An Oregon-based company with plans to make small power-generating nuclear reactors announced this week that it will go public through a combination with a “blank check” company.
NuScale Power of Portland plans to combine with Spring Valley, a publicly traded special purpose acquisition company (a “SPAC,” which has been a popular way over the last year or so to quickly accelerate the process of taking private companies public).
NuScale is one of a number of companies seeking to provide the technology for small modular reactors (SMRs). NuScale’s SMR design has received approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but no plant using the design has actually been built yet.
A Critical Component
“Nuclear power is an important source of low-carbon electricity and heat that can contribute to attaining carbon neutrality and hence help to mitigate climate change,” said UN European Economic head Olga Algayerova.
Some believe nuclear power will be a critical component to fighting climate change, as fossil fuel electric power plants contributed about a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the EPA.
NuStar and others believe that SMRs will be an important part of the contributions that can come from nuclear power.
“NuScale is building the next generation of nuclear power technology that is safer, more versatile and more cost-efficient than ever before,” said NuScale President & CEO John Hopkin in a press release. “The scale of our ambition is only matched by the world’s enormous decarbonization needs, and now is the right time to accelerate and expand our efforts to bring our trailblazing SMR technology to more customers around the world. Spring Valley will be a highly complementary strategic partner for NuScale as we enter this next phase of growth, with leadership that brings deep expertise in sustainable energy and a strong operating and investment record in the energy sector, including in nuclear power.”
Others agree. The U.S. Department of Energy claims, “small modular reactors offer a lower initial capital investment, greater scalability, and siting flexibility for locations unable to accommodate more traditional larger reactors. They also have the potential for enhanced safety and security compared to earlier designs. Deployment of advanced SMRs can help drive economic growth.”
SMRs carry a much smaller footprint than traditional reactors (and can even be mounted on barges) and may be built more cheaply and quickly, in part because a substantial amount of the construction can be done offsite in factories.
Joanne Liou of the International Atomic Energy Agency notes that “in comparison to existing reactors, proposed SMR designs are generally simpler, and the safety concept for SMRs often relies more on passive systems and inherent safety characteristics of the reactor, such as low power and operating pressure. This means that in such cases no human intervention or external power or force is required to shut down systems, because passive systems rely on physical phenomena, such as natural circulation, convection, gravity and self-pressurization.”
Small Isn’t Always Beautiful
Nevertheless, the disasters at Chernobyl, Fukushima and near disaster at Three Mile Island stand as warnings.
The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report in 2013 called “Small Isn’t Always Beautiful” that questioned some of the claimed safety attributes of SMRs. The group continues to raise concerns. Its director of nuclear power safety noted in a Scientific American article that there are safety gaps in the NuScale design that may be used as the blueprint for many reactors.
Shanlai Lu, a scientist at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote a report in 2020 that detailed a concern about a potential issue in the NuScale design. Because of this issue, Lu wrote, “it is [the] author’s view that the reactor could reach fuel failure and prompt criticality condition for a wide range of initial conditions.”
Others have raised concerns about the cost of SMRs, particularly in comparison with other sustainable energy sources.
According to the BBC, NuScale is offering power at 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour as an incentive for an initial project. The price of solar and wind energy, though, have dropped dramatically with onshore wind power costing less than 4 cents per kilowatt hour and solar costing less than 6 cents per kilowatt hour, according to a 2020 report.
“Renewable power generation costs have fallen sharply over the past decade, driven by steadily improving technologies, economies of scale, competitive supply chains and improving developer experience. Costs for electricity from utility-scale solar photovoltaics (PV) fell 85% between 2010 and 2020,” according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
For a deeper dive: First U.S. Small Nuclear Reactor Design Is Approved, Benefits of Small Modular Reactors, What are Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)?, The Countries Building Miniature Nuclear Reactors, Small Isn’t Always Beautiful, Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2020.