Nearly a decade after setting up shop to commercialize technology developed at Oregon State University, NuScale Power has become the first company to submit a design certification application for a small modular reactor (SMR) to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The company, a Fluor Corp. subsidiary which is headquartered in Portland and employs about hundreds of people in Corvallis, filed the application on Thursday and announced the milestone during a press conference in Washington, D.C.
John Hopkins, a former Fluor executive who championed the heavy construction company’s investment in the next-generation nuclear technology before becoming NuScale’s CEO in late 2012, called SMRs the future of the nuclear power industry.
“I believed then, as I believe now, that the NuScale small modular reactor is a disruptive technology with the potential to change the world,” he said.
A number of other industry and government officials stepped to the podium to tout NuScale’s achievement, including a half-dozen congressmen from states where the company has important business connections.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat who represents Oregon’s 5th District, said the company has not only created hundreds of jobs in his state but offers important benefits for the entire country.
“I’m very proud to say that with this announcement, this Oregon company has brought our country one step closer to a secure energy future,” he said.
Several speakers talked up NuScale’s design and nuclear power in general as a clean energy option for generating electricity without the greenhouse gas emissions produced by burning fossil fuels.
“I care about the environment,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah. “And if you care about the environment, then you have to recognize that nuclear power is an important element in having a clean, carbon-free environment.”
NuScale’s design is a departure from traditional nuclear power plants, enormous facilities that typically generate about 1,000 megawatts of electricity. By contrast, a NuScale power module is designed to generate 50 megawatts.
Each self-contained reactor vessel could be built in a factory and shipped by truck, train or barge to its destination. As many as 12 modules could be installed in a single power plant to provide a total output of up to 600 megawatts.
Much smaller and simpler than traditional nukes, NuScale SMRs use natural convection currents to circulate cooling water within the reactor vessel. With no complicated electrical pumps to fail in an operating accident or natural disaster, the company claims its reactors will automatically turn themselves off in a shutdown and allow the core to cool naturally with no human intervention.
More than 800 NuScale employees and contract workers were involved in developing the 12,000-page application, which took eight and a half years of design, engineering and testing to produce at a cost of $500 million, according to Mike McGough, the company’s chief commercialization officer.
The application still must be accepted for docketing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has 60 days to review the massive technical document for completeness. Once that’s done, the NRC will conduct a comprehensive evaluation to ensure the design meets federal safety standards before granting certification, a process expected to take about 40 months.
NuScale officials hope to have their first operating reactor up and running by the middle of 2026 on a site at the Idaho National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy facility near Idaho Falls. The plant will be owned by the Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems, one of 26 utilities that form NuScale’s advisory board and are considered potential customers for the company’s reactor modules.
McGough said the company expects much of its business to come from U.S. utility companies but also foresees plenty of opportunities in other countries, primarily the United Kingdom, Canada and Mexico.
Now that the NRC application has been filed, NuScale expects to draw down its work force somewhat as some of the contractors hired to work on the filing are laid off and others transition to new tasks. The company currently has 325 employees in multiple locations, including 251 in Corvallis, according to Carl Britsch, vice president for human resources. It also has 150 contract workers, with 125 of them in Corvallis. Britsch said that contract labor force likely would shrink to about 50 by midyear.
Thursday’s announcement capped an amazing resurgence for NuScale Power, which nearly went under after its first few years of operation.
The company was launched in Corvallis in 2007, when OSU nuclear physics professor Jose Reyes decided to commercialize his novel design for a small modular reactor. Reyes still serves as NuScale’s chief technology officer.
The startup grew steadily at first but stumbled badly in 2011 after its chief investor, a Venezuelan-born hedge fund manager named Francisco Illarramendi, was indicted on federal securities fraud charges. NuScale’s assets were frozen, and the company teetered on the brink of collapse.
That’s when Fluor Corp. stepped in with a $30 million investment, becoming NuScale’s majority owner and freeing it from court-ordered receivership. Since then, Fluor has pumped more than $300 million into NuScale’s efforts to complete its design certification application.
In 2013, the company was awarded one of two $217 million grants from the Department of Energy aimed at commercializing SMR technology. NuScale vaulted into first place in the race to become the first company with a certified SMR design when the other grant recipient, Babcock & Wilcox, decided to scale back its development program.