The phoenix of nuclear reactors – Holtec’s SMR-160
From Holtec, an undertaker of the nuclear sector, a new-build phoenix will rise
Holtec International’s core business is heat exchangers, used fuel handling and storage and Nuclear Power Plant decommissioning. Although it hasn’t given up on bringing Palisades nuclear power plant back from the dead, the company is still often thought of as the undertaker of the nuclear sector — prepared to profit on the decommissioning of plants.
What is less known is that when it comes to its ambitions to move into new-builds, Holtec is quietly holding a royal flush: A Small Modular Reactor (SMR) design, nuclear-rated manufacturing capabilities, global nuclear new build partnerships, use of existing supply chains, and ownership of previously licensed nuclear sites.
Introducing the SMR-160
Despite all the buzz about SMRs and the proliferation of designs, very few can be bought today. Commercial reactors that are through the design approval process are large Light Water Reactors like the Korean APR-1400, GE-Hitachi’s ESBWR, or the Westinghouse AP-1000. Start-ups are pushing the edge of engineering innovation with everything from direct drive fusion to molten-salt fast reactors to gas-cooled modular designs, but those reactors aren’t currently manufactured.
The companies are everything from small startups with CAD designs to large companies like Rolls-Royce SMR that have expertise but no nuclear qualified factory in-place for their design. The supply problems extend into fuels for some designs as well. Recently Terrapower’s Natrium reactor project, a promising design for a nuclear plant to replace a coal plant in Wyoming, announced they are expected to be delayed for at least two years due to zero existing commercial production capabilities in the west for a higher enrichment civilian reactor fuel known as HALEU.
Holtec has been in the garage and busy behind the scenes. With nearly 40 years of nuclear expertise from heat exchangers, site services, waste fuel handling and storage, as well as nuclear stamps (quality certifications) for its manufacturing capabilities, it’s a rare company with a strong vertical integration from design to manufacturing to installation.
In fact, Holtec seems to already hold in their hand each trump card that a SMR company can put on the table for their design.
Nuclear-grade construction expertise? Check
Ownership of a site for the reactor? Check
Nuclear production capabilities in a factory? Check
Site flexibility with air or water cooling? Check
Superheated steam for industrial processes? Check
Automatic load following, district heating, or water desalination/hydrogen co-generation? Check, check and check!
The SMR-160 is a light water reactor that uses current commercially-available fuel and can be built in a factory that already exists (and is scaling-up under a recent DOE grant). Its steam generator is integrated in the reactor, but still utilizes a traditional refuelling model. It can run in Island mode, and has black-start and grid restart capabilities. The reactor core has no safety-related pumps with all cooling water on-site, which, along with other passive-safety features, yields an infinite grace period for the reactor’s heat transfer processes. But lots of SMR companies have cool reactors. What Holtec uniquely has are nuclear-licensed places to put them already.
From liability to asset
While nuclear waste is extremely small in volume in comparison to every other technology, it is currently a liability for power generation companies. Unlike coal or gas generators who simply eject the waste to the atmosphere in the form of pollutants, nuclear power generators have to keep waste on their accounting books. As the party responsible for decommissioning plants and managing waste fuel, Holtec inherits this ‘liability.’ Yet these decommissioned sites become the key to the quick deployment possibilities of the Holtec SMR.
The advantages of repowering old coal sites with nuclear power plants is under intense consideration. A full third of the cost of electricity comes from transmission costs. Using sites which already have a connection to the grid thus avoids building new lines and can reduce the end cost.
But an even more immediate possibility is reviving old nuclear sites. Sites that Holtec ALREADY OWNS.
The primary target for deployment is Oyster Creek, the previous site of a 636 MWe Boiling Water Reactor. The deployment model of the SMR-160 is as a group of four independent plants totaling 640 MWe. An exact match for the transmission capabilities already on site. What was the capacity of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant that Holtec also decommissioned? 690 MWe. The path to rapid economic regeneration and clean energy is clear to see.
Even more interesting are the future possibilities of the SMR-160. It’s a Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) that can produce superheated steam, a feat that is currently only the domain of the Advanced Gas Reactors in the UK. Superheated steam is needed for many industrial processes and for reutilizing components in old coal plants which also utilized superheated steam. This raises the question of whether seeking an “advanced reactor” such as molten-salt or metal cooled reactors that does the same thing is a desirable first-mover in a climate time crunch. The SMR-160 would be using established light water reactor technology from a company that already has production facilities and nuclear construction experience.
Pathway to a Just Transition
We call the large question of how to ensure that human prosperity is increased in developing nations alongside decarbonization the just transition. It’s not acceptable to keep poor nations underdeveloped in the name of preventing climate change. Everyone, not just rich nations deserve clean energy and prosperity. Developing nations asked for help at COP27, and a Loss and Damage Fund has been set up to assist those nations most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
Because Holtec has designed the SMR-160 with air cooling, it can be sited in water-stressed regions like sub-Saharan Africa to provide clean, reliable, always-on power while countering climate impacts with water desalination. It is also extremely robust and able to handle any emergency without human intervention, making it ideal in climate uncertain regions. Because of these attributes, it is a prime candidate for construction in global south countries funded through the donation of western countries.
THE ELEMENTAL TAKE
Decommissioning has become a sweeter slice of the nuclear pie with modern methods like laser cutting and Holtec-proprietary methods that dramatically reduce costs, making the pot of funds earmarked for end-of-life much more appealing. A less ambitious or near-sighted company could well have restricted themselves to this lucrative market. Instead, Holtec is firmly committed to expanding into new-builds.
In the SMR-160, we see a promisingly sound design with excellent safety characteristics. But most importantly, Holtec is going to be able to provide previously-licensed sites that already housed nuclear reactors and are ongoing storage sites for radioactive waste. The potential for fast-tracking the new-build process is huge, with the biggest bottleneck being the sclerotic pace and costs of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing and approval process.
On average, it costs a billion dollars to receive approval after 7-20 years despite a recent law from Congress requiring the regulator be able to handle innovative designs in a timely manner. This is unacceptable when we need clean, firm energy to combat climate change quickly, and when it was already directed to modernize. We’ve experienced the value of vaccines that were approved under emergency use authorization during a pandemic. Similar provisions should be considered by the DOE for proven LWR technology at previously licensed sites to speed construction.
If not, it may well be the UK who steals the nuclear leadership role with SMR-160s already in the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) and Holtec plans for deploying 32 of them by 2050.