Will the microgrid industry and the public accept small nuclear reactors?

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The federal Department of Energy (DOE) is studying small nuclear generators as a carbon-free, resilient and potentially affordable component of microgrids, but some microgrid industry members say it’s unlikely their nonmilitary customers will soon embrace the technology because of safety concerns.

small nuclear generator


The DOE recently released a report that looked at a number of scenarios for siting a small nuclear reactor at a military facility in Southern California and found that under certain circumstances — especially if there is a carbon tax — the nuclear generator, along with distributed energy resources (DER) is more cost-effective and cleaner than natural gas.

Small nuclear generators are modular units sized 100 kW to 20 MW that can operate 24/7 and produce no carbon, said the report, Small Reactors in Microgrids: Technoeconomic Analysis. Unlike natural gas and diesel generators, the small reactors can operate for five to 30 years without needing to be refueled. Another benefit is their ability to produce heat along with electricity, which boosts their economics and could be used to produce hydrogen, according to the report authors.

The small reactors are expected to be safer than larger nuclear power plants because of simpler designs, passive coolant circulation, containment, shutdown systems and underwater and underground configurations, said the report.

According to Rick Bolton, CEO at Compass Energy Platform, which develops and finances energy infrastructure, “It does seem that we will need to include nuclear as a generating option to meet load demands, reduce carbon and achieve climate goals.” The military is likely the best industry to start siting the units to provide 100% on-site generation, rather than worrying about the insecurity of the gas transmission system, Bolton said.

“But it is most unlikely that we will see a proliferation of small nuclear reactors fueling microgrids. Safety will inevitably be an issue, as will security, particularly in the crowded urban areas where microgrids are useful,” he said.

No one has solved the problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste, he added.

Mike Byrnes, senior vice president of facilities and building services at Veolia North America, agreed that siting microgrids with nuclear reactors would be challenging.

“I don’t have any argument with the technology or the economics. I’m sure as a society we could get there if we wanted to,” Byrnes said. He added that by definition microgrids are located close to the load. “Who’s going to want a nuclear reactor where they live?”

Researchers addressing this topic understand that there will and should be hesitancy on the part of the public, said Tim McJunkin, distinguished researcher at Idaho National Laboratory, which published the report. There’s a need to prove that small “advanced” reactors are safe and secure. That’s why the DOE is investing in research and development, he said.

Who will test them?

The technoeconomic study focused on a military base on the premise that the military might be willing to test the technology. After all, naval bases and their communities accept nuclear powered ships close by.

Remote communities dependent on diesel fuel, especially those with military bases, might also be candidates for microgrids that include DERs and compact, modular nuclear reactors, according to McJunkin.

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A separate report from Idaho National Laboratory pointed out that a number of factors need to be addressed when siting a nuclear power reactor. Cooling water must be available and environmental concerns must be addressed.

Designers should plan and design microgrids with small reactors with a goal of addressing sensitive safety issues and public concerns, said the report.

Idaho National Laboratory is building a 100-kW small nuclear reactor called “Marvel” at its Transient Reactor Test Facility. It’s expected to be operational in about three years.

Xendee models economics

As for the economics of small nuclear reactors, the technoeconomic analysis from Idaho National Laboratory modeled a number of scenarios using Xendee, a microgrid design platform.

The researchers used the Xendee platform to model the possible market penetration of small reactors and how they compete with or complement other DERs, said Michael Stadler, chief technology officer at Xendee.

Xendee modeled small reactors in combination with other DERs — photovoltaics (PV), storage and natural gas engines.

Under the first scenario, or base case, all energy was purchased from the utility. Other scenarios included PV, battery and natural gas engines, along with small reactors at different price assumptions.

“With carbon pricing the small reactors become attractive and save money against the base case,” said Stadler.

In the carbon pricing model, small reactors were attractive for base load operation, augmented by small gas generators for load following, batteries and some solar PV, he said.

