Co-ops Explore 'Tremendous Potential' of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

Co-ops Explore 'Tremendous Potential' of Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

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[Music] HI, I'm Jenna Weatherred from Holy  Cross Energy in Glenwood Springs,   Colorado. Welcome to Along Those Lines. Support for this podcast comes from CHR Solutions.  CHR partners with electric cooperatives to plan,   design, build and operate their broadband  networks. CHR. Data driven, results oriented. Hi, everyone, this is a podcast  about electric cooperatives,   the work they do and the challenges  they face. I'm your host Scot Hoffman. Small modular reactors or SMRs  are in the news a lot lately. These Innovative nuclear powerhouses and  their smaller cousins, micro reactors, are   being touted as not only an important potential  source of carbon-free power but a promising   bridge to facilitate the nation's ongoing energy  transition away from fossil fuel based generation.

As their name suggests, they're smaller  than traditional nuclear power plants and   contain new technologies that make them scalable,   safer to operate and potentially  easier and cheaper to site and deploy. But are they capable of delivering on  their many promises from a technological   and financial standpoint and are  these devices mere years or more   like decades away from being added to the grid? To talk about these and other  facets of this important trend,   we're joined by Dan Walsh, NRECA's  senior power supply and generation   director and Travis Million, the CEO  of Copper Valley Electric Association,   which has been working hard to bring a  micro reactor to their Alaska territory. A quick disclaimer here. Dan Walsh is  an advisory board member for New Scale,   which is one of the SMR vendors  mentioned in this episode.

Dan, Travis, welcome to the podcast.  Thanks so much for being here. Hey, thanks for having me. Yeah, thanks for having me on. Dan, maybe you can start us off with sort of  the basic distinctions between what we would   think of as a traditional nuclear reactor  and these small modular or micro reactors.

Are they essentially the same technology,  just smaller, or do they operate differently? I appreciate that question, Scot, because small  modular reactors are a new modular design, and unfortunately, people  get confused thinking that   they are just a smaller version  of their traditional reactors. The industry plans to fabricate modular units,  so they'll be able to achieve manufacturing and   construction efficiencies, thus improving  the overall economics for the projects. So, the designs are quite different. Okay so we think of traditional reactors as being  these gigantic power plants, a gigawatt or more. What would be the typical output of  one of these small modular reactors? I guess to answer that question,  we first need to paint a landscape   for how we at NRECA typically  categorize the nuclear fleet.

We put nuclear into three  buckets labeled existing,   small modular reactors, and advanced reactors. Small modular reactors are typically sized  from 20 megawatts to 300 megawatts in capacity, while advanced or some micro  reactors are quite compact and   can generate between one megawatt and  20 megawatts of output or capacity. But there's a caveat because some of the advanced designs that we're  seeing may exceed 500 megawatts in capacity. The technology for the advanced reactors are  sometimes referred to as generation four reactors. So now we've talked about the  existing fleet as generation two, small modular reactors as generation three plus, and then advanced reactors as generation four.

So, it can be confusing for people. Okay, Travis, why don't you give us sort of a   description of Copper Valley's  territory and your membership because I sort of think that  that's one of the big reasons   why you're looking into small nukes at this point. Absolutely. So, Copper Valley Electric, we're a  remotely electrically isolated grid in Alaska. Our corporate headquarters is located  in a town called Glennallen, which is   about three and a half hours northeast  of Anchorage along the Glenn Highway, and we serve as service territory about  the size of the state of Maryland. The southern part of our service  territory covers the city of Valdez,   and we cover everything in between. So, pretty much a 160 miles north  and south by 100 miles east and west.

Great And as far as operations go, your  co-op is sort of a contiguous grid, right? You do transmission, you do generation. So, it's all tied to the same generation, correct? Correct. Yeah, we're a little unique for   most of your listeners but not  completely unique for Alaska. We are a generation, transmission  and distribution co-op. And talk a little bit about your  current mix of generation because   I think that's sort of a key  part of this conversation.

Absolutely. So, we are blessed in  our area to have hydro resources. We have two hydro generation  plants located in Valdez. One's a 12 megawatt dam storage project.

The other is a 6.5 megawatt run, a river. We get approximately 70 percent of our generation  dispatch from our hydro projects year round, but obviously we get most of that in the  summertime when it's raining and the sun's out. In the wintertime, obviously when things start  freezing up, we have to switch our generation mix. Our primary generation source in the  winter time is a co-generation plant.

