US energy secretary Steven Chu has given small modular reactors a boost. In an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, he described SMRs as “one of the most promising areas” for the future of nuclear power, but to truly promote nuclear energy the US needs long-term incentives, he said.

Chu says that president Obama’s 2011 budget request for $39 million to support a programme specifically for small modular reactors is the first time the Department of Energy has supported advanced reactor technologies for years. The funding will be used to help get SMR designs licensed for widespread commercial use, he says. The DOE is exploring a partnership with industry to obtain design certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for one or two SMR designs based on light-water reactor technology.

“If commercially successful, SMRs would significantly expand the options for nuclear power and its applications. Their small size makes them suitable to small electric grids so they are a good option for locations that cannot accommodate large-scale plants. The modular construction process would make them more affordable by reducing capital costs and construction times,” Chu says.

If SMRs can be developed in the USA and built by Americans, it would give the country a key competitive edge, he added.

Chu says the programme to support SMRs is an example of the efforts that is restarting the nuclear power industry in the USA. But to truly promote nuclear power and other forms of carbon-free electricity, the USA needs long-term incentives. “The single most effective step we could take is to put a price on carbon by passing comprehensive energy and climate legislation. Requiring a gradual reduction in carbon emissions will make clean energy profitable – and will fuel investment in nuclear power, ” Chu says.

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