Without carbon pricing, the Xendee model chose traditional DERs — PV, battery and gas engines. But these models didn’t assume economies of scale that are attained when the reactors are larger or when multiple reactors are included in a microgrid, said Stadler.

“When considering economies of scale, small reactors become attractive fast,” said Stadler.

The models did not include the long-term societal costs for storing burned fuel, he said.


Image courtesy of Idaho National Laboratory

Achieving economies of scale

Bikash Poudel, a postdoctoral research associate at Idaho National Laboratory, explained that the small reactors are cost competitive in larger microgrids that have a peak load of 14 MW or 15 MW.

That’s because of the economies of scale that can be realized by hosting larger reactors. Achieving economies of scale could include deploying a larger single-unit configuration because the manufacturing cost per MW lowers as the size of the reactor unit increases, Poudel said. The microgrid could also include multiple nuclear generators. Hosting multiple reactor units in the same plant setup reduces the total installation costs, Poudel said.

Coupling small nuclear generators and hydrogen

Poudel noted that small reactors produce heat that can be used for hydrogen production. While the lab’s studies have only looked at using small reactors to create electricity, Idaho National Laboratory also wants to investigate how producing the heat affects the economics of nuclear-driven microgrids.

Under the scenarios considered by the Idaho Lab researchers, reactors are sized between 0.1 MW and 20 MW and are manufactured in factory settings and transported to and assembled at the plant location, Poudel said.

With the US aiming to cut carbon emissions, now is the time to study the feasibility of using small reactors, said Idaho National Laboratory’s McJunkin. But, understanding that the public may object, the researchers plan to tread carefully.

“We look to be sober in our approach to reaching the climate, environmental and resilience needs of society without breaking the bank,” he said.

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  1. hemant vora says:

    Many consider Nuclear as clean energy. I don’t, because it is not available everywhere, and has two major concerns –
    safety and waste removal

  2. Great article. Agree that military sites (and possibly also airports) represent existing secure spaces that are great for early deployments. But it shouldn’t be that big of a hurdle, in a second wave, to provide adequate public safety and deterrence to bad actors for reactors co-located with “typical” microgrids. Handling the waste isn’t rocket science either…we just have to decide to do it.

  3. Jeffrey Creque says:

    Filthy and dangerous; there is nothing clean about nuclear power, from mining of feedstocks to disposition of waste materials; this is a technology that was obsolete even before it was deployed.

  4. Why would you even think about nuclear power when you have not even covered up to 50% of solar and biofuel resources, especially in Africa? Most voiceless people swallow these bad laws and the authority will impose a death sentence of nuclear energy on them.
    8th Human Right: Human Rights Are Protected by Law – “It is not wisdom but authority that makes the law” – Thomas Hobbes

  5. The pundit of 100kWh to 20MWh sounds good until one is actually trying to generate energy for areas of high energy use. Some parts of Alaska have high heating requirements, in the desert south and southwest there are high cooling demands in the spring and summer months. Someplace like southern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California, during those high energy demand times of the day and into the night one can power about 150 homes during a heat wave or ice storm with a 20MWh nuclear plant. Add the mandate of decarbonization of the grid by 2035 and mandate of a push for 50% BEV sales per year by 2030 and you have the perfect storm of needing to install (many) of these to shift over from fossil fuels and change the transportation industry to BEV. Across the U.S. at this small scale one would need something like (1,500) of these 20MWh reactors constructed to take up all the slack between intermittent solar PV and wind generation and around the clock demand for charging services 24/7 to keep the transportation sector moving. Sooner or later one will have to deal with the actinide waste stream of 1,500 small reactors instead of the 95 LWR sites online now. The reactor vessels themselves will be bombarded for decades of use and will still be radioactively (hot) perhaps for a few centuries to come. This is the legacy (we) want to leave to the next generation(s) to inherit the Earth?

