An artist's conception of a NuScale nuclear power plant built by combining small modular reactors. Photo: Fluor Corporation

TOKYO – Japanese engineering company JGC has announced plans to invest in NuScale Power, the leading designer of small modular nuclear reactors in the United States. The announcement, along with other initiatives, signals Japan’s intention to modernize as well as reactivate its stalled nuclear power industry.

Small modular reactors, as defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency, are small-scale nuclear reactors with power generating capacity of up to 300 megawatts (MW) per module.

In comparison, the generating capacity of existing nuclear power plants in the US range from about 520MW to almost 3.94 gigawatts, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

SMRs, as the name implies, are smaller and therefore easier to site than the large nuclear power plants now in operation and can be scaled to purpose by varying the number of modules.

They are also cheaper and easier to build and operate. As the IAEA points out, they “are designed to be built in factories and shipped to utilities for installation as demand arises.”

They are also safer. In fact, they are designed to be operated without the trained personnel that monitor and control a large nuclear power plant. This is accomplished through passive “inherent” safety features such as cooling by means of natural water circulation and automatic valves. The risk of human error is thereby reduced.

According to the US Department of Energy:

The advanced SMRs currently under development in the United States represent a variety of sizes, technology options, capabilities, and deployment scenarios. These advanced reactors, envisioned to vary in size from tens of megawatts up to hundreds of megawatts, can be used for power generation, process heat, desalination or other industrial uses. SMR designs may employ light water as a coolant or other non-light water coolants such as a gas, liquid metal or molten salt.

SMRs are regarded as “a key part of the DOE’s plan to develop safe, clean and affordable nuclear power options.”

Schematic of a NuScale reactor module. Photo:Fluor

NuScale’s pressurized light water reactor technology generates 77MW of electricity per module. Its reference power plant houses 12 modules with a total output of 924MW – on par with existing nuclear power plants. The company also offers 4-module and 6-module versions generating 308MW and 462MW, respectively.

According to the company’s website, the NuScale design

safely shuts down and self-cools, indefinitely with no operator action, no AC or DC power and no additional water. This is a first for commercial nuclear power … Its small decay heat, inherent stability and reactor physics eliminate fuel damage in all postulated design basis events, including those with failure of all control rods to insert. For postulated beyond design basis events, radiation from fuel damage is well below regulatory limits.

This claim is supported by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which completed its review of NuScale’s design certification application in August 2020 and gave it final approval the following month. NuScale was the first SMR design company to receive NRC certification.

Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems plans to build the first commercial NuScale SMR power plant at the US Department of Energy Idaho National Laboratory. If all goes well, NuScale could receive its first order for SMR modules next year.

Established in 2007 through a technology transfer agreement between Oregon State University and scientists at the university who had been working on SMR technology, NuScale is now headquartered in Portland, Oregon. It became a subsidiary of Fluor Corporation in 2011. Fluor is a large American engineering and construction company with operations worldwide.

JGC will invest US$40 million in NuScale in order to provide engineering, procurement and construction services for SMR plants in cooperation with Fluor. JGC and Fluor have worked together on large-scale LNG and other projects for more than 10 years.  

When JGC’s investment was announced, Fluor executive chairman Alan Boeckmann said: “This new ownership stake and partnership with JGC is aligned with Fluor’s long-term strategy to bring aboard new strategic investors to NuScale as the US and international demand for new carbon-free base-load energy grows.”

It also fits with the Japanese government’s “Green Growth Strategy Through Achieving Carbon Neutrality in 2050.” Announced by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last October and elaborated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in December, it identifies SMRs for hydrogen production as a growth sector.

This is an international as well as a domestic initiative, as noted by JGC president and chief operating officer Tadashi Ishizuka: “Our investment in NuScale technology, with its enhanced safety features, will enable JGC to expand our EPC business and deliver a zero-carbon resource to the growing demand of the global energy market.”

The logo of Japanese plant construction company JGC at its headquarters in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo, on January 18, 2013. Photo: AFP / Toru Yamanaka

According to the IAEA, there are about 50 SMR projects underway worldwide and plants under construction in Argentina, Chile and Russia. China, India, South Korea, South Africa, Canada, France, Denmark, Sweden and the UK are also involved. In the UK, Rolls-Royce has been working with NuScale since 2013.

Japanese nuclear power plant builders Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are either developing or have attempted to develop SMRs. In March this year, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy and Estonian energy company Fermi Energia agreed to pursue “the potential deployment of a BWRX-300 small modular reactor (SMR) in Estonia.” BWRX-300 stands for 300MW 10th generation economic simplified boiling water reactor.

Keeping its options open, Fermi Energia also works with NuScale, Rolls-Royce and Moltex of the UK, and Terrestrial Energy of Canada. In March, it signed a memorandum of understanding with Rolls-Royce to study the potential for deployment of SMRs in Estonia.

Covering grid suitability, cooling, emergency planning, human resources, licensing feasibility, economics and the supply chain, the feasibility study should support the UK government’s attempt to turn SMRs into a viable business by the end of the decade.

If they work as intended, SMRs will, in NuScale’s words, be “as clean as wind and solar, and cleaner than any fossil fuel … ideally suited across diverse platforms including baseload electricity, load-following support for renewables, very high-reliability micro-grids and process heat or steam for district heating, desalination and other industrial uses.”

Whether or not SMRs can make up for the small scale and intermittent nature of renewables should become clear over the next several years. As things stand now, NuScale and UAMPS expect to submit a combined license application to the NRC in 2023. Assuming a positive review, construction of the plant in Idaho should begin in late 2025 or 2026.

Simultaneously with the ongoing debate over whether or not they are an appropriate response to global warming, SMRs are likely to become another focus of geopolitical competition.

Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.