PORTLAND -- The U.S. Department of Energy said Thursday that it has awarded an Oregon company a grant to help it design and obtain federal approval for a kind of nuclear power plant - small modular units that can be built in a factory and shipped to installation sites.
The department said the matching grant awarded to NuScale Power LLC of Portland is part of President Barack Obama's plan to develop power sources that do not contribute to global warming.
"Small modular reactors represent a new generation of safe, reliable, low-carbon nuclear energy technology and provide a strong opportunity for America to lead this emerging global industry," Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement.
The amount of the grant is not yet set, but it comes out of a $452 million fund for supporting small modular reactor development, the department said. It will cover up to half the cost of producing a design that gains federal approval.
NuScale Chief Commercial Officer Michael McGough said modular reactors are the future of nuclear power, because they are more affordable, safer and faster to build than conventional plants. Instead of pumps to move coolant, the design uses gravity, making it more reliable.
The company hopes to have the design certified by 2019 and the first commercially operational project working by 2023 at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho, McGough said.
One of the modules would produce about 45 megawatts, compared with 1,000 megawatts from a conventional plant, McGough said. They would be small enough to be shipped on special trucks, railroad cars, or barges, and could be installed in groups of up to 12. A 540-megawatt installation would cost about $2 billion, compared with $10 billion or more for a conventional 1,000-megawatt plant.
Technology for the modular reactors was developed at Oregon State University by professor Jose Reyes, who spun off NuScale, said Rick Spinrad, vice president for research at OSU. NuScale has a technology facility in Corvallis.
A one-third-scale prototype that is not powered by nuclear fuel has been working at the university for the past 10 years, McGough said.
McGough said NuScale already employs 145 people at its headquarters in Portland and its technical program in Corvallis, and would be hiring many more. No factories capable of manufacturing the modules exist in Oregon. The manufacturing would be done by a subcontractor.
Another company, the Charlotte, N.C.-based Babcock & Wilcox Co., is also developing small modular reactors.