  6. Kiki Tidwell says:

    Idaho National Lab is siting their experimental modular nuclear reactor over the Snake River Aquifer. I believe that this is an incredibly stupid thing to do, given that nuclear waste has already leaked into the aquifer which is the source of water for all Southern Idaho.
    Your article is absolutely right; no one wants to live next to a nuclear reactor. This location is 50 air miles from Sun Valley, Idaho. Many in Southern Idaho have died from cancer, probably caused by radiation clouds floating into Idaho from nuclear tests in Nevada when they were kids.
    Where does the waste go?
    Here is a piece I wrote some years back:
    Water Under The High Desert
    Underlying the desert of Southern Idaho lies the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, which is the size of Lake Erie, covering 10,000 square miles , This is an amazing resource for Idaho when you look at what other countries without water are having to spend to desalinate water for their people. A couple of years ago, through my investing work, I had the opportunity to hear a speaker from the Saudi AramCo fund share that a 600 cubic-meters-per-day desalination plant was currently being built in the Gulf, but that a 3000 megawatt power plant had to be built at the same time to provide the power for it. Based on the US Energy Information Administration, the average cost to build a natural gas power plant in the US in 2013 was $965 per kw – which would translate to at least $2.9 billion investment to build a 3000 MW power plant, besides the huge cost of the desalination plant. But this is what they have to do; water is a base critical need.
    Another speaker noted that only 3% of the earth’s water is fresh and 68.7% of that fresh water is actually frozen. The next speaker, who invests university endowments and family offices in $1 billion projects, noted that alfalfa farmers pay $25 per acre foot for water upstream on the Colorado River, while almond farmers downstream in central California have to pay $2000-$3000 per acre foot and are lucky these days to get any allocation in drought years.
    Idaho has a naturally occurring vast amount of fresh water that other countries and states are spending significant dollars to secure. And yet, although we have spent considerable energy in our state appropriating water rights between users, is anyone protecting the aquifer? For many years I have really appreciated Idaho’s Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s willingness to take a strong stand for Idaho’s aquifer; he has been the only one saying no to more waste while the US government put pressure on the state to bring in more nuclear waste to be stored above the aquifer at INL.
    “Lawrence Wasden didn’t draft the historic 1995 agreement between Idaho and the U.S. Department of Energy regarding radioactive waste at the Idaho National Laboratory, but he’s determined to protect it. It has resulted in Wasden coming under political pressure. That’s because he has refused to sign a waiver to bring more spent nuclear-fuel rods to the INL until the DOE makes good on its promise to begin processing 900,000 gallons of liquid sodium-bearing high-level waste stored at the site into a solid form. That liquid waste is currently housed in three large stainless steel tanks reinforced by concrete located above the Snake River Aquifer. It has been there for 60 years” .
    In the 1950’s, the federal government dumped nuclear waste from weapons production at INL in open pits. Since INL is located right on top of the aquifer, some of that waste has leached into the aquifer. We taxpayers have spent $9 billion to date to try to clean that up, Beatrice Brailsford from the Snake River Alliance tells me. She has written, “Hazardous and radioactive materials has escaped from every single project, and the leaks are, in fact, too numerous to count. Under Superfund, each of the nine major facilities was made a Waste Area Group, as was the Snake River Aquifer.”
    About ten days ago, Attorney General Wasden and Governor Brad Little were able to reach an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy for hopefully a path forward that protects the aquifer and gets the waste out, while working with the DOE to resolve prior breaches. I appreciate their work and hope that our federal government keeps to their promises this time. Idahoans must protect our naturally occurring Snake Plain Aquifer for the valuable asset it is.
    “Surface contamination has reached the aquifer from, for instance, reactors operating without containment. Some of the big ticket items remaining are drying the 900,000 gallons of sodium-bearing high-level liquid waste and then adding that to the rest of the high-level waste powder and turning it all into a solid. That will be very challenging. The plutonium burial grounds and the high-level waste areas will have to be capped. Except for the core areas where either nuclear activities will continue or substantial contamination will remain even after the Superfund clean, the hope is that INL, including groundwater, will be suitable for unrestricted use in 2095.”, Beatrice Brailsford