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Westinghouse, others have big plans for mini reactors

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The future of nuclear power may be in smaller reactors that could boost a power plant's output or provide enough electricity to run a factory.

Westinghouse Electric Co., Babcock & Wilcox Co. and federal energy officials are anticipating a market for what is known as a small modular reactor, or SMR.

Cranberry-based Westinghouse has eight full-size AP1000 reactors under construction worldwide, and its experience “will speed the Westinghouse SMR to market with less cost and better economics,” said Kate Jackson, chief technology officer and senior vice president of research and technology.

The capsule-like, 225-megawatt mini-reactor design borrows heavily from the AP1000, with safety systems that use gravity rather than access to power if the plant malfunctions. Control rods inside the reactor unlatch and drop when a problem is detected, shutting down the nuclear reaction, for example.

Some other safety advantages: Water sits above the core, to provide cooling in an emergency. And the unit sits below grade, lessening damage potential from above-ground disruptions.

Westinghouse, which built the nation's first nuclear plant in 1957 in Shippingport, is working with scientists at the University of Missouri at Columbia and Missouri University of Science and Technology to build a small reactor at electric utility Ameren Missouri's Callaway Energy Center.

That plant, south of Fulton, Mo., has a generating capacity of 1,290 megawatts. A small Westinghouse reactor could turn out enough power for 45,000 homes.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is preparing for nuclear energy companies' applications to roll in for small reactor designs as early as this year, spokesman Neil Sheehan said. NRC staff talked with Westinghouse in June and July about safety and plant design, and “will continue with limited meetings with Westinghouse as resources allow,” he said.

Babcock & Wilcox, which is partnering with the Tennessee Valley Authority and engineering firm Bechtel, won initial federal approval in November for money to develop, license and commercialize an SMR.

A second reactor proposal will be chosen for funding, the Department of Energy said, but it hasn't specified when.

Costs to develop Babcock & Wilcox's mPower plant over five years have not been specified; the government would pay half.

Energy officials propose spending $452 million on smaller reactor designs.

“My sense is that DOE is looking for a project that, on commercial terms, will be able to succeed,” said Edwin Lyman, senior scientist with the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, and Babcock & Wilcox, through its alliance with the Tennessee authority, potentially could build a plant to supply DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory near Knoxville.

Still, caution is key and the new plants aren't necessarily safer just because they're smaller, he said.

“Even if on paper they look safe, there is no operating experience,” Lyman said, adding that the organization doesn't think the government should subsidize nuclear power.

Current nuclear projects are behind schedule, he said, and low-cost natural gas is eating into the profits of nuclear plants.

But Jackson said any fossil-fueled plants are vulnerable to market prices; historically, natural gas prices have swung up and down.

“Electric energy providers must look decades into the future” when planning generating plants, which typically last more than 50 years, she said.

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or kleonard@tribweb.com.

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