Nestled in the woods off U.S. 460 in Bedford County, about 20 engineers are working to develop the next big thing in nuclear power.
That big thing, though, actually may be small.
The Babcock & Wilcox staff at the Center for Advanced Engineering and Research are part of a much larger team — now 200 strong in Lynchburg — researching, building and testing models and components for the mPower reactor.
mPower, which the company hopes to seek licensing approval for from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next year, is much smaller than a traditional nuclear reactor and produces only 180 megawatts rather than thousands.
By going smaller, Jeff Halfinger, vice president of technology development, said B&W hopes to gain value from reconfigured, more efficient systems and electricity production that’s more attractive to customers looking to diversify and replace coal plants.
B&W was one of the first to pursue the idea, Halfinger said, starting in 2007 when the company saw small reactors as a new niche to fill in the commercial market. Since then, he said, while B&W has built and expanded facilities throughout the country and in the Lynchburg area to develop the technology, increased government interest and available Department of Energy funding have sparked greater competition in the small reactor world.
“It’s been gaining a lot of momentum in the industry,” Halfinger said on Friday during a tour of the company’s mPower facilities.
B&W executives say they have an advantage in development others don’t: the testing facility at the CAER in Bedford that opened in September 2011.
Components of small modular reactors are being tested and developed in facilities throughout the country, said Doug Lee, who runs the B&W’s Bedford County center.
But there’s nothing like the CAER facility, Lee said, which he called “world class.”
“We’re doing a lot of testing [there], we’re learning a lot about the plant, its personality,” Lee said.
The 110-foot tower at the center is a “squished” but scale model of what a working mPower reactor will look like, Lee said, though it towers above the ground rather than being buried beneath.
Other than that, he said, everything in the tower “closely mimics” the real operating systems of the mPower design, just with electrical heating to produce steam rather than actual nuclear fission.
“The purpose of this facility is to literally build a prototype … that would allow us to understand how the systems and the mPower really function,” Lee said.
In Lynchburg, B&W has renovated two facilities on Ramsey Place in Lynchpin Industrial Park: one includes a full-scale control room simulator and one where fuel technology is tested and developed using metal models in place of uranium.
Armed with data from these facilities and others like them, the company will seek NRC licensing for its design next fall, Halfinger said. Meanwhile, an early, tentative agreement is in place for the Tennessee Valley Authority to purchase the first working mPower reactor.
If everything goes according to plan, the reactor will be operating in Tennessee in 2022, Halfinger said.
Although small modular reactors are gaining popularity, some aren’t sold on their value for the energy industry. Thursday, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research released a report examining modular reactors’ ability to overcome the challenges of large reactors.
“The shift to small modular reactors is unlikely to breathe new life into an increasingly moribund U.S. nuclear industry,” Aurjun Makhijani, president of the institute and author of the report, said during a conference call Thursday.
Makhijani said too much of the discussion about modular reactors has focused on companies’ “boosterism,” without independent scientific and economic analysis.
Based on his research, Makhijani said, the cost savings companies expect to gain from producing small modular reactors only can be achieved through mass manufacturing. It’s unlikely enough orders will be made to sustain mass production, he said, unless there are “tens of billions of dollars” of government subsidies.
But Aimee Mills, spokeswoman for the mPower business unit, said the IEER report did not take into account the vast infrastructure available to a massive, international company like B&W, which will bring down production costs.
Furthermore, Halfinger said, by the time mPower is available commercially, the market likely will have changed substantially. Higher natural gas costs, possible government taxes on coal and carbon and strong international demand may make nuclear power the best option down the road, he said.
Investing in the program is a risk, Haflinger said, but it’s one B&W expects to pay off.
“The company’s betting a lot on it,” he said.
Contact Eleanor Kennedy at (434) 385-5524 or email@example.com.