Small modular nuclear reactors: The race is on to actually build them

·4 min read

After a decade of regulatory and financial uncertainty, small modular light-water nuclear reactors are getting closer than ever to deployment.

Last week, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy signed an agreement to build the first grid-connected small modular reactor (SMR) in North America — a major milestone for the industry. The commercial contract with Ontario Power Generation and two other companies is for the construction of a 300-megawatt light-water SMR in Ontario, Canada, at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, which is already home to 3.5 gigawatts of nuclear capacity.

“This is a unique agreement and the first of its kind in the industry,” spokesperson Jonathan Allen of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy told Canary Media by email. “Unlike non-binding agreements or MOUs [memorandums of understanding] that are typical in our industry, this agreement represents a signed contract with a utility, an architecture engineer and a constructor to actually construct a plant.” Ontario Power Generation has secured funding for the first phase of construction, contracted for site prep work and submitted licensing paperwork to the Canadian regulator, Allen said.

That news comes on the heels of a historic SMR announcement last month: NuScale Power, a pioneer in small reactors, cleared the ultimate U.S. regulatory hurdle in civilian advanced nuclear power. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified the design of NuScale’s 50-megawatt power module. It’s the first SMR design ever approved for use in the U.S.

Last year, another light-water SMR manufacturer, Holtec, applied for a $7.4 billion loan from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office to construct at least four of its 160-megawatt modules in the U.S., and to build manufacturing capacity to support the SMR supply chain. It is still awaiting a decision.

The Loan Programs Office has expressed openness to financing small modular reactors. Its director, Jigar Shah, is all in on nuclear power and SMRs, as he reiterated in a Twitter thread after news broke of GE Hitachi’s commercial contract.

Not every decarbonization modeling scenario calls for nuclear. Folks like Mark Jacobson and Amory Lovins don’t believe that nuclear power is at all necessary to solve climate change. But many net-zero scenarios do include it.

The U.S. nuclear industry is also feeling optimistic because of the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides a generous tax credit for advanced nuclear reactors and microreactors.

GE Hitachi, NuScale and Holtec are all intent on having a grid-connected reactor up and running before the end of the decade.

An antidote to cost overruns?

Nuclear power projects big and small have long been dogged by massive cost overruns.

NuScale, which has a nonbinding agreement to build a first-of-its-kind SMR project in Idaho, has already raised its projected power cost from $58 per megawatt-hour to $89 per megawatt-hour, even though it’s years away from potential construction.

But Jigar Shah believes costs for SMRs will come down as deployments ramp up.

GE Hitachi claims its SMR is designed to “reduce construction and operating costs below other nuclear power generation technologies” by simplifying the plant’s structure and employing a design based on already-licensed reactor technology, as well as using the same kind of fuel as existing nuclear reactors (not the currently unobtainable high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU, that nuclear startup TerraPower plans to use).

Other nuclear advocates also believe SMRs can make nuclear power more cost-effective. In theory, they can be constructed off-site using more readily available components.

The SMR concept is proving attractive to utilities and governments around the world, despite the lack so far of real-world deployment. GE Hitachi has agreements to build its SMRs with companies in Canada, Poland, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S. In 2022, the Tennessee Valley Authority began planning and preliminary licensing for the potential deployment of a GE Hitachi SMR at the Clinch River Nuclear Site in Tennessee, and SaskPower announced that it selected the GE Hitachi SMR for potential deployment in Saskatchewan, Canada in the mid-2030s. NuScale has signed agreements to deploy SMR plants in 12 countries, including the Czech Republic, Jordan, Poland and Romania.

GE Hitachi, NuScale and Holtec’s SMRs are light-water reactors, like the vast majority of the civilian nuclear fleet now operating around the globe. Because nuclear regulators are familiar with light-water designs, it’s not too much of a stretch for them to deal with small, modular variations. Conversely, SMR startups that employ non-light-water designs and unconventional fuels — such as TerraPower, X-energy and Oklo — will face more regulatory challenges.

After the GE Hitachi news came out last week, Harris Berton, senior adviser at Natural Resources Canada, tweeted out one reason why the company’s SMR design, the BWRX-300, might be a relatively light regulatory lift.

Ultimately, choice of energy generation comes down to cost. Solar is widely deployed today because it’s the lowest-cost generation source. If SMRs can demonstrate their cost advantage in real-life construction, additional orders will follow, and the long-promised nuclear renaissance might actually arrive.