It's located at a refinery in Valdez. A real neat mix on that to where we  take the fuel product from the refinery,   generate electricity with that product. It's called Light Straight Run or LSR. It's a naphtha-type product.  Run it through our turbine. Then the exhaust heat. we then sell back to the  

refinery for their refining process  so it makes it pretty economical, and then what we can't make up with  that,we have two diesel plants-- one located in Glennallen, one in Valdez-- and that is what makes up our winter mix. So, typically in the winter, we have to reduce our hydro generation down  to about 25, 30 percent of our total mix. So, very dependent on fossil fuels in the winter And I assume that has a pretty significant impact   on the rates that you end  up charging your members? It does. In the wintertime, we can nearly double  our rates compared to our summer time. We're blessed with the hydro in the summer and our rates can be about 18 cents per kilowatt  hour throughout our entire summer generation, and we saw last winter our rates  jump up to 42 cents a kilowatt hour for our residential rates  throughout our service territory. And to put it in context for your listeners,   Alaska's rates are quite a bit  higher than national average.

We're better part of double the national average  rates for many of our utilities in the state. So ,Dan, one of the key selling points that SMR   vendors and developers are touting is  that these are extremely safe systems. Is this true, and and if so,  what makes them more safe? It is true. The current reactor designs in  this SMR, small modular space, rely on passive systems, such as  natural circulation, convection,   gravity and self-pressurization, for  safe operations, controlled shutdowns,   and post-critical operation--cooling-- versus valves and pumps that are commonly  used in the generation two fleet. Small modular reactors offer significant  advantages over conventional style reactors due to the flexibility of their modular design and this built-in use of natural circulation  and other items I mentioned earlier, so, yes, they are safer. This particular technology has sort  of been bubbling up a lot lately.

I'm seeing a lot of articles about it, seeing a lot of marketing material, and seeing, you know, some government funding  that's going toward this particular technology. What exactly is it that's driving this  groundswell of interest in SMRs right now. Well, the obvious thing is decarbonization and the need for inertia and  carbon-free base load generation the need to tailor a reactor to appropriately   fit the load characterization of a  utility's needs is very important. Flexibility in the capabilities of small  modular reactors are going to offer advantages, such as incremental load capacity  and the ability to adapt. And so, the current nuclear fleet. the  current design or generation two, lacks that.

And we're looking for that  in small modular reactors. We're also very hopeful that small  modular reactors will allow continued   increase in renewables to come onto the grid to support our customers' needs. So, Travis, is this sort of what  you're looking at at Copper Valley? Walk us through why you've made  these early moves toward nuclear ... because I know that that's a conversation that   you've been having with your board  and your membership for a while. Yeah, it even goes back futher than  that. We've been looking for anything to  

help reduce our dependence on fossil  fuels especially in the wintertime. The volatile cost of diesel going up and down, the amount we have to use can change from year to  year based on how much hydrogeneration we have, so our board and our staff have been looking very   diligently to try to find ways to  levelize costs through the winter and hopefully reduce those costs. So we've looked at everything  from wind and solar and biomass,   geothermal, other potential hydro resources, and there really was nothing that  worked well for the time we needed. Obviously solar would work fantastic  in Alaska in the summertime, but we're already 100 hydro, so  that doesn't really work for us. So, that's where a couple years ago, we had a couple board members that had been  watching the newer technologies with nuclear. In the state of Alaska, there was a  project that was being looked at in Galena,  probably the better part of 20 years ago, using the Toshiba 4S unit and then that never really picked  up and never went anywhere.

And then nuclear kind of went  really quiet in the state. And so, a couple years ago,  I asked my board, I said,   do you want me to spend any time and effort  looking at this newer nuclear technology? Aand unanimously the board said  yes. let's at least dive into it, let's see what's out there,  see if that might be something that could  help solve our wintertime generation issues. That's great, and who are you working with,   and what specific technologies are you  looking at in this market or this sphere? Yeah, so, because of our size and  our energy needs for the wintertime, we're looking at the MMR technology.

Approximately 30 megawatts  thermal, 10 megawatts electric ... so a little bit smaller than the SMR technology. But there's quite a few players in that arena. We've talked with pretty much every manufacturer  that's out there that's in that size range, but we ended up landing with Ultra Safe Nuclear  Corporation which is based out of Seattle to get into a feasibility study to at least look and see, you know,   is this something that could work  out for us in our membership or not? And you mentioned that feasibility study.  Is that where you are in the process? Could you sort of catch us up to where  you are now from where you started? Yeah, so, right now we have  completed the feasibility study.

