This comes after two cities pulled out of NuScale's pilot program, causing a brief public wobble.
Subsidizing emerging technology is a very common way to encourage investment.
Small modular reactor startup NuScale Power has a new, unlikely ally after a tough couple of weeks in the press: President Donald Trump's Department of Energy.
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After the small-scale western utility Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems had several small cities pull out of its planned pilot program with NuScale, the entire utility group started to grumble about the future. But on October 16, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) approved a $1.4 billion grant to help offset the costs of test driving the new technology.
“The award, to be spread out over 10 years, is still subject to appropriations by Congress,” the Washington Examiner reports. “That could be manageable given that bipartisan majorities have supported NuScale over the years for its potential to prove the viability of small reactors, an emissions-free technology of a type that has never been deployed and expected to be safer and cheaper than traditional large nuclear projects that have struggled economically.”
To call nuclear energy “emissions-free” is a gentle kind of misleading, but it’s true that NuScale has led public imagination about the idea of small modular reactors. And with a design that’s essentially a “new and improved” version of the light water reactors that power every American nuclear power plant today, NuScale has had less regulatory red tape between its dreams and a soon-to-be-realized reality in its pilot projects in the western U.S.
As a refresher, in the NuScale reactor, a core is kept cool by circulating normal fresh water, as happens in today’s operating nuclear plants on a much, much larger scale. Inside huge nuclear towers, most of the space is dedicated to cooling. The NuScale reactor, however, uses gravity and buoyancy to naturally circulate the cooling water. And the size difference is staggering: “About the size of two school buses stacked end to end, you could fit around 100 of them in the containment chamber of a large conventional reactor,” WIRED reports.
The DoE invests a great deal in a huge variety of energy technology and research, and while NuScale seems like a darling in a way that has even drawn some derision, it’s far from the only near-future option for nuclear, let alone renewable energy. And it’s common for governments to heavily subsidize advancing technology in the public interest, which is why solar was just named the “cheapest energy ever” by the International Energy Agency.
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As the Examiner frames it, NuScale’s issue was becoming one of energy threshold. Utah Associated had a number of cities signed on for the trial, but two dropped out in recent weeks. And like a game of Among Us or a 20-pound Thanksgiving turkey, you need a certain number of participants for this 720 megawatt pilot plant to be worth it. The DoE funding will bring the kilowatt hour cost down to what the Utah Associated participants need.
Although NuScale has touted itself as a lower-cost version of traditional nuclear energy in the U.S., the process to get an entire new paradigm of nuclear plant online still takes a lot of time, study, and funding. The date for opening the first reactor for Utah Associated was already pushed from 2026 to 2029, which is still pretty soon for nuclear.
In the meantime, large plants will continue to approach their end-of-life dates. In places that don’t opt to invest in renewables or some kind of next-generation nuclear, the reliance on fossil fuel plants could not just stay the same, but increase. The DoE’s diverse investment reflects a goal to have a variety of options when the time comes.
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