Sep

17

 There is good news in the nuclear patch. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a new nuclear power plant design. It is GE-Hitachi's Economic Simplified Boiling-Water Reactor (ESBWR). Barring a few procedural hoops, GE-Hitachi's design is officially certified.

It's a big deal.

GE-Hitiachi can now sell their reactor to any qualified buyer in the US. Once certified, the design can be used to make unlimited number of reactors without additional regulatory review.

Internationally, NRC's certification is the golden seal of approval. Sovereign buyers know the certification means the design and equipment is safe and reliable.

For all practical purposes, there are only two reactors that have earned NRC's design certification. The other is Westinghouse's AP1000.

Today, utilities can go to the reactor store and buy an off the shelf reactor. They now have a choice between a boiling water reactor and a pressurized water reactor. No matter which they chose, it will seem expensive.

A new ESBWR or AP1000 will cost owners approximately $7.5 billion per copy (this is opinion, not fact; it varies by location). This hefty price tag limits the number of potential buyers.

New regulatory framework.

An easy way to understand NRC's certification process is to consider commercial airplanes. When Boeing or other manufacturers design a new airplane, they must submit their design to the FAA for their analysis and approval. Only after the FAA approves the design can Boeing build planes for unlimited number of airlines.

A decade ago, the NRC changed their regulatory process to mirror the process used by the FAA. Now the industry needs only to seek approval once so they can build many.

Builders must also seek site approval. That process has also been modified. After site approval, a utility can build any reactor they choose as long as it has been certified.

The site process also mirrors FAA's process. For example, FAA must also approve new airports. After approval, any certified plane may use the airport.

Reactor market.

Other than TVA restart project, only two utilities are building new reactors. Four AP1000s are under construction in Georgia and South Carolina. More have been announced. Many more have been shelved.

The current market is not the US or EU - at least not yet. The current market is China, India and oil producing regions. For example, Saudi Arabia is going "all in" on civilian nuclear to displace domestic oil consumption.

Internationally, nuclear power is far cheaper than most alternatives. When a nation is forced to import hydrocarbons, most pay a price that is indexed to oil. When those hydrocarbons (oil, natural gas, coal) are used as fuel for a power plant, the cost of electricity becomes prohibitive.

In Saudi Arabia's case, nuclear can easily pay for itself in five years (plus or minus). If oil prices increases, the payback is even faster.

Here is a bonus. No western nation will criticize another country if they choose to build a nuclear plant using NRC-certified technology. Even Iran could build an ESBWR or an AP1000 without much objection.

Good news today.

There are many winners today. It is hard to find a loser. The regulator delivered as promised. The market has a new choice. It is easier for utilities and nations to buy new nuclear technology.

To add frosting to the cake, ESBWR and AP1000 technologies are neat. Both are next generation designs, which take advantage of passive technologies. There are fewer moving parts. The plants are safer, more reliable and economic. Every backyard should have one.


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