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Uncle Sam greenlights first commercial nuclear small modular reactor design

NuScale plants could begin construction as soon as February 21, when new rule goes into effect

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has finalized rules allowing construction of nuclear small modular reactors (SMRs) – the first time a design has been certified for commercialization.

The reactor design certified by the NRC comes from NuScale, which produces modular light-water reactors capable of producing 50MW of power alone, and which can be chained together in groups of four, six or 12.

We previously reported on approval of NuScale's VOYGR SMR by the NRC in August of last year, but at that time it was unclear when the final rule would appear. The NRC only said last year that it had directed staff to get a rule written.

According to the NRC's statements in August, NuScale's SMRs were the seventh certified for use in the US, but this final ruling means they're the first design to get approval for construction and operation by utilities. The new rule will go into effect on February 21, after which point commercial applications for construction and operation of NuScale SMRs can begin. 

Diane Hughes, Nuscale's VP of marketing and communications, told us the approval makes the VOYGR SMR "a near-term deployable solution for customers."

The first VOYGR facility is set to open at the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory in 2029 and will consist of six modules. As part of the plant, dubbed the Carbon Free Power Project, will utilize VOYGR SMRs uprated to produce 77MW instead of the current 50. 

Approval for the uprated design is undergoing the same approval process as the certified design, Hughes said. 

A better, smaller, safer reactor

SMRs have been a hot topic of conversation for some time, and the designs vary greatly. Some opt for molten salt instead of water, but that's not the case with NuScale's VOYGR reactors – they're all water-cooled, but are still safer, according to the NRC's rule.

Per the rule, NuScale's design "utilizes several first-of-a-kind approaches for accomplishing key safety functions, resulting in no need for [emergency diesel generators], no need for pumps to inject water into the core for post-accident coolant injection, and reduced need for control room staffing."

Despite those improvements, a study from last year found that the design of SMRs meant they would necessarily produce more nuclear waste – up to 35 times as much – and the waste produced would be more volatile, making handling it a much greater risk.

Hughes disagreed with the paper's conclusions when we spoke to her last year, as did the CEO of Canadian SMR maker Terrestrial Energy. 

Regardless, nuclear energy may be one of Earth's only hopes for reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) determined last year. The IEA sees nuclear as a stop-gap replacement for fossil fuels while the transition to renewables continue, it said.

SMRs may also be necessary to fuel sustainable datacenter growth, another study found recently. With computing volume and demands continuing to consume more energy, datacenters will keep eating up fossil fuels while waiting for renewable projects that are years away while that SMR will be ready next month. ®

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