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Opinion

The Small Modular Reactor Revolution

Some seven years ago, I learned about NuScale Power, a startup company seeking to revolutionize the nuclear power sector with what its founder, Dr. Jose Reyes, called a “small modular reactor.”

His concept rejected the conventional wisdom in the nuclear industry that bigger was better. Reyes, a well-respected professor and engineer from Oregon State University, was developing something that would be smaller, safer and smarter than anything previously seen. It was intriguing.

But the intrigue came with a fair amount of skepticism. One of the largest barriers facing the nuclear industry is cost, and the prevailing thinking at the time was that in order to bring costs down, one had to build larger to capture economies of scale.

Small modular reactors were considered a thought experiment, a buzzword without much heft. Among the industry, the regulators and the consumers, many were virtually certain that there was no market for such a technology.

Few people could have imagined that just a few years later, the tide would have turned so abruptly in favor of small modular nuclear reactors. Former skeptics are recognizing that SMRs provide the benefits of carbon-free nuclear power and improved safety performance, while reducing the financial and siting commitments associated with traditional large nuclear facilities. The sea change is due in part to significant investment in developing the technology but also to the determination and pioneering spirit of those early developers — especially Reyes.

SMRs are on track to becoming a reality in the United States in the near future — with NuScale paving the way. In June 2018, the company’s design became the first and only SMR to ever complete the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s first phase of a design certification application review — clearing a significant hurdle toward commercialization. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems will commercialize NuScale’s SMR as the country’s first NuScale plant by the mid-2020s, providing high-quality jobs and economic growth.

NuScale’s progress has been a catalyst for the industry, with many other companies pursuing their own SMR and other advanced nuclear plant designs.

Likewise, the federal government has seen the value of SMRs to revitalize the industry, extending the availability of production tax credits to benefit future SMR projects, sponsoring trade missions abroad, appropriating funding strongly supportive of SMRs and new nuclear development, extending availability of the nuclear loan guarantee program, and most recently passing the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act.

This paradigm shift in the way the world views SMRs couldn’t have come at a better time. In the United States, consumers and policymakers alike are looking at alternatives to fossil fuels that have historically powered our nation’s growth, looking instead toward zero-carbon solutions. And with increasingly intense storms arriving at our doorsteps, resilient energy infrastructure has become more critical than ever before. Experts have begun to recognize that decarbonizing and increasing the resiliency of our energy infrastructure means not only significant investments in wind and solar, but also in nuclear energy resources.

Decades ago, Reyes envisioned a simpler nuclear energy solution that could improve the quality of life for people around the world — a design that could withstand threats such as natural disasters and cyberattacks that was scalable and flexible in its operation and capability, yet even safer than the current fleet of nuclear plants.

Today, thanks to the dedication of over 400 NuScale staff, that technology exists, and his vision is coming to fruition. We have the tools to not only support the reality of today’s energy needs but also the technology to pioneer the energy system of tomorrow.

SMRs are a truly disruptive technology. And now it’s time to realize their potential.

 

John Hopkins is the chairman and chief executive officer of NuScale Power.

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