The US Department of Energy (DOE) will support the construction of three small nuclear reactors at its Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The reactors are designed to generate heat and electricity for use at remote facilities such as mines, oil fields or isolated communities. The three companies involved are Gen4 Energy (formerly Hyperion), Holtec International and NuScale Power.

The Savannah River Site is a commercial spin-out of the Savannah River National Laboratory that aims to provide the location and nuclear expertise required by firms that are developing nuclear technologies including small modular reactors (SMRs). Such reactors could be built in a factory and shipped to the desired location. Once the fuel is spent, the reactor could be replaced with a new module and the old one could be shipped back to the factory for reprocessing.

Based in Colorado, Gen4 Energy is working on an SMR that is not much larger than a hot tub and that could supply thermal energy at a rate of about 70 MW. That could be converted into about 27 MW of electricity, which would be enough to supply about 20,000 US households. Holtec, based in New Jersey, plans to build a larger modular reactor that can generate 160 MW – which is about 20% of the capacity of a modern large-scale reactor. Meanwhile in Oregon, NuScale has plans for modules that can each generate 45 MW of electricity. The firm expects that up to 12 modules could be co-located to create a 540 MW power plant.

Secure site

Forrest Rudin of Gen4 Energy told physicsworld.com that the arrangement with the Savannah River Site is very important for a small company planning to build a reactor. The agreement provides access to a secure site that has already had the necessary environmental assessment work done – something that would be far too expensive for a small firm to acquire on its own. In exchange for rent and fees, the three firms will also gain access to highly-skilled nuclear scientists and research-and-development facilities on site. "We have a unique combination of nuclear knowledge, laboratory expertise, infrastructure, location and much more to make the Savannah River Site a natural fit for advancing technology for small modular reactors," says Dave Moody of the Savannah River Site.

Rudin adds that Gen4 will collaborate with the Savannah River Site in finalizing the reactor design to ensure that it can be licensed for operation. He believes that the reactor will be switched on sometime after 2020. According to Rudin, the agreement gives an important boost to the status of the firm's technology. "This means that the DOE thinks we have a workable technology," he says, adding that "the project is now real to the outside world."

The Holtec reactor is expected to supply power to the entire Savannah River Site as well as some other US government facilities in the region.