IHI bets on safer micro nuclear reactors with US startup

NuScale’s planned plant in Idaho combines several small reactors designed to reduce the risk of a meltdown. (Photo courtesy of  NuScale Power)

NATSUMI KAWASAKI, Nikkei staff writer | North America

TOKYO — Japanese engineering company IHI will enter the emerging field of small modular nuclear reactors — a cheaper and safer alternative to conventional reactors — with a stake in a project led by U.S. startup NuScale Power, Nikkei has learned.

NuScale Power is constructing a 600 to 700-megawatt nuclear power plant composed of about seven small reactors in the U.S. state of Idaho, with plans to start commercial operations as early as 2029. Each module will have the capacity to produce about 77MW.

IHI will develop containment structures to enclose reactor cores, as well as other components. It will invest the equivalent roughly 2 billion yen ($18.4 million) into NuScale next month, and could expand its stake to up to 4 billion yen.

Fellow Japanese engineering company JGC Holdings has also taken a stake in NuScale. More Japanese companies have been pursuing international partnerships to gain cutting-edge know-how on nuclear power amid a growing push across the world to curb carbon emissions.

Small modular reactors are submerged entirely in water. This means that even if an earthquake or other event damages a plant’s active cooling system, the core has about a month to cool down before the pool around it evaporates, reducing the chances of a meltdown.

NuScale expects its plants to cost about half as much to build as a conventional one, as more of its components will be built at a factory rather than on-site. The modular design also means the plant’s capacity can be easily adjusted.

Conventional nuclear reactors are usually capable of producing over 1,000MW each. But greater capacity also means greater potential for damage in a crisis, like the 2011 meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as greater costs on safety measures.

IHI has been producing nuclear reactor components for about six decades, and holds the leading market share in pressure vessels used in boiling water reactors. But efforts to develop new BWRs and restart existing ones have both stalled in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

Still, the global push for decarbonization has spurred renewed interest in nuclear power, since many countries cannot satisfy their energy needs on renewables alone. Engineering companies are developing small modular reactors in particular as a safer and cheaper alternative to full-scale reactors.

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