Press Release: Carnegie Mellon Researchers Estimate Cost of Building Small Modular Nuclear Reactors
Work Recognizes Importance of Nuclear Power and Streamlining Power Plant Construction
Contact: Chriss Swaney / 412-268-5776 / firstname.lastname@example.org
PITTSBURGH—One-fifth of America's electricity comes from nuclear power, a key component to include in the mix of future energy sources in an effort to decarbonize the U.S. energy system.
That's why Carnegie Mellon University researchers are pushing to assess the potential advantages and disadvantages of a new class of nuclear power plant — small modular reactors (SMRs) — that might end up being small enough to fabricate in a factory and ship to a deployment site.
"There may be an economic case for SMRs; with SMRs, even if the cost per kW is higher, one spends less per reactor, and one can make incremental additions to the grid," said Inês Azevedo, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy and executive director of CMU's Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making.
CMU researchers have long argued that the nuclear industry needs to start looking more like the aircraft industry for the technology to gain public trust, and thus have a sustainable future.
"If aircrafts were made and certified one at a time, in the way today's nuclear power plants are built and certified in the U.S., many travelers would find their level of safety unacceptable," said Morgan, a University Professor, head of CMU's Department of Engineering and Public Policy, and head of the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation.
The SMR concepts being explored today could initiate this very transition in the industry. If vendors learn lessons from other industries and achieve the full potential of these reactors, we would move toward a world where SMRs would be mass produced in a factory with high levels of quality control and shipped to the field by rail, road or barge. The U.S. government has been receptive to this new technology; in November, the Department of Energy announced that it would invest $452 million toward developing and licensing one or more light-water SMR concepts.
By sitting down with experts developing light-water SMR designs, CMU researchers could craft detailed scenarios in an effort to arrive at robust cost estimates, and to prompt experts to justify the numbers they provided.
"Like any new technology, SMRs face significant hurdles on the road to commercialization" said Addulla, a Ph.D. researcher in engineering and public policy. "But, even if we take the upper bound of our cost estimates, a case could be made for their use in certain applications, such as in countries with smaller grids, or to provide desalinated water or process heat in relatively isolated geographies."
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to license the first light-water SMR power plants in the early 2020s.
CMU's research was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making.
Inês Azevedo (pictured above), along with CMU's M. Granger Morgan and Ahmed Abdulla, report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that small modular reactors might provide a flexible, cost-effective energy alternative.