The U.S. Department of Energy has given the green light for three companies to partner with the Savannah River Site in Aiken to potentially locate mini-nuclear reactors there.
The Energy Department said Friday the partnerships are with Hyperion Power Generation; SMR, a subsidiary of Holtec International; and NuScale Power.
SRS is in talks with four more companies for similar agreements and open to any company serious about entering the mini-nukes market, said Jim Giusti, Energy Department spokesman for the site. “This is the beginning of a marathon, and we’ve got a long way to go.”
Boosters say the miniature nuclear reactors – commercial power plants the size of a doublewide trailer or smaller – could crack the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, gobble up nuclear waste and create thousands of manufacturing jobs in nuclear-friendly South Carolina.
The mini-reactors have been called the nuclear technology of the future because they can be built at a fraction of the cost of large reactors and power small cities or remote areas.
Critics say the technology is still in its infancy and could be dangerous. They say test projects are years away from being licensed by the government. They also said mini-nukes will create substantial amounts of deadly nuclear waste, just like large reactors.
Tom Clements said he does not think Friday’s announcement is a significant development because funding remains questionable. “These small modular reactors only exist on paper and they have no funding to be built,” he said.
“It looks like the only way they are going to proceed is if the government invests heavily in these reactors, which reveals there is not really a lot of private interest in them except to sell them,” said Clements, an anti-nuclear activist who has followed SRS issues for decades.
In the coming year, SRS officials will be in talks with the three federally approved mini-nuke companies on how they can bring private-industry developments to the taxpayer-funded site. Within the next 15 years, SRS officials envision the entire site being powered by mini-nuclear reactors that serve as a demonstration showcase for the commercial market.
“This is the first of what will be many agreements that we sign with these companies,” Giusti said.
Advocates have long called for making the 310-square-mile Savannah River Site, built near Aiken in the 1950s to produce tritium and plutonium-239 for nuclear weapons, into a national center for the development of mini-reactors.
In September 2010, Hyperion said it would partner with the Savannah River National Laboratory in a deal that could lead to building mini-reactors at the site and employ 200 to 500 people. In October, SRS said it would look at a demonstration project for a small GE-Hitachi reactor.
Advocates say if the mini-reactors are licensed for commercial use, private manufacturing plants could spring up around the site. They also say the mini-reactors could be fueled with nuclear waste, creating electricity for electric cars and breaking the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
However, the cost of the speculative reactors could prove to be prohibitive, and safety aspects, such as shipping reactors loaded with spent fuel, are a concern as the mini-nukes would travel through population centers.
But progress is being made, and Giusti said the new agreements are just the start of changing the face of SRS into a public-private entity that can help address the energy needs of the United States. “We’re going to be the catalyst,” he said.
The announcement builds on the Obama administration’s commitment to nuclear energy, the Energy Department said in a release.
“We are committed to restarting the nation’s nuclear industry and advancing the next generation of these technologies, helping to create new jobs and export opportunities for American workers and businesses,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in the statement.
Staff writers Jeff Wilkinson and Sammy Fretwell contributed.