GE Hitachi chases gas plant displacement with new 300 MW reactor

The capital cost of GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300 boiling water reactor is estimated to be up to 50% lower than other light water reactor SMRs while operations and maintenance (O&M) costs are predicted at $16/MWh, Eric Loewen, Chief Consulting Engineer at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, told the 2018 International SMR and Advanced Reactor conference.

GE's new compact 300 MW boiling water reactor design aims to be competitive with gas-fired generation. (Image unrelated. Credit: Yelantsevv)

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Nuclear power plant developers are increasingly turning to small modular reactors (SMRs) to minimize capital costs and gain access to new markets. Smaller capacities and modular construction allow for incremental capacity increases, reducing capital cost requirements compared with larger plants. SMR developers expect passive safety systems to support off-grid supply applications while smaller emergency planning zones would allow SMRs to replace fossil fuel power plants.

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy has now developed a 300 MW boiling water reactor SMR design, an evolution of the company’s 1.5 GW ESBWR model which was licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2014.

The new compact BWRX-300 design has an estimated online capital cost of $2,250/kW for an nth of a kind plant, which is between 40% and 50% lower than PWR-based SMRs, Loewen told the conference in Atlanta on March 27.

Design efficiencies in the BWRX-300 produce a total building volume that is between 50% and 90% lower than PWR-based designs, Loewen said.

"We think it has the opportunity to become the most economic light water reactor," he said.

In the U.S., low-cost shale gas production has dented wholesale market prices and weakened the economics of conventional large-scale nuclear power. GE Hitachi predicts its new BWRX-300 design could be cost-competitive with gas-fired plants in the "near-term," Loewen said.

"To control our own destiny, we've got to get to the price of gas," he said.

             US power plant costs by generation type (EIA estimates)

                                                       (Click image to enlarge)

Source: Energy Information Administration's Annual Energy Outlook 2018

Design challenge

The BWRX-300 represents the 10th iteration of GE Hitachi's boiling water reactor design. The previous version, the ESBWR, introduced a simpler and safer design, using passive safety systems and fewer components. According to GE Hitachi, the ESBWR offers the lowest operating and maintenance (O&M) and staffing costs of any design currently on the market.

In 2015, the NRC allocated DTE Energy the first-ever ESBWR-based combined construction and operating license for a potential plant at the Fermi nuclear complex in Michigan. Dominion Virginia Power also selected the ESBWR as its preferred technology for a potential third reactor at its North Anna facility. However, low wholesale prices continue to damage the economics of large-scale nuclear projects and the Fermi and North Anna projects have not advanced to the construction phase.

                   US average monthly wholesale power prices by region


To create the new BWRX-300 design, GE Hitachi challenged its engineers to achieve a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) comparable with gas-fired plants, using proven components to optimize existing supply chains and, where possible, simplify manufacturing, construction and operations.

The BWRX-300 incorporates a range of cost-saving features, including natural circulation systems, smaller, dry containment, and more passive operational control systems, Loewen said. The design aims to limit on-site operational staff numbers to 75 employees to achieve an estimated O&M cost of $16/MWh, he said.

GE Hitachi estimates the capital cost of the BWRX-300 is 60% lower than the ESBWR and costs could be further reduced upon larger numbers of orders, Loewen said.

"Once you start having numbers greater than 10, then you can have different conversations with your suppliers," he said.

GE Hitachi has yet to submit the BWRX-300 design for licensing approval. Last year, NuScale became the first SMR developer to file a complete design certification application to the NRC for its PWR-based design. NuScale is currently on schedule to receive regulatory approval by 2021.

Multiple projects

Alongside its development work, GE Hitachi has partnered with several different SMR developers, providing engineering and design expertise to LWR and non-LWR projects.

In February, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) and Global Nuclear Fuel (GNF) agreed to help accelerate the development of Holtec's SMR‐160 design.

GE Hitachi has agreed to supply control rod drive mechanisms to the SMