Small Modular Reactors: The Resilient Solution to Future Proofing the Electrical Grid

By: Dr. José Reyes, NuScale Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer

The widespread blackouts in Texas are just the latest demonstration that our critical infrastructure is vastly unprepared to handle today’s climate. Historic wildfires, extreme cold and heat, drought and flooding, hurricanes – if the past year has taught us anything, it’s that climate change is here and Americans in all corners of the country are caught in its bullseye. The current status quo is unsustainable, but we already have solutions at hand that will allow us to rebuild our energy infrastructure in a smart, resilient way that meets the demands of a more volatile climate.
 
The Biden administration took an important step in tackling the climate crisis by rejoining the Paris Agreement and recommitting to reducing America’s greenhouse gas emissions. To reach the targets laid out in the agreement, we must invest in clean energy solutions that shift our energy consumption away from greenhouse gas emitting power sources that exacerbate the effects of climate change towards clean sources of energy that will remain resilient in the face of our changing environment. When I co-founded NuScale Power in 2007, these were the precise challenges I looked to address with our ground-breaking small modular reactor (SMR), a small but mighty source of clean energy with potential to change the status quo.  
 
More than 200 coal power plants are set to retire in the U.S. over the next 20 years. Deploying similarly-sized SMR technology to supplant these coal plants can ensure we transition to clean energy with equitable treatment for people, the planet and prosperity. Specifically, SMR power plants like NuScale’s can create significant opportunity in coal plant communities by preserving jobs for workers with many of the skills needed to operate and maintain an SMR nuclear plant. SMRs are also well-suited to seamlessly fit into the existing transmission infrastructure and can provide critical support to maintain a reliable transmission system. 
 
Small modular reactors have incredible potential to generate clean baseload power and create jobs. Using NuScale as an example, about 150 of our plants can replace the 145 GWe of retiring coal through 2050. In this timeframe, that would mean 1.7 billion man-hours in construction employment, and preservation or creation of 40,000 power plant jobs and an additional 40,000 manufacturing jobs. That doesn’t take into account the added jobs and economic benefits afforded to the supply chain – the equipment, commodities, components and material needed to support these plants – yielding up to $2 billion in direct and indirect economic benefits over the four-year construction period of a plant. 
 
But if we are to learn another important lesson from Texas, we must also focus on the resiliency of new energy sources if we want to achieve long-term, effective solutions to protect the energy grid against the effects of climate change. 
 
As the first and only SMR to ever receive design approval from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NuScale’s power plant is on track to be America’s first SMR in operation. Each of our SMRs are capable of generating up to 77 MW of electricity and include a number of advanced safety and resiliency features, offering performance and capability not found in today’s operating commercial nuclear power plants. 

SMRs like ours have several specific features that are crucial in the event of grid loss like we’ve seen in Texas, including black-start capability, meaning that a plant can start up from cold conditions without a grid connection. Currently, when the transmission system is lost, all existing nuclear plants automatically shut down. An SMR can operate in ‘island mode’ and remain at the ready to immediately provide electricity to the grid once back online, making it a first responder to the restoration of the transmission system.

The resiliency, safety and local economic benefits of SMRs are a game changer to address the phasing out of fossil fueled power plants as the country rethinks and rebuilds our critical energy infrastructure. As the Biden Administration and local authorities look to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating jobs and hardening the grid against extreme weather, they would be remiss to overlook the potential – for the climate, jobs and revitalization of communities – of new nuclear energy technology. Leaders at all levels have a prime opportunity to seize the moment and ensure that the advanced nuclear industry becomes the backbone of the transition to clean energy.