We have it in hand. We are still doing some economic analysis  in-house and running some of those numbers because you know early on with these, there's a lot of assumptions  that are being taken place. And obviously with all the potential grant funding that's coming out of the federal government,  even potential state funding, there's so many unknowns on what funding you  could secure in order to really figure out   what your cost per kilowatt hour  is going to be for your members. So, we started off pretty early. It was July of 2021, was the first time  where we met with USNC here in Alaska,  met with them a couple different times as they evaluated a number of different   utilities in the state of Alaska trying to see what would be the   best potential for a partnership to look to deploy one of these units.

Because of our size,  because we're remotely isolated, and because we're on the road system,  it seemed to make the most amount of sense for  them to start working with us on this process. And that's where the feasibility  study really kicked off. Through that we also went back to  Washington, D.C., to brief our delegation 

to let them know that if they heard  anything on the street about this,  they wouldn't be blindsided and surprised. And at the same time, while we were  briefing the governor last December,  he also let us know that he was  going to be issuing some legislation  to help try to carve out the permitting  process for smaller nuclear reactors. So we kind of worked with the governor's  office on that for a joint press release,  and at that point in time,  we decided there's no way to keep  it quiet or keep it under wraps.  Normally, you know, we wouldn't go public until  after we had the feasibility study results. But in this case, we got out early  and started educating our members  while we were just starting  into the feasibility study.

That's great. I want to pause here quickly  for a word from our sponsor,  but when we come back, we're  going to talk a little bit  about when we can expect to see  these SMRs becoming more mainstream. Support for Along Those Lines  comes from CHR Solutions. Building a brighter future with  broadband takes more than raw data.

You need a partner who can provide targeted data and results-oriented solutions. With years of experience in planning, designing,  building and operating broadband networks,  CHR can help you achieve across-the-board success with your broadband deployment and operation. CHR. Data driven, results oriented. Hi. I'm Blair Brown from Flint  Energies in Reynolds, Georgia. You're listening to Along Those Lines. Welcome back.

