Modular Nuclear Reactors May Hold the Key to U.S. Energy Security
By Richard McPherson
Studies show that oil reserves are forecast to last only another 40 years; natural gas for 61 years; uranium for 100 years, and coal, the world’s most abundant energy resource, for 200 years. To avoid further escalation of international tensions and conflict in a scramble for energy, it is imperative to secure sources of energy to supplement those currently available.
To move in the direction of energy security, the United States needs a sustainable nuclear power industry that can provide distributed electrical and thermal energy.
There is no reason that the United States cannot achieve energy security by 2015. In 1948 there were no nuclear power plants. Five years later, the first nuclear power plant had been designed, built and placed in operation in Arco, Idaho. In 1955, another nuclear power plant was on the USS Nautilus. Today the nation has all the technology required to achieve energy security in five years.
Ignoring energy security since World War II has taken its toll by sending trillions of American dollars to purchase foreign oil. Millions of Americans are unemployed, along with millions of homes being foreclosed and more about to be foreclosed.
The American economy is in dire straits. But the nation is blessed with the best minds and most capable people in the world. What they need are jobs. The nationwide nuclear-power industry will employ workers in every state, engineering discipline and trade. Goods and services from the 3,300 counties in America will feed into the sustainable nuclear power plant manufacturing facilities. Workers ultimately will be supplied with energy from the same small modular reactors they manufacture.
The United States Navy Nuclear Power School’s 130,000 graduates have given the Navy and U.S. nuclear power experience an unparalleled record of excellence and safety for all others to emulate.
Oregon State University has a scale model of a small modular reactor. It can be mounted on a shaking table to conduct the seismic analysis for any proposed site. Domestically there are at least two small modular reactor designs. One comes in 45-megawatt modules from NuScale Power. The other is in 125-megawatt modules from Babcock & Wilcox.
Standardized small modular reactor designs manufactured in large numbers will allow for efficient and cost effective scientific and engineering studies of cores, steam generators, reactor vessels, rod drive mechanisms, burnable poisons, radiation shielding, electronic controls and instrumentation, along with primary and secondary chemistry and material selection for corrosion control and longer operating life. After refueling, nuclear cores eventually recycled at a domestic facility will allow post operations studies of cores for improved power capabilities, reliability and efficiency. American control over those nuclear cores will aid in reducing proliferation of nuclear weapons as the enriched fuel will be closely monitored.
The national laboratories will be among the first recipients of distributed electricity from nuclear power.
Here’s an idea: Set aside 15,000 acres in one or more states like Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon or Texas. Design, build and operate a complete electromagnetic pulse hardened modular and sustainable nuclear power electricity generating plant manufacturing facility. Set a goal to manufacture one small modular nuclear plant with a 60-year life expectancy ready for shipment every four days. Set up a special purpose corporation to purchase the electromagnetic pulse hardened reactors and lease them to users. The same corporation would purchase the nuclear fuel cores and lease them to the users. Start with supplying power to critical government infrastructures.
There are 19 national labs requiring an average of three 45-megawatt or one 125-megawatt modular nuclear power plants: Ames, Argonne, Brookhaven, Fermi, Idaho , Lawrence Berkeley, Livermore, Los Alamos, National Energy Technology, National Renewable Energy, New Brunswick, Oak Ridge, Princeton, Pacific Northwest , National Institute of Standards and Technology, Sandia, Savannah River, SLAC National Accelerator and Jefferson labs. This effort alone would put more than 2,500 megawatts of new sustainable and reliable distributed power in place nationally.
The natural follow-on is the 400-plus Defense Department facilities, along with various federal and state government facilities, ports and airports, including first responder communication and operation centers.
Adding these distributed and hardened modular nuclear power plants around the country will allow older, less efficient and vulnerable fossil fueled power plants to be shut down, thereby reducing emissions.
All the necessary elements are available to build a modular and sustainable nuclear power and transportation fuel industry. There is only one question to answer. Does America and the nation’s politicians have the will to travel the path to energy security?
Richard McPherson is executive vice president of DownRange Global Solutions Inc. He is a retired U.S. Navy nuclear engineering officer. He served as the U.S. representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency on a six-nation group following the accident at Chernobyl. He can be reached at 949-677-5389.