Biden announces US-backed small modular reactor project in Romania

Rendering of the power plant to be built in Romania.A rendering of the six-module NuScale Power small modular reactor that officials plan to build in Romania. Credit: NuScale Power

A US-origin small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) to be built in Romania is among the first projects to be supported as part of $200 billion that the Biden administration aspires to raise over five years for partnerships with low- and middle-income countries. The $14 million award to NuScale Power and Romania’s SN Nuclearelectrica will go toward an engineering design study for a six-module, 462 MWe (megawatts electric) SMR in the town of Doiceşti. The partners will jointly provide a matching amount to fund the eight-month study, which is to provide site-specific data on cost, construction, schedule, and licensing.

Announced during June’s G7 summit in Germany, the grant follows a commitment that John Kerry, the presidential envoy for climate, made to Romanian president Klaus Iohannis at last December’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The NuScale reactors would replace a shuttered coal-fired power plant. NuScale’s SMR design is the first to be approved by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), though no reactor has yet to be deployed commercially.

“This will help bring online zero-emission nuclear energy to Europe faster, more cheaply, and more efficiently,” President Biden said in announcing the grant on June 26. The “groundbreaking American technology” also wants to create thousands of jobs in Romania and the US, he added.

The award is part of the US contribution to the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, an effort unveiled at the G7 summit as an answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has helped dozens of countries develop their infrastructures. The US-led endeavor aims to mobilize a total of $600 billion in government and private funding from G7 nations toward a “values-driven, high-impact, and transparent infrastructure partnership” with low- and middle-income countries. Clean energy and climate resilience make up one of the four investment priority areas. Other US investments announced include Department of Commerce and Export–Import Bank backing for a $2 billion solar energy project in Angola and a US Agency for International Development provision of $40 million to support Southeast Asia’s Smart Power Program, which aims to decarbonize and strengthen the region’s power system.

Full-scale mockup of a NuScale reactor.A full-scale mock-up of part of a NuScale reactor module. Credit: NuScale Power

SMR developers are hopeful that the lower capital costs, improved safety, and modular, upgradeable features that they project for their designs will attract utilities that are reluctant to invest in the large commercial nuclear reactors that are predominant across the world today. NuScale’s first commercial deployment is scheduled for 2029 at the Idaho National Laboratory. That six-module plan is to deliver power for Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, a consortium of electric utilities. The Department of Energy in 2020 approved a $1.3 billion multiyear, cost-shared award to UAMPS for development and construction of the plant. The original plan to build 12 modules was halved after several utilities backed out of the consortium.

A study published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 31 May claims that NuScale’s and others’ SMRs will produce nuclear waste that will present new challenges for storage management. The report, coauthored by former NRC chair Allison Macfarlane, calculates that per unit of energy, the mass of spent nuclear fuel that will be discharged from a NuScale SMR is 1.7 times as much as that from a current gigawatt-scale pressurized water reactor.

SMRs also will not reduce the generation of iodine-129, technetium-99, and selenium-129 fission products, which are important dose contributors for most repository designs, the authors find. And SMR-spent fuel will contain relatively high concentrations of such fissile nuclides as plutonium and uranium-233, which will require new approaches to prevent criticalities during storage and disposal, they say.

In a statement, NuScale said the PNAS paper uses outdated design information for the energy capacity of the NuScale reactor fuel and faulty assumptions for both the material used in the reactor’s neutron reflector and the rate of fuel burn-up. “NuScale’s design compares favorably with current large pressurized water reactors on spent fuel waste created per unit of energy,” the company said. “These inputs were available to the authors, and their omission undermines the credibility of the paper and its conclusions.”

The study authors responded that they had based their findings on the publicly available 160 MWe NRC-approved NuScale reactor design, from which the burn-up figure had been redacted. They said they believed that the larger, 250 MWe reactor design NuScale intends to submit for approval in December would feature less waste generated per unit of energy, but still more than a large light-water reactor. “In other words, smaller reactors generate more waste—exactly the point of our paper in PNAS,” they said.

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