Can Small Modular Nuclear Reactors Find Their Sea Legs?

Nuclear power must be part of a strategy to reduce carbon emissions, but legislation needs to move faster on land and on sea.

John Licata
John Licata
Apr 27, 2014 at 9:55AM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

Nuclear power plants do bring jobs to rural areas, and in some cases they actually boost local housing prices since these plants create jobs. However, whether or not you believe nuclear power does or does not emit harmful radiation, many people would likely opt to not live right next door to a nuclear power plant facility if they had the choice. Today, they may not even need to consider such a move thanks to a floating plant concept coming out of MIT, which largely builds on the success of the U.S. Army of Corp Engineers' MH-1A floating nuclear reactor, installed on the Sturgis, a vessel that provided power to military and civilians around the Panama Canal. The Sturgis was decommissioned, but only because there was ample power generation on land. So the viability of a floating nuclear plant does make a lot of sense. 

Presently the only floating nuclear plant is being constructed in Russia (expected to be in service in two years). However, that plant is slated to be moored on a barge in a harbor. That differs from MIT's idea to put a 200 MWe reactor on a floating platform roughly six miles out to sea. 

The problem with the floating reactor idea or land-based SMR version is most investors are hard-pressed to fork over money needed for a nuclear build-out that could cost billions of dollars and take over a decade to complete. That very problem is today plaguing the land-based mPower SMR program of The Babcock & Wilcox Co. (NYSE:BWXT). Also, although the reactors would have a constant cooling source in the ocean water, I'd like to see studies that show that sea life is not disrupted. Then there is always the issue with security and power lines to the mainland which needs to be addressed.

At a time when reducing global warming is becoming a hotly debated topic by the IPCC, these SMRs (land or sea based) can help reduce our carbon footprint if legislation would allow them to proceed. Instead, the government is taking perfectly good cathedral-sized nuclear power plants offline, something they will likely come to regret in coming years from an economic and environmental perspective. Just ask the Germans. 

SMRs can produce dependable baseload power that is more affordable for isolated communities, and they can be used in remote areas by energy and metals production companies while traditional reactors cannot. So the notion of plopping SMRs several miles offshore so they can withstand tsunami swells is really interesting. If the concept can actually gain momentum that would help Babcock, Westinghouse, and NuScale Power. I would also speculate that technology currently being used in the oil and gas drilling sector, possibly even from the robotics industry, could be integrated into offshore light water nuclear designs for mooring, maintenance, and routine operational purposes. 

In today's modern world, we have a much greater dependence on consumer electronics, we are swapping our dependence of foreign oil with a growing reliance for domestic natural gas, and we face increasing pressures to combat climate change here at home as well as meet our own 2020 carbon goals. With that said, we need to think longer term and create domestic clean energy industries that can foster new jobs, help keep the power on even when blackouts occur and produce much less carbon at both the private and public sector levels. Therefore to me,  advancing the SMR industry on land or by sea is a nice way to fight our archaic energy paradigm and move our energy supply into a modern era. Yet without the government's complete commitment to support nuclear power via legislation and a much needed expedited certification process, the idea of a floating SMR plant will be another example of wasted energy innovation that could simply get buried at sea.