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Charlotte Firm Takes Lead In Smaller, Factory-Built Nuclear Reactors

The U.S. government and the nuclear industry are betting on new, much smaller nuclear reactors that can be mass produced in factories, and shipped around the world. 

"We are trying to jumpstart a new U.S. industry," says Assistant Secretary of Energy Pete Lyons. "That’s my goal: A U.S. industry, U.S. jobs, clean energy."

Last month the Department of Energy partnered with Charlotte-based nuclear company Babcock & Wilcox to finish development, in a deal that could total over $400 million. But critics worry that the model for the new reactor is flawed at its core.

Currently, all that exists is a prototype reactor, about 20 miles outside Forest, Va. It’s 80 feet tall, or about the size of a rail car. But, standing by itself in the forest, it looks like a skyscraper. Inside, at the bottom of the reactor, spinning fans and water pumps overwhelm the sounds of hissing steam and shifting power. The plant's manager, Doug Lee, points to a large tank, covered by a padded yellow shroud. "This is our simulated reactor vessel," he says. "It’s analogous to the core in a nuclear plant where the fission reaction takes place."

By "simulated," Lee means the prototype reactor is lacking one notable feature the final version will have--nuclear fuel. Instead, this reactor is heated by electricity, so Lee and the other engineers can test the reactor's design, and prove it can handle radioactive material.

Once that is achieved, Babcock & Wilcox will apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval of the design . Then, the plan is to churn small reactors out in factories, like prefabricated houses, ship them to buyers, and—also unlike the prototype—install them almost entirely underground. In fact, walking by, you might not even know there’s an 80-foot reactor buried across the street.

"It's actually quite a small footprint. All the nuclear safety stuff, the reactor, all of that stuff is underground," says Chris Mowry, the president of Babcock & Wilcox mPower--the subsidiary that’s designing the reactor. "If you go look at this site, all you’d see is a one story building that looks like Walmart."

That will also improve safety, according to Mowry. He says that, underground, the reactor will be less vulnerable to tsunamis, earthquakes, and terrorism. It's also designed to cool itself down. Mowry says a Fukushima-style meltdown would basically be impossible.

"We’ve gotten to a point now with the most modern technology, it’s really not an issue," Mowry says.

But it’s the technology’s possibilities for energy, jobs, and trade that are most enticing. The reactors could replace aging and dirty coal plants, because they generate about the same amount of power. And, they could create jobs.

"One of the features of these small reactors is that they can be entirely manufactured here in the United States," says Lyons. "They can literally be made in the USA. With the large plants that’s simply physically impossible."

Instead of importing reactor parts, the US could export entire reactors. One target would be developing countries, particularly in the Middle East and Asia that can’t afford a full $15 billion nuclear reactor. But they might want a smaller one for a billion. With buyers abroad and at home, Chris Mowry outlines his ambition for his company: mass production.

Mpower is not going to be measured in terms of success in terms of building tens of these things, but in terms of hundreds of these things," Mowry says. "We’re not trying to build a Rolls Royce, we’re trying to build a Ford."

That’s not a comforting thought for Ed Lyman. He’s a nuclear physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"My feeling is that if you’re going to have a nuclear power plant it better be a Rolls Royce," Lyman says.

Lyman sees problems with the entire concept of mass producing small reactors.

"Nuclear power is a technology that is much more suited for large plants, centralized and isolated from populated areas in as small a number of places as possible," Lyman says.

There are a couple of reasons why. The first is price; bigger reactors generate cheaper power, so you need to sell a lot of small ones if you’re going to be cost-efficient. And, Lyman’s not convinced the demand is there. Then from a safety perspective, every new plant is a new target for terrorism or disaster. But his biggest concern is that the industry is overconfident about its technology, and that they’re pushing for safety standards that are too low, to drive down cost.

"One of the problems at Fukushima is that the operators at the plant lacked the imagination to anticipate the kind of disaster that could occur," he says.

He also opposes selling to developing countries. Nuclear equipment requires knowledgeable staff equipped to manage disasters and the stability to maintain the reactors, according to Lyman.

On the other hand, if the U.S. doesn’t enter this industry soon, another country could do it first. Marv Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute--the industry's trade group-- says the U.S is not the only player.

"We’re expecting the French are going to get into this market," Fertel says. "We’re expecting Korea to get into this market. The Chinese eventually will get into this market. The Russians probably will want to get into this market, and we would like to be there first."

That’s one reason the Department of Energy is investing in Babcock’s design—they’re furthest along. The goal is to get approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission within five years, and to build in as soon as a decade. Other U.S. companies are also working on similar technology, and the Department of Energy expects to partner in January with one of them on a different style of small reactor.