Next-Gen Nuclear Tech Could Face Delays in Wake of Japan Incident

There aren’t a whole lot of startups out there building next-generation nuclear technology. Nuclear power innovation often requires a lot of time, money and regulatory approval, which isn’t exactly a friendly environment for a startup. But for the nuclear startups and entrepreneurs that are out there, the development of next-generation nuclear technology could “come to a screeching halt” in the short term due to the backlash against nuclear in the wake of the Japanese nuclear incident, predicts Ray Rothrock a partner at venture firm Venrock and a former nuclear engineer.

That was the case when Rothrock was still a working nuclear engineer back when Three Mile Island occurred. At the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco on Wednesday, Rothrock said that in the wake of Three Mile Island, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) immediately began a review process of U.S. nuclear plants that took half a year to get through. For a startup like NuScale, which is making a modular nuclear reactor design and is planning on submitting its application to the NRC for review within 18 months, a very busy and cautious NRC could mean a significantly longer time to pass regulatory hurdles and get to market.

Venrock has backed stealthy nuclear company Tri-Alpha Energy, which has been working on technology out of the University of California at Irvine that involves a mixture of hydrogen and boron that “chase” one another in a plasma electric generator, according to a U.C. Irvine report.

CMEA Principal Rachel Sheinbein, who also spoke on the panel at the event, said, “Three Mile Island set us back 30 years, and we lost the opportunity to be a world leader in nuclear.” CMEA has invested in NuScale.

It is generally believed that the ongoing situation at the nuclear plants run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. looks to have surpassed the severity of Three Mile Island. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu made that assessment in a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce committee this morning.

However, beyond the immediate knee-jerk reaction that could come from the NRC in the U.S., Rothrock thinks next-generation nuclear technology development will ultimately be able to learn from any design issues with the GE (s GE) mark-1 reactors that were used in Japan and are undergoing a partial meltdown right now. Ultimately, when problems happen with reactors, it’s all the more reason why new nuclear technology needs to be developed, said Rothrock.

Both Rothrock and Sheinbein pointed out the aging design and technology that was being used in the GE mark-1 reactors in Japan. They worked as designed, said Rothrock, but the design was just an older system.

The CTO of NuScale, Jose Reyes, who was the third speaker on the panel, pointed out some of the innovations that his company has developed that he thinks could make nuclear technology safer and more economical. NuScale has built a modular system that has a passive safety design that is built underground, suspended in water and uses a much smaller amount of fuel per module. A NuScale module has 5 percent of the fuel that a large nuclear plant has, said Reyes.

The NuScale design does not require an external power source or an external supply of water, delivered by pumps or generators, said Reyes. Instead the fuel is suspended in a 30-day supply of water, and because it’s housed in water, it has a better ability to withstand earthquakes. Reyes said one second after a NuScale reactor is shut down, it’s producing only 10 MW of thermal energy. One hour after shutting down, a NuScale reactor is producing 2.5 MW of thermal energy.

The modular simplified design will be lower cost, too, says Reyes. That’s partly because the reactor can be built and assembled offsite, then brought to the site to be completed, reducing the time to produce electricity from 6 years to 3 years. The smaller reactors are also a lot less daunting for utilities to put up the initial capital, compared to a $10 billion large nuclear reactor.

Of course, NuScale isn’t a commercialized technology yet, and now could face even more time to commercialization now that nuclear safety is front and center.