Dan, I think one of the things  that our listeners probably want   to know is do SMRs actually exist at the moment? Can I go out and look at one? Can I put my hands on one?  Or are they still too early  in the development process? There are two in existence now, but I think  you'd have to be very brave to go see them. One exists in Russia, and that's an  offshore floating operation that's   been in existence and operating for quite a while. The other land-based unit is currently  under construction and in China. So, you can't go out today necessarily due to  geopolitical concerns and put your hands on them. Having said that, we have New Scale, which  is a small modular reactive design they're   an equipment manufacturer and they have plans to  have their first unit first of six in operation   by 2029 with the remaining five units coming  commercial and in 2030. so I think that there's   opportunities in the future but again because of  some geopolitical challenges not today okay and   then do you sort of have a sense of when this will  become more of a mainstream technology when more   of these prototypes and test models are going  to be in the field where we can actually see   if they make a difference to The Way We Run The  Grid are we talking years are we talking decades   I think we're just talking years at this point  but let me caveat that by stating there are over   65 different designs of small modular reactors  that are currently being worked on in different   stages some are light water reactors similar to  The Generation two Fleet and they are in some   stage of being reviewed by the nuclear Regulatory  Commission cost is still one of the major issues   for the small modular reactors and the overall  nuclear industry to get through it's a challenge   because the overall cost both for Capital and  operational expanse remains undefined until units   have been completed and commercial for some period  of time when you're the technology developer for a   small modular reactor you have to fund the nuclear  Regulatory Commission to do that review that cost   can exceed 500 million dollars just to get your  technology approved and it takes a minimum of 48   months so that's going to add some challenges  to the industry and then lastly we know public   perception that's always going to be a challenge  but it's interesting we're seeing a swing and as   the world moves to decarbonization the appetite  for nuclear is come back and although there's   been some upsets and challenges in the industry  in the past we think with the new designs we can   overcome that what's interesting to watch too is  that two cooperatives fairly large gnts that's   Dairyland and Associated have recently executed  memorandums of understanding with new scale to   explore the technology and how it may fit in  their Cooperative so that's a very interesting   development and something we're watching Dan I'm  glad you mentioned that about public perception   because Travis I know you guys have done sort  of the road map for other co-ops on how to get   in front of your members and invite their comments  and satisfy their concerns talk a little bit about   what you all have done because I think it's great  yeah as I mentioned we went out public with the   governor's staff letting people know that we were  venturing into a feasibility study shortly after   that we started holding public meetings we met  with the Valdez city council to talk to them brief   them on what we were looking at doing and why we  were looking at nuclear as a potential option then   we met with the local Chamber of Commerce up in  the Copper River Basin then we open up just to   public meetings anybody who wanted to attend and  have discussions with us to do so and you know a   few things really came to light during that is  really there were three major issues that kept   coming up over and over and over again and quickly  thereafter we really tailored our presentation and   our talking points to hit those items on the front  end because that's where the concerns were and   you know it was surrounded about safety issues you  know that everybody thinks of Fukushima Three Mile   Island and trying to explain to them that that's  not this technology the environmental impact   issues with you know potential nuclear radiation  leaking into the environment waste disposal and   then just the technology and the size of the units  there was a lot of misconception on what people   were thinking that these were so we got out answer  the questions if we didn't have the answers to the   questions we let our members know we'll get those  and we work closely with ultra safe and others to   to get those questions answered and you know  we were transparent everything we had and all   the Q and A's that came up we built a q a list  it's all out on our website every presentation   we were doing is available out there right and  so would you say that your membership on the   whole is relatively supportive or are they still  fairly cautious about it you know early on I would   say it was probably a 50 50 mix there was a lot  lot of people truly that were on the fence that   they really didn't have a position on nuclear one  way or the other which you know you normally hear   the word nuclear you either hear the people that  are completely against it or the people that are   for it but there's really a big population of  people that are just kind of in the middle they   don't really have an opinion one way or the other  and originally when we first started kicking this   off you know we heard from a lot of the vocal  members that were anti and you know the typical   not in my backyard we do not want this there's  too many concerns and one of the last meetings we   held publicly before the feasibility study came  out we were having people arguing on where it   should be located they're saying no it cannot be  in the other District it has to be up here for a   variety of reasons whether it's potential economic  growth or whatnot that way it was funny to see the   switch after the education came out even at our  annual meeting we had a presentation regarding it   and once we started answering those questions  particularly on the size of the unit a lot of   people were thinking standard light water reactors  as the this footprint and when they saw the   footprint was the size of basically two football  fields that's really what changed their mind   so at this point you have the feasibility study in  hand you have a better sense of of the timetable   for when you might actually have a micro reactor  in the field we're hoping to have our internal   economic analysis done by the end of December and  we're planning to go out in February for another   round of public meetings with our membership to  share the results and even if we don't have all   the answers yet we're going to share with them  what we found out of the feasibility study USNC   has stated to us right now that they're still  looking for early deployment up in Canada at   the chalk River project that they're looking  to do in 2026 and said ours could be online   as early as 2027 if we move forward with it so  maybe a little aggressive I don't know I think   the regulatory permitting process is going to  be quite time consuming but that's what they're   saying at this point in time so Dan do you have  any advice for co-ops that see this as something   that will really help them sort of bridge that  gap between where we are now and this energy   transition that we're sort of in the middle of  what would you say to them as they're looking at   this technology this technology G has tremendous  potential and we need to allow the industry to   further develop to have all the costs defined  know what our operational costs will be what   the regulatory review process will take and then  understand citing lastly it's important that we   understand how we're going to handle waste because  there's been quite a bit of discussion recently on   do the small modular reactors create even more  waste than the existing generation 2 Fleet and   I think all those factors have to be understood  we need to have public perception that supports   nuclear as an opportunity and then we need  engagement from the cooperatives but until   those factors are figured out my suggestion is  wait and see where the industry goes continue   to work with nreca because we are watching the  technology and we continue to Monitor and report   on nuclear industry developments to our members  that's great and Travis I wonder as more of these   gnts in the the lower 40 38 start looking at  this technology and they're already several as   we mentioned from where you stand you're probably  farther down the road than most is there anything   that you can convey to those folks about the  conversation they should start having now in   advance of sort of seriously trying to bring this  technology on board I would say that the big thing   is reaching out to the manufacturers early try  to develop some sort of a partnership with them   one of the big learning curves that we had is and  that we discovered through the feasibility study   is especially with these smaller scale reactors  you've got to have something to utilize that heat   and sell the excess heat from our initial look  is just from an electrical energy standpoint this   just would not pencil out at all so we would have  to have some sort of a buyer for the heat which   we're blessed we've got you know oil refineries  we've got you know potential fish processors and   things like that we could utilize but that's a big  driver for us is that you have to have some way to   sell that heat in order to make these earlier ones  economical that's great great it's a fascinating   time it's a fascinating technology and I really  love Travis that it's a co-op that's sort of at   the Forefront of this so so Dan Travis thanks so  much for coming on and helping us understand the   technology better and sort of what the potential  Way Forward is you're welcome absolutely thank you   Scott and thanks to you our listeners and to our  sponsors CHR solutions for more on this and other   podcasts visit us at electric dot Co-op until  next time for along those lines I'm Scott Hoffman   I'm Chris Jones from Middle Tennessee Electric  in Murfreesboro Tennessee thanks for listening   to along those lines subscribe and  rate US on your favorite podcast app

2022-12-16 10:41

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