A major manufacturer of power-generation equipment announced plans today to build a small nuclear reactor that company officials touted as a "potential game changer for the global nuclear market."

Babcock & Wilcox Co.'s 125-megawatt reactor would be significantly smaller than the average 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor and is aimed at plugging a major "market gap," CEO Brandon Bethards said at a Washington press conference. The new reactor might come online as early as 2018.

What the company calls its "mPower" reactor would be used for smaller grids or limited electricity-demand areas, such as those of municipal districts or for individual industrial use. Demand has been rising for such reactors in developing countries whose transmission systems cannot handle large reactors. Other nuclear companies have explored scalable or "grid appropriate" reactors before but could not overcome issues of cost.

"Several technical and manufacturing innovations make this reactor a potential game changer for the global clean energy market," said Christofer Mowry, president and CEO at Babcock & Wilcox Modular Nuclear Energy, LLC, the new unit in charge of the small reactor.

The mPower reactor would include independent "modular" units that could be manufactured on an assembly line, thus cutting manufacturing and construction costs, said John Fees, CEO of McDermott International, the parent company of Babcock & Wilcox. Units could be built and come online even as others are being built, he said, allowing power companies to start earning revenue faster.

"This brings not only lower installation base cost but also brings greater cost certainty" compared to the $6 billion to $8 billion large-reactor option, Fees said. He declined to name a price for mPower, but said it would be "under the $5,000 per megawatt" price that the industry has estimated for large reactors.

Babcock & Wilcox plans to submit engineering designs to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for certification by 2011.

The new reactor has attracted "early and broad customer interest," Mowry said. A consortium of regional municipal and cooperative utilities -- which he declined to name -- has signed a "memorandum of understanding" to explore the construction of reactors, he said.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is evaluating a potential site near the Clinch River in Roane County, Tenn., for the reactor and is a industrial consultant for Babcock & Wilcox, said Jack Bailey, TVA's vice president of nuclear generation development. TVA has not made any decisions about building a small reactor plant, however, Bailey added. Exelon Corp. is also advising the company on the design and licensing process but has not made any decisions about purchasing the mPower or examining any sites, said Craig Lambert, Exelon's director of engineering of New Business Generation.

NRC consideration

The mPower reactor is largely based on Generation III reactor technology that NRC is currently reviewing for certification, which should make the small reactor's licensing "conform to existing licensing protocol" and shorten the review time, Mowry said.

The company said it hopes to have a customer submit a combined construction and operating license for a small-scale plant by 2012, with construction beginning in 2015, Bethards said.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working on a small-scale reactor, and Westinghouse has been working on an advanced Generation IV small reactor, the International Reactor Innovative and Secure, which is under review at NRC. Westinghouse hopes to have the design certified by 2010, according to the company.

The mPower reactor would be contained below ground and will have passive safety systems, taking advantage of current Generation III technologies. It will have a five-year refueling cycle, and the spent fuel could be stored underground with the unit for up to 60 years, Babcock & Wilcox said.

The company plans to manufacture all mPower components in Virginia, Ohio and Indiana and other North American sites.

Joining Babcock & Wilcox executives at the press conference were Tennessee Sens. Lamar Alexander (R) and Bob Corker (R) and Reps. Lincoln Davis (D) and Zach Wamp (R), as well as Ohio Sen. George Voinovich (R).


Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500