B&W unveils its new modular reactor

11 June 2009

Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) has designed a scalable nuclear reactor, which it says could be a potential “game-changer” for the global clean energy market.

The firm says its new 125MW reactor, mPower, will be cheaper and more flexible than the larger designs currently on offer, making it a more prudent solution. The reactor will appeal to a broad spectrum of users, including regional and municipal utilities with limited electricity requirements, or developing countries which have transmission & distribution systems that cannot handle large reactors, it said.

B&W would not put a price tag on the reactor. However John Fees, CEO of McDermott International, B&W’s parent company said he believes it can be delivered for less than $5000/MW, the price typically quoted for the larger reactors on the market.

The nuclear steam supply system for the mPower reactor will be manufactured in existing B&W facilities in the USA and then rail-shipped to construction sites. Fees said this would lead to greater cost certainty, which is key to companies investing in nuclear. The fact that modules can be added sequentially will also improve project financing as utilities can start to generate revenue as soon as the first unit is completed, even if others are under construction.

Described by B&W as “true Generation III++ nuclear technology,” mPower is a passively safe advanced light water reactor (ALWR) with a below-ground containment structure. The design will include a fuel pond with sufficient capacity to store all the spent fuel arising over the plant’s planned 60-year lifetime.

The reactor will need to be refuelled once every five-years. It will use conventional 17x17 PWR fuel, although the assemblies will be slightly shorter than usual. A decision has not been made on the fuel manufacturer at this stage, although B&W has said its plans are to use the existing fuel supply chain.

Speaking at a press conference on 10 June, chief executive officer of B&W Brandon Bethards said that in April the company notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its intent to seek design certification for the new reactor. He said pre-licensing activities could being in July. The submission of a design certification application is scheduled for 2011. Potentially the first combined operating licence application (COLA) could be submitted to the NRC in 2012, construction could start as early as 2015 with the first reactor online by 2018. Although this is an ambitious timetable Bethards said the market community and the regulatory environment suggest that it is a realistic one.

B&W has formed a new business unit, B&W Modular Nuclear Energy, LLC, to lead the development, licensing and delivery of B&W mPower reactor projects. Christofer Mowry has been named president and chief executive officer of this new unit. "We have attracted substantial customer involvement as we progress through important product configuration decisions, " he said.

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will begin evaluating a potential lead site for the mPower reactor. Jack Bailey, vice president, nuclear generation development for TVA confirmed the site the utility is looking at is Clinch River. It is essentially a Greenfield site, he said, except there is a hole where the foundations for a nuclear reactor were dug before the project was abandoned. He said that TVA would be examining the site to see if the technology meets its environmental and other site requirements. The evaluation will be similar the one needed for an NRC early site permit application, he said. Adding, however, that TVA had not made a decision to go ahead with the plant.

US utility Exelon is also working with B&W and TVA in an advisory capacity to help with the design and licensing of the reactor. Craig Lambert, director of engineering new business generation for Exelon said it was too early for the firm to make a decision on the reactor, echoing TVA’s views

B&W says it has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with TVA and a consortium of regional municipal and cooperative utilities to explore the construction of a fleet of mPower reactors, but it wouldn’t be more specific about who was involved.

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