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NuScale Power, Tigard's nuclear energy company, prepares for 2020

Tigard company works to make small nuclear reactors a reality across the planet

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Tigards NuScale Power Inc is working to submit an application the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to begin construction on several small nuclera reactors across the country. The company says its reactors are cheaper, safer and easier to move than traditional reactorsTigard is known for many things. Traffic, Washington Square mall, its annual Festival of Balloons, but chances are that few people have ever associated the city with the future of nuclear power.

One local company, however, is hoping to change that, with plans to build small nuclear reactors across the globe over the next several years.

You likely have driven right by NuScale Power Inc. and didn’t even realize it was there.

The building is non-descript, without even a sign in front proclaiming what’s inside.

The company moved its headquarters to Tigard from Corvallis in the mid-2000s, drawn to Tigard because of its quick access to Portland and international travel.

“Corvallis is not an easy place to get to,” said Mike McGough, NuScale’s chief communications officer.

McGough has worked in the commercial nuclear industry for decades. He came to NuScale three years ago and said that the technology there is one of a kind.

“This plant is remarkable,”he said.

The idea at NuScale is to create smaller, safer nuclear reactors that can shut themselves down in emergencies.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan suffered major damage after an earthquake and tsunami struck the area in 2011, resulting in a nuclear meltdown at three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors.

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - NuScales reactors are small, and use natural circulation to move water through the reactor. Several reactors can be built into one plantThat’s what NuScale wants to avoid, McGough said.

Nuclear science is nothing if not complicated, but McGough said NuScale’s beauty is in its simplicity.

“The single most important thing is that the plant is able to withstand a Fukishima-like event,” he said. “Most power plants operating today, if faced with no power to run the pumps and levers and stuff like that, have only 24 to 72 hours before you have to take some sort of action to keep the core cool, before you have the fuel-melt situation that we saw at Fukishima. At the NuScale plant, it shuts itself down and cools itself off. Anyone, even you, could be a control room operator and it would be just fine.”

How it works

There are 99 nuclear power plants currently operating in the U.S. They are large, complicated and expensive, McGough said.

“There has got to be an easier way to do this, with a lot less equipment,” he said.

Unlike large-scale nuclear reactors, McGough said that NuScale’s reactors could easily fit on the back of a truck.

In fact, he said, that’s the idea.

Known as small modular reactors, the idea is to have several small reactors generating electricity in one plant, McGough said.

“Each module is basically a small version of a big nuclear power plant,” he said.

NuScale’s modular reactors measure 76 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter, a far cry from the 400-foot-tall cooling towers that have become synonymous with nuclear power.

“It’s a very different approach to nuclear energy,” McGough said.

The modules produce about 45 to 50 megawatts of electricity each — enough electricity to power the city of Tualatin.

Several modules can fit into the space of a traditional nuclear plant, and the modules can be built in a factory and trucked to their eventual sites which reduces the costs, McGough said.

NuScale has designed its modules to be installed in underground pools containing 8 million gallons of water that hold up to 12 of the small reactors.

Photo Credit: SUBMITTED PHOTO - NuScale Power has operated an electrically-fed small nuclear reactor at Oregon State University and this year built another test facility in Italy.

First plant could be operational by 2023

The company has made some major strides in the past few years. In 2013, it received a $217 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to design and license a nuclear power plant.

The company is spending about $12 million a month to finish up its application to the NRC and has filed more than 180 patents related to the technology, McGough said.

“We’re working quickly to submit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to finalize the design,” he said.

The company built a full-size steam generator test facility in Piacenza, Italy, earlier this year, and operates a 1/3-scale test facility at Oregon State University that runs on electricity.

Earlier this year, the company announced it would open an office in Charlotte, N.C., hiring an additional 70 people to its staff of more than 200.

It’s been a busy year for the company, but there’s plenty more work yet to do.

After it submits its application to the NRC, it will be another three to four years before those designs can be approved.

“Our first customer should be able to begin constructing their first plant sometime in 2020,” McGough said.

That customer is the Utah Area Municipal Power System, which plans to build its plant in Idaho. That plant could be operational as early as 2023, McGough said.

The company hasn’t been without criticism, though. In 2013, a Washington, D.C., think-tank challenged the company’s cost and safety claims.

Small modular reactors “are a poor bet to solve nuclear power’s problems, and we see many troubling ways in which SMRs might actually make the nuclear power industry’s current woes even worse,” said Arjun Makhijani, the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, an anti-nuclear energy think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group, called the technology 'imaginary' in 2013, saying that the technology would need massive government subsidies in order to be competitive in the marketplace.

McGough said the project is far from imaginary.

“This isn’t a paper reactor,” he said. “We don’t just have drawings about it. We have had an operational, electrically heated unit running since 2003. We know all this stuff works. This technology will absolutely change the world. It will change the way we deliver electricity and it will change the way that the world views nuclear electricity.”

NuScale plans to submit its 12,000-page application to the U.S. Nuclear Regularity Commission late next year.

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