Westinghouse designs small modular nuclear reactor capable of powering a suburb
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Westinghouse Electric's latest, bite-sized nuclear reactor design could open up new and unconventional markets for the energy powerhouse.
Markets such as northern Africa -- or the South Hills.
The Cranberry-based firm's small modular reactor -- or SMR -- couldn't power all of Pittsburgh, but it could certainly light up major suburbs and bring nuclear energy to clients without the infrastructure, land or money typically needed to support a nuclear facility.
But the backyard reactor also enters a marketplace still reeling from nuclear meltdowns of the past year even as it introduces Westinghouse to countries that might not have the regulatory rigor of other nuclear-friendly regions.
Government support and industry competition already have made the 14-month-old SMR project a top internal priority at the company. The reactor, which rises about a foot taller than the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and falls short of 12 feet in width, could sit just miles from the region it powers.
The SMR model can be seen as a little brother to the $4 billion AP1000, the flagship model that's become the company's main selling point over the past decade, said Michael Anness, Westinghouse's SMR product manager. The AP1000 generates about 1,100 megawatts, while the SMR should generate 225.
An AP1000 facility needs about 50 acres; the SMR should need 15.
Once the AP1000 clears the last of its regulatory hurdles and moves into the product phase, the SMR will become the largest development program at Westinghouse.
Construction on two AP1000s in Georgia and two in South Carolina already has begun, and the first to be completed should be generating electricity by 2016. More than 10 are already planned for China.
Westinghouse expects the first SMR to generate electricity by 2020.
Parts of the smaller reactor break down "like Lego's," said Mr. Anness, so the entire plant can be transported piece by piece on rail cars. The entire construction process is expected to take about 18 months, compared to several years needed for the AP1000.
The reactor will be built underground in a hole that measures about 100 feet deep and 100 feet wide. All of the components -- from the power-generating core to the coolant pumps filled with water -- are housed in the 90-foot tall reactor vessel not visible to the casual observer.
Several buildings are built above ground to house the plant, so all that's obvious to the outside eye is a block of buildings that wouldn't look out of place in any business park.
In looking for potential markets for the SMRs, Westinghouse is researching markets with surging electricity needs. Africa sits at the top of many lists, in part because of the energy demands tied to skyrocketing smartphone adoption, as cheaper models enter the continent's telecom market.
The number of smartphone data subscribers in Africa is expected to hit 265 million by 2015 -- a huge increase from the 12 million seen today, according to Informa Telecoms and Media, a London-based market analysis firm.
Mr. Anness said reliable electricity could attract other business to the African or East Asian regions, which tend to cluster population centers just big enough to warrant an SMR.
Westinghouse, which employs about 3,300 workers in the Pittsburgh region, already has offices in South Africa and India.
But new markets also introduce a potential learning curve.
"The question is: Do they have the technical capability to operate a very advanced technology like nuclear power plants?" said Forrest J. Remick, a professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at Penn State University and the commissioner for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1989 to 1994.
When he worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Mr. Remick saw countries like Tunisia express an interest in nuclear energy -- only to find their entire country had fewer nuclear energy experts than the average U.S. university.
Westinghouse is also eyeing domestic markets that will soon need new forms of energy. That includes pockets of the Midwest that get electricity from coal-powered plants in need of costly retrofittings to meet updated environmental rules.
Another possibility: powering military bases that can't risk electricity black-outs (and already come prepared with ramped-up security).
The SMR offers a second chance for Westinghouse to try its hand at smaller reactors. The company received final design certification for the 600-megawatt AP600 in late 1999, but none were ever ordered. Many of the AP600's design components were then incorporated into the AP1000.
A report released this month from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago touted small reactors -- defined as generating 600 megawatts or less -- as a possible panacea for an industry that's had a rough year.
"It would be a huge stimulus for high-valued job growth, restore U.S. leadership in nuclear reactor technology and, most importantly, strengthen U.S. leadership in a post-Fukushima world, on matters of nuclear safety, nuclear security, nonproliferation and nuclear waste management," the report said.
The SMR is not the only mini-reactor expected to hit the market in the next decade. Charlotte-based Babcock & Wilcox Co. is working on a small reactor called the B&W mPower and opened a testing facility for the project in Virginia earlier this year.
Westinghouse and other companies face a marketing challenge with small reactors unveiled since General Electric-designed nuclear plants in Fukushima, Japan, suffered a meltdown triggered by an overwhelming March tsunami and earthquake.
The disaster halted what Westinghouse executives had called a "perfect storm" of rising government support and public comfort with nuclear reactors, and it triggered a wave of country-wide moratoriums on the nuclear energy.
The SMR comes with enough on-site water to cool reactors for up to seven days in the event of a meltdown, which means it doesn't have to be located near a large body of water as bigger reactors do, Mr. Anness said.
In seismic zones susceptible to an earthquake, the facility comes with springs placed between the ground and the plant designed to absorb some of the shock. The springs are huge, metal bearings -- "these aren't Slinky's," Mr. Anness said.
The SMR also comes with diesel generators as a backup energy source.
"You always have a belt and suspenders on in nuclear energy," said Mr. Anness.
The smaller nuclear reactor design has already secured major government support from Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, and Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, who are cosponsoring legislation that would enter the U.S. Department of Energy into a public-private partnership to help design and license two SMRs by 2021.
Last week, the House of Representatives appropriations report included just more than $1 billion to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with $67 million allocated to the Department of Energy's small reactor licensing program.
First Published December 20, 2011 12:00 am