Courtesy of Babcock & Wilcox.

Nuclear energy expansion is a hot topic these days as the commitment grows stronger to stop burning coal to generate the baseload of electricity. Technology aside, for the business world expanding nuclear power means finding ways to reduce investor risks and bring down capital investment expense for reactors that today can cost $10 billion. As a revealing story by Rebecca Smith in the Wall Street Journal puts it:

[T]here is growing investor worry that reactors may have grown so big that they could sink the utilities that buy them. An increasingly global supply chain for big reactors also worries investors.

“We think the probability that things will go wrong with these large projects is greater than the probability that things will go right,” said Jim Hempstead, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service. He warns that nuclear-aspiring utilities with “bet the farm” projects face possible credit downgrades.

One option is to build smaller nukes, something this blog has reported on in the past (see below). WSJ reports that three U.S. utility companies – Tennessee Valley Authority, First Energy Corp. and Oglethorpe Power Corp. – have agreed to work with industry supplier Babcock & Wilcox to get a small reactor design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

According to Babcock & Wilcox, their mPower reactor would generate 125 to 140 megawatts of power. Other modular nukes are even smaller: NuScale Power, a venture-funded startup, wants to build a reactor that’s 65 feet long and 15 feet in diameter, capable of generating 45 MW of power. Another startup, called Hyperion Power, is touting  a 25MW reactor, which would be compact enough (5 feet across by 12 feet high) to fit in a pickup truck, yet powerful enough to supply about 20,000 homes.

Babcock & Wilcox appears to be farthest along. According to Michael Shepherd, vice president of business development, B&W’s first small nuke could be a decade away. “We see construction in 2016,” Shepherd said. “We can see going online in 2019, 2020.”

For more on the issue of small/mini nuclear plants, see:

Sandia announces new small fission reactor design

A boost for small nuclear reactors