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Anya Litvak reports that a small modular reactor (SMR) is under review that holds only enough fuel to produce a fraction of that power and would be installed underground, possibly in a pool of water to hold radiation at bay? “It’s like regulating cars the same as trucks,” Mr. Talabi said, turning, as he often does, to a vehicular analogy. “An SMR is not a very small large reactor [the way] a motorcycle is not a very small car,” he said. “With a car, you need a radiator to cool the engine. With a motorcycle, you don’t need a very small radiator. You don’t need a radiator at all.”

All of this is to say that you can’t just scale down the risk and decontamination profile of a large nuclear reactor to the size of a small modular reactor. It’s a different animal, Mr. Talabi said. It requires different rules, which he and other supporters of advanced nuclear power are hoping will bring the same level of safety oversight — but in less time and with less cost. This is why U.S. nuclear regulators are keeping an eye on Mr. Talabi’s work here.

Treatment for the industry’s ills? The NRC is currently considering the first design application for a small modular reactor, filed earlier this year by Oregon-based NuScale Power. It’s a 45-megawatt reactor design and at present there is no separate licensing path for small modular reactors, a different process than that used for something like Westinghouse Electric Co.’s latest large nuclear plant design. It took regulators nearly a decade to certify the Cranberry nuclear firm’s AP1000, a light water reactor that, like an SMR, uses gravity and other natural phenomena to enhance safety.

“If SMRs have to meet the same requirements as large [plants], that’s penalizing them because it’s a totally different risk profile,” he said. Mr. Talabi was the risk manager at Westinghouse when the company was going through the licensing process and when it began building eight AP1000 plants, four in China, and two each in Georgia and South Carolina. Delays and budget overruns, by billions of dollars, have plagued all of these new projects and doomed the ones in South Carolina where utilities stopped work on the unfinished reactors in July.

Small modular reactors are supposed to escape such pitfalls. They are being marketed as the treatment for the nuclear industry’s current ills.For one thing, they would be built in factories, which should avoid the project management disasters that plagued and ultimately bankrupted Westinghouse. Although, it should be noted, the AP1000 also promised modular construction; it just didn’t deliver. Shaving precious billions off the capital cost is supposed to make small modular reactors more competitive with cheap natural gas plants. And their safety features are supposed to prevent the kind of devastation that plagued the tsunami-damaged Fukushima plant in Japan by minimizing the impacted area, containing the fuel inside, and providing up to seven days of coping time before human intervention is needed.

If it’s resiliency that the nation’s after — recent efforts by the federal government to prop up unprofitable coal and nuclear power plants have been cloaked in the call for a resilient grid — small modular reactors could be plopped in remote locations or in population centers. That would minimize the need for transmission and distribution lines that, when damaged, are the primary cause of power outages. Imagine it, Mr. Talabi said: a 10-megawatt small modular reactor — one about the size of the mock reactor in his lab — is more than enough to power a military base, or Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University combined.

The promise of small modular reactors peppering the African continent is particularly aspirational for Mr. Talabi, who came from Nigeria in 1997 to study engineering at Pitt. He stayed to get an MBA and PhD from Carnegie Mellon, which keeps his company supplied with recent graduates.  “The significance of our research lies in the fact that this technology can provide the solution to the world’s biggest problem, which is the lack of electric power to over a billion people,” he said. “If we fix this primary problem, then we can fix a lot of secondary issues such as economic underdevelopment, unemployment, crime, education and inadequate health care.”

Mr. Talabi founded Pittsburgh Technical in 2014. The company has a group of 10 consultants that work on various projects. There’s no uranium inside Pittsburgh Technical’s mock reactor, but there are mock fuel rods and mock radioactive particles — microscopic specks of metal whose movements are measured with high-powered lasers. The pressure is real — the vessel will be under 200 pounds per square inch of pressure and will get as hot at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. All the while, Mr. Talabi’s team will be taking measurements and sharing them with industry trade groups, reactor designers and regulators, all of whom have an interest in understanding the risk profile of the new technology.

Mr. Talabi channels the sense of urgency that has intensified in the U.S. nuclear industry in recent years, with many, including the CEO of Westinghouse, publicly warning American nuclear development is in danger of being left behind. U.S. reactor designers are competing with efforts abroad that have the full weight of their governments, which means help in financing and possibly a shorter regulatory timeline. “Reactor designers are looking at foreign customers and foreign regulators,” said Amy Roma, partner at Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C., who works on nuclear licensing. “The main funding for all of these comes from private capital and when you’re talking to the investment community, you need to demonstrate regulatory certainty and a timeline that makes sense.” In 2015, the Washington, D.C., think tank Third Way counted nearly 50 U.S. entities working on advanced nuclear reactors. The organization said $1.6 billion in private capital supports those efforts and many are being pioneered abroad.

Small modular reactors, defined as producing up to 300 megawatts of electricity, are thought of as a kind of bridge between the large light water reactors used today — which use uranium fuel and are cooled by water — and the advanced concepts being developed. Those include reactors cooled by liquid metal or molten salt, reactors that can use non-enriched uranium, or even spent fuel, and those powered by nuclear fusion. In a commercial civilian setting, these are first-of-a-kind technologies. Regulators must balance the promised smaller risk profile with the risk inherent in first-of-a-kind anything.

Some expect that process will move along quicker outside of the United States. Westinghouse may be a case in point. The Cranberry-based firm worked for years on a 225-megawatt reactor design but after twice being passed over for federal SMR funding, it scaled back its commercialization efforts in 2014. Now it is trying to appeal to the U.K. with its small modular reactor concept, specifically promising the European nation that it can actually make the reactors and fuel there.

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