Picture an electric cooperative in a remote rural area that has to haul in diesel fuel from far away to provide power to its consumer-members. Now imagine that co-op could replace diesel with clean nuclear energy without the cost and time commitment of building a full-size reactor.
That’s the promise of microreactors—factory-made nuclear power plants small enough to be transported in a semitruck.
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The units would operate independently of the grid, producing from 1 to 20 megawatts of thermal energy that could be converted to electric power. It could be installed and generating power within a few months, or even weeks, of delivery, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy.
Current estimates are that these highly efficient, “ultra-hardened” reactors could run for 10 years before needing refueling.
It’s a small device with huge potential.
But, as the federal government and private companies continue to research and develop microreactors, critical questions remain.
One of the biggest challenges, says Dan Walsh, NRECA’s senior director for power supply and generation, is finding a trained workforce to operate and maintain the reactors.
“There’s no pool of people out there right now operating a microreactor,” Walsh says. “It’s going to take people who are highly educated and trained, and that training program doesn’t currently exist.”
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It’s also unclear how much a microreactor would cost, although it is expected to be in the billions to start.
“The cost for these new generation microreactors is still uncertain, although it is anticipated that microreactors can be cost-competitive for niche applications such as high-resilience needs, remote and geographically difficult locations, and disaster relief,” says the Idaho National Laboratory, which is working with developers, private industry, regulators and others to develop microreactors.
The lab points to a recent report by the Nuclear Energy Institute about the cost-competitiveness of microreactors in remote markets. The report estimates that the cost to generate electricity from the first microreactor would be between 14 cents and 41 cents per kilowatt-hour. In contrast, the cost to produce electricity from fossil fuels is between 5 cents and 17 cents per kWh, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
However, as the Idaho National Laboratory notes, “in some remote Alaskan areas that are dependent upon diesel generators, electricity prices are more than $1 per kWh.” And costs are expected to decrease “after demonstration, licensing and initial deployment and will depend on the location and type of owner, whether private or public,” the lab says.
The reality is that co-ops are unlikely to be early adopters of the technology because of the giant price tag, Walsh says. But he sees some large generation and transmission co-ops being able to partner with other groups on a microreactor in the future as part of a potential power purchase agreement.
“I strongly believe nuclear energy is going to be a key component in the transition away from fossil fuel,” he says.
For co-ops, microreactors could still be many years away.
According to the Idaho lab, the anticipated timeframe for a demonstration of microreactors is within the next seven years. When Congress passed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, the legislation included a provision to construct a microreactor by 2027.
After the pilot projects are done, it could take years to go through the licensing and regulatory process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to start generating power, Walsh says.
“It’s hard to put a timeline on it,” he says. “The U.S. needs to build one within budget and on schedule and then see it run for a while. For co-ops, the go-slow approach makes sense given the newness of the technology.”