Innovating with proven reactor designs might accelerate capacity growth and ease the journey of more advanced nuclear plants

05 June 2023

You’ll perhaps have seen that Westinghouse recently submitted a regulatory engagement plan for its AP300 small modular reactor (SMR) to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The company’s intention is for the AP300 to be as far as possible identical to its larger brother, the AP1000. Understanding why Westinghouse is taking this approach reveals much about the challenges of building new nuclear generating capacity.

According to Westinghouse, the AP300 will use the AP1000’s, “Major equipment, structural components, passive safety, proven fuel, and I&C systems,” as well as, “A mature supply chain, constructability lessons learned, fast load-follow capabilities, proven O&M procedures and best practices from 18 reactor years of safe AP1000 operations.” 

From the perspective of Ultra Energy’s potential for growth, we were very happy to see this announcement, as several of our products are specified in the AP1000 design. But we really want to focus here on why Westinghouse is taking this approach.

Many recently formed nuclear companies have chosen to focus on generating new or more advanced technology to grow the value delivered by their designs. This suggests they believe enhancing factors such as output, safety or efficiency are required to be successful. With its AP300, Westinghouse has tacitly acknowledged that reducing the time and costs required to build a plant is currently the key challenge.

Re-using established technologies in a new reactor design

Some of the new types of nuclear power plant will eventually be built and deliver great benefits to their operators and end customers. But there are lots of very sound commercial reasons why innovating with established technologies makes sense:

Proven track record

Nuclear technology that has been used before and approved by regulators has a proven track-record of successful operation. Developers can have more confidence in its safety and reliability based on past performance.

Regulatory Approval

When developers choose technology that has already been approved, it is likely that the process of obtaining regulatory approval for a new reactor design will be tighter and more cost efficient.  

Time and cost certainty

Developing new nuclear technology involves significant research, development, and testing. By using technology that is already approved, developers can reduce uncertainties related to costs and schedules. They can rely on the existing knowledge base and infrastructure, helping to streamline construction and licensing processes.

Public acceptance

Nuclear power can be a contentious issue. Using established and approved technology can help alleviate public concerns about safety and environmental impacts.

Industry standards

The nuclear industry has established standards and best practices for the design, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants. Using technology that adheres to these standards ensures consistency and interoperability within the industry. It also facilitates knowledge sharing and collaboration among different stakeholders.

Getting into the habit of building new nuclear capacity

While we appreciate why Westinghouse has decided to innovate with technology that it has already designed for its AP300 SMR, technological advancements are crucial to long-term growth in the nuclear industry. Westinghouse and many other nuclear developers that we support are creating incredible new technology. A relatively conservative proposition such as the AP300 is a great way to see new nuclear plants built and start generating power. At the same time, they will get the nuclear industry used to building again, creating the experience, skills and mindset needed to welcome the next generation of reactor designs.

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