Westinghouse backs off small nuclear plants

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After millions of dollars and more than a decade spent developing a small modular nuclear reactor, Westinghouse Electric Co. is pulling back.

Danny Roderick, president and CEO of the Cranberry-based nuclear firm, said Westinghouse recently "reprioritized" staff devoted to small modular reactor, or SMR, development and funneled their efforts to the AP1000, the company's full-scale new generation pressurized water reactor currently under construction in China and the U.S.

"The problem I have with SMRs is not the technology, it's not the deployment -- it's that there's no customers," Mr. Roderick said. "The worst thing to do is get ahead of the market."

The move comes after Westinghouse was twice snubbed by the U.S. Department of Energy's SMR commercialization program, which awarded cost-sharing arrangements to two other companies.

In November 2012, North Carolina-based Babcock & Wilcox won the first round of funding for its proposed 180-megawatt reactor, mPower. The company had submitted a joint application with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which said it would pilot these plants, and has received $101 million from the energy department so far.

In December 2013, NuScale Power, an Oregon-based company, with the backing of its primary investor Fluor Corp. and Rolls-Royce, won the second round, securing a cost-sharing agreement for up to $226 million over five years. NuScale is developing a 45-megawatt reactor.

Westinghouse applied for both rounds in partnership with Ameren Missouri, electric cooperatives and other power producers in the state that said they would use the technology when licensed. According to Westinghouse, its 225-megawatt SMR could power 45,000 residential homes.

Following the latest Department of Energy announcement, Ameren Missouri said in a statement it is "stepping back and considering our alternatives."

Ameren's exclusive agreement with Westinghouse expired, and the company, which is still interested in small nuclear reactors and remains open to working with Westinghouse, is also watching how companies that received government funding make out.

"We have an opportunity to watch some of the different technologies further evolve," said Warren Wood, Ameren's vice president of regulatory and legislative affairs. "We don't have to make a decision immediately as to what [new] capacity would look like."

Mr. Roderick said it would be difficult to justify the economics of small modular reactors at this point, especially without government subsidies.

Not everyone feels that way.

New Jersey-based Holtec International, which is developing a 160-megawatt reactor, was similarly rejected by the DOE, but it vowed to "redouble" its efforts to commercialize the reactor.

William Magwood, a commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that regulates the commercial nuclear industry in the U.S., said the agency is expecting to receive the first license application to build a small modular reactor within "a few months."

The promises of small reactors are lower cost, shorter construction times and the ability to add incremental capacity as it becomes needed, instead of having to find a gigawatt of demand at once.

But to gain the economic advantage of serial factory production, there has to be enough demand.

"Unless you're going to build 30 to 50 of them, you're not going to make your money back," Mr. Roderick said.

Westinghouse still is interested in the development of SMRs, he said, and the company will eventually file an application with the NRC as the market dictates. But for now it is spending its energy in parts of the company with greater economic potential.

For example, the company is looking to triple its decomissioning business, which helps safely dismantle nuclear plants. "We see this as a $1 billion-per-year business for us," he said, a growth opportunity on par with new nuclear reactor construction.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

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