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US-led initiative aims to lower advanced nuclear construction costs

The US Department of Energy (DOE) is teaming up with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) and providing USD5.8 million in funding for a project to demonstrate how three construction technologies from other industries can be applied to advanced reactor designs, to improve the economics of bringing advanced reactors to market. The Advanced Construction Technology (ACT) Initiative aims to reduce cost overruns and schedule slippages.

The three technologies have been used successfully in other industries but have not yet been tested within the context of nuclear energy, the DOE said. Together, they could reduce the cost of new nuclear builds by more than 10%. They are:

  • Vertical shaft construction, a best practice from the tunnelling industry that could reduce construction schedules by more than a year;
  • ‘Steel Bricks’, modular steel-concrete composite structures, much like high-tech LEGO pieces, which could significantly reduce on-site labour requirements;
  • Advanced monitoring, coupled with digital twin technology, which can create a digital replica of the nuclear power plant structure.

“Construction costs and schedule overruns have plagued new nuclear builds for decades,” said Acting Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff. “By leveraging advanced construction technologies, we can drive down costs and speed the pace of advanced nuclear deployment.”

GEH’s portfolio includes the BWRX-300 small modular reactor, currently under review by nuclear regulators in both Canada and the USA. “We know this funding will significantly benefit the commercialisation of SMRs and pave the way for other advanced reactors,” the company’s executive vice president, Jon Ball, said.

The GEH-led project team includes Black & Veatch, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Purdue University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the Tennessee Valley Authority, in addition to the UK’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (Nuclear AMRC), of which EPRI is a member, and two UK companies, Caunton Engineering and Modular Walling Systems Limited. Modular Walling Systems is the developer of the Steel Bricks technology, which GEH earlier this year said it intends to use in the construction of the BWRX-300.

“In the nuclear industry, we don’t have to invent everything ourselves. Being prudent about leveraging tech from other industries will accelerate advanced nuclear deployment,” EPRI’s Chief Nuclear Officer Rita Baranwal tweeted.

“The assurance of construction integrity is a vital consideration for advanced nuclear reactors, and we are seeing more reactor designs using below-ground construction to provide additional protection from natural or man-made hazards,” Li Li, head of the Nuclear AMRC’s controls & instrumentation group, said. “By applying sensor-based structural health monitoring and real-time condition monitoring techniques, we will help bring the digital replica alive to optimise the cost of construction, operation and maintenance, and to improve the safety of advanced reactors over decades of low-carbon power generation.”

The work will be funded and managed through DOE’s National Reactor Innovation Center and is to be carried out in two phases. The initial phase will focus on technology development and preparation for a small-scale demonstration, and pending the successful completion of the first phase and future appropriated funds, a second phase will carry out the demonstration within three years of the initial award.

Source: World Nuclear News