problems, he said.
Some of the countries that have intermittent power have unstable governments. Most of the countries do not have the security infrastructure necessary to protect nuclear materials, Smith said.
“Those are the exact places you don’t want to be putting nuclear materials into because they’re likely to fall into the wrong hands,” he said. If that happened, it would be a “a big problem, not only for the country but for the world.”