Part One of our two-part series on small modular reactors (SMRs), we introduced several projects in development, and presented a few of the situations in which SMRs could provide a reliable, economically sound solution for power production. In this final installment, we examine the challenges for these projects and the opportunities valve manufacturers could see in this sector.In
The Current State of Affairs
Since the earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima nuclear plant in March of 2011, the future of nuclear power generation has been examined and debated around the world. Prior to the accident, there were discussions in North America about a nuclear renaissance. Now, as radioactive water spills into the Pacific Ocean and the price of natural gas makes that fuel much more attractive to our energy-hungry continent, many in the power industry believe nuclear is, at least in the west, on its deathbed.
However, China currently has 28 large plants under construction, Saudi Arabia has plans for 16 in the next 20 years, and India is on the fast track with new technology. This is good news for valve manufacturers, but it is not only in these large overseas plants there is a bright spot for N-stamp products. When asked for his projections for the industry, Ivan Velan, executive vice president, Velan, believes that “nuclear will have a larger share of power generation, with a surge in small-modular reactors and new reactors designed to use spent fuel.”
Growth Opportunities and Challenges for SMRs
Macit Cobanoglu has spent 33 years in the nuclear industry and is currently the vice president of AECON Industrial’s Nuclear Strategic Business Unit. “I am convinced that some of these SMRs will find their niche in a number of different markets as the whole world begins to appreciate more and more the enormous environmental impact of the continued use of fossil fuels on a massive scale,” he said. “The devastating floods and severe weather patterns we have been experiencing lately are ominous reminders of accelerating climate change, and the enormous burden we are faced with in terms of economic and human costs.” This should present opportunities for nuclear power development.
While the economies of scale give larger units a definite advantage in terms of unit cost for electricity, Cobanoglu acknowledged that SMRs are more practical and economical for smaller and remote communities with modest load requirements. Beyond the costs of building the plants, though, are those of operation. “One of the economic unknowns for SMRs is the minimum size of workforce that will be mandated by the nuclear regulators to operate the SMR sites,” he said. “If they insist on having a workforce that is similar in size to larger full-scale nuclear plant sites, this would have a detrimentally negative impact on the business case for SMRs.”
Indeed, regulatory concerns are among the biggest challenges for the developers of all of these devices.
In a recent interview with Nuclear Insider, Gregory OD Smith, chairman, president and CEO of Louisiana Energy System’s URENCO uranium enrichment facility, said: “The largest challenge will be in the licensing of these reactors. In the middle of the last decade there was a public-private partnership known as Nuclear Power 2010. This partnership assisted in outlining the then unknown licensing process for Generation III+ reactor developed by Westinghouse and GE. A similar program is needed for SMRs and has already started with the recent award to Babcock and Wilcox, TVA and Bechtel of $79 million for the mPower SMR design.” Smith went on to say that the government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers and should expand this program to include the other potential reactor developers.
One good sign looking forward is that some politicians are now backing small modular reactors. In July 2013, Utah Governor Gary Herbert urged Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to support an application by NuScale Power to receive federal funding to develop its reactor. Herbert has been working to develop 10-year energy plans with the state of Utah and the Western Governors Association and both plans envision an important future for small-scale nuclear power. According to Herbert in his letter to Moniz, one of the specific goals of the Western Governors’ plan is to “find ways to accelerate the introduction of small modular reactors to the marketplace.” The Obama administration has also stated publicly its support for SMRs, saying they are a form of low-carbon energy and also a potential source of jobs.
Valves and the Safety of SMRs
While much of regulators’ concern is safety, it is this very challenge that provides opportunities for valve manufacturers.
“I think SMRs have some unique passive safety futures stemming from their modular design and smaller size,” said Cobanoglu, “but many of the new design larger units also have similar passive safety futures. So, I think in terms of safety it is hard to say if one is any safer than the other. And while I do not have a sufficiently intimate knowledge of the different SMR designs to comment on them individually, I think one of the big advantages of SMRs is our ability to manufacture them in a controlled environment in factories.”
This trend toward modular construction is reflected in many sectors, and presents valve and actuator manufacturers with opportunities to develop specific products that will be installed in a specific way every time in each of these projects on a scale that makes economic sense.
Curtiss-Wright said that small modular reactors are designed with fewer systems and valves than many of their larger siblings. “However,” he said, “a greater number of SMRs are required to meet a specific energy requirement. For example, it takes twenty-four 45 MWe reactor modules to produce a similar amount of electricity as one 1,100 MWe reactor. And, since SMRs are intended to be built in a factory setting, there will be a high degree of standardization, allowing one valve design to be used in the same application over and over again. This valve standardization should lead to improved quality, decreased lead times and economies of scale.”Gary Wolski of
Specially designed valves are also an integral part of the passive safety features that are a big selling point for the SMRs.
Jose Reyes, the co-founder and CTO of one of the designs, NuScale, said that safety is built into that design using a simplified set of water valves that flip open automatically in case of a power disruption. “Only a handful of safety valves need to be opened in the event of an accident to ensure actuation of the [emergency cooling system],” he said, speaking at the Nuclear Energy Insider SMR Conference in Columbia, SC in April 2013. “These safety valves have been mechanically pre-set to align to their safe condition without the use of batteries following a loss of all station power.”
It is difficult to predict, especially with so many regulatory hurdles still to be cleared, whether enough small-scale nuclear reactors can be built to make them economically feasible. However, if they are successful at meeting that challenge, there is no doubt that manufacturers of valves and actuators will have plenty of opportunity to grow in this sector.