March 2017 ‒ The mPower small modular reactor (SMR) project in the USA just got much smaller: it has been abandoned.
mPower was conceived in 2008 and announced to the world in June 2009. In July 2010, Babcock & Wilcox announced an alliance with Bechtel called Generation mPower. At the same time, Babcock & Wilcox announced that it would build an mPower test facility in Virginia, part-funded by a US$5 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalisation Commission.1
Generation mPower planned to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for design certification by 2013.1 The company aimed for NRC certification and a reactor construction permit in 2018, and commercial operation of the first two units in 2022.2
The idea was to produce scaled-down (195 MWe) pressurized light water reactors (PWR), drawing on decades of worldwide experience with (larger) PWRs and thus making NRC licensing simpler and quicker.3
Experienced, cashed-up companies ... a conventional reactor design ... R&D funding support from Virginia and from the federal Department of Energy ... what could go wrong?
It didn't take long for the project to fall apart. In 2013 Babcock & Wilcox said it intended to sell a majority stake in the mPower joint venture, but in February 2014 announced it was unable to find a buyer. In April 2014, Babcock & Wilcox announced it was sharply reducing investment in mPower to US$15 million annually, citing the inability "to secure significant additional investors or customer engineering, procurement and construction contracts to provide the financial support necessary to develop and deploy mPower reactors".1
More than 200 engineers, project managers, administrators, and sales-people were sacked in 2014.4
The Tennessee Valley Authority had been named as a lead customer and plans were developed to build up to six mPower reactors at TVA's Clinch River site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.5 But in 2014, TVA ended the agreement to share design and licensing costs.
In November 2012, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced that it would subsidize mPower development in a five-year cost-share agreement. The DOE's contribution would be capped at US$226 million, of which US$111 million was subsequently paid. That funding tap was switched off after Generation mPower downsized the project in 2014, but the company was not required to repay any of the DOE funding.2
The Generation mPower companies spent more than US$375 million on mPower to February 2016.2 Add that to the DOE's US$111 million contribution, and overall expenditure was nudging US$500 million.
In March 2016, Babcock & Wilcox and Bechtel came to an arrangement whereby Bechtel would attempt to secure further funding from third parties, including the DOE.2 However those efforts have been abandoned. On 3 March 2017, Bechtel notified Babcock & Wilcox that it was unable to secure sufficient funding and was invoking a settlement provision to terminate the joint agreement. Generation mPower will terminate the program in the next few months.3
Bechtel spokesperson Fred deSousa said: "Bringing a new reactor program through the design, engineering and regulatory process is a very complex and expensive proposition. It needed a plant owner with an identified location and an investor willing to wait a significant period of time for a return, and these were not available."6
Rod Adams ‒ who worked for B&W mPower as the Process and Procedure Development Lead from 2010 to 2013 ‒ gives some reasons for the demise of mPower:3
- The financial crisis of 2008.
- The continuing reduction in natural gas prices.
- Management challenges associated with a fundamentally unequal partnership between two large, established companies, each with their own culture.
- "The aggressive effort to market the Fukushima events as a nuclear catastrophe in order to suppress a growing interest in nuclear energy development".
- "The entry of activist investors that purchased a large portion of B&W's stock and forced a major reevaluation of the project and the overall corporate structure".
Adams' statement about aggressive efforts to market Fukushima as a nuclear catastrophe is a cheap shot at environmentalists and other nuclear critics. His statement about "activist investors" is more intriguing. That's a story he discussed in a 2014 article.4 He notes that the February 2014 announcement to sharply reduce investment in mPower followed the purchase of Babcock & Wilcox shares by Wall Street investment funds. Those investment funds purchased enough stock to impose a restructuring plan that directed spending away from mPower. Their motives, according to Adams, were to prioritize short-term profits over medium-term investments, and to protect their investments in fossil fuels by killing off a potential competitor. And their statements about a lack of customer and investor interest were a concocted cover story.
So mPower was wedged between aggressive anti-nuclear marketeers and fossil-fueled corporate interests. Perhaps. Adams also offers a tendentious conspiracy theory about a "sabotage effort from within the nuclear industry".4
A longer version of this article was published in Nuclear Monitor #840, 21 March 2017, 'U.S. small reactor project just got smaller', https://wiseinternational.org/nuclear-monitor/840/us-small-reactor-proje...
1. B&W mPower, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B%26W_mPower
2. World Nuclear Association, March 2017, 'Small Nuclear Power Reactors', http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/nuclear-fuel-cycle/nucl...
3. Rod Adams, 13 March 2017, 'Bechtel And BWXT Quietly Terminate mPower Reactor Project', https://www.forbes.com/sites/rodadams/2017/03/13/bechtel-and-bwxt-quietl...
4. Rod Adams, 9 May 2014, 'B&W mPower cover story about lack of interest is bogus', https://atomicinsights.com/bw-mpower-cover-story-lack-interest-bogus/
5. World Nuclear News, 14 April 2014, 'Funding for mPower reduced', http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/C-Funding-for-mPower-reduced-1404141.html
6. Margaret Carmel, 15 March 2017, 'BWXT, Bechtel shelve mPower program', https://www.roanoke.com/news/bwxt-bechtel-shelve-mpower-program/article_...