BY GEORGE CHANDLER
I have been concerned from the beginning about the suitability of this project for Los Alamos. Four years after I attended a briefing on this project with Chris at a UAMPS meeting in Salt Lake City, serious questions remain in my mind. Some of the answers I have managed to extract from Nuscale and the NRC records are disturbing, and quite frankly it now appears that the project is unraveling because some important elements have simply not come to fruition, and others are simply untested.
Los Alamos needs new non-carbon reliable power sources. Although I believe that the Nuscale/Fluor Small Modular Reactor will become an important carbon-free energy resource over time, the project is still in the experimental stage and it is not the solution to our problem.
The Fluor/Nuscale scheme to finance the development of this reactor by enlisting many small municipal utilities to subscribe to the power is only about 30% subscribed, and two municipalities recently dropped out while one new one opted in.
The schedule for the project has slid year for year in the last four years, and the project has a number of unresolved problems that promise to cause additional slips in the schedule.
In answer to a question I posed to Nuscale at the town hall we have learned that the plan to save costs by fabricating the modules at a remote factory and shipping them to the Idaho site has been abandoned. The artful response to my question said that Nuscale engaged with approximately 40 … pressure vessel fabricators worldwide and … determined that Nuscale will use existing factories … in lieu of building its own factory.
The major module subcomponents will be manufactured at multiple manufacturer locations and shipped to a single location for assembly prior to installing into the facility.” This signifies the failure of one of the major cost-saving features of the Nuscale project, which was to forestall this exact scenario.
In response to another question at the same forum we have confirmation that no prototype of the proposed first-of-a-kind reactor has been built and tested. The so-called 1/3 scale prototype was heated with electric rods. The design of the fundamental technology of a nuclear reactor, the nuclear fuel, is still in flux.
Nuscale/Fluor have announced recently that they are increasing the enrichment of the fuel to obtain a 20% increase in power output.
Nuscale/Fluor have also recently announced that they are exploring metal fuel technology from Lightbridge which could give another 20% increment in power output.
NRC documents indicate that Nuscale/Fluor have adopted a new Zirconium alloy (trademarked M5) for the fuel rod cladding, which could have consequences for some of the critical heat flux and thermal -hydraulic characteristics of the fuel rod assemblies. The first time these and many other design innovations will be tested together will be in the first module at the 12 module reactor site in Idaho. That will be the prototype.
The sad fact is, this is an experiment, it is not a tried and true design that is ready for production. Los Alamos County is not a laboratory or a backer of innovative technologies. This experiment is nothing like the bundle of truly tried and true power projects that Los Alamos put together in the 80’s. Los Alamos is in need of a reliable non-carbon power source. This experiment will not deliver usable power for decades and Los Alamos should get out of it now.