Modular Reactors Getting Jump Start


". . .some new, small reactors may soon be added to America's commercial power sector."

Modular nuclear reactors are gaining momentum. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Babcock & Wilcox, a division of Houston-based McDermott International, had signed agreements with a trio of companies that could help Babcock & Wilcox get federal approval for its proposed modular reactor, a unit that would generate up to 140MW.

Babcock & Wilcox aligned itself with the Tennessee Valley Authority, Ohio-based utility First Energy, and Georgia-based Oglethorpe Power Corp. in an effort to move the design for its mPower reactor from the drawing board into production. The announcement of the deal with the three companies provides significant momentum to Babcock & Wilcox, which announced the design of its mPower reactor last June.

Many hurdles lie between last week's announcement and commercial viability. The biggest hurdle: getting approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That agency is busy analyzing applications for several large reactors. Any approval for modular reactors will likely take two years, or perhaps much longer.

In addition to the licensing issue, Babcock & Wilcox faces significant competition in the effort to commercialize small reactors. In 2006, Japanese industrial giant Toshiba began discussing the possibility of locating a small (10) reactor in the remote town of Galena, Alaska. Toshiba's proposal called for a reactor that would be cooled by liquid sodium instead of water. The company claimed that the reactor would be a "nuclear battery" that could operate for up to 30 years without refueling.

The other promising news on the small reactor front: General Atomics, a decades-old defense equipment firm, announced its desire to build a reactor that would rely on spent fuel rods that come out of large reactors. As with the modular reactors, however, there are numerous hurdles to be overcome.

It appears that Obama is making good on his pledge to support the nuclear industry. And given recent announcements on the modular reactor front, some new, small reactors may soon be added to America's commercial power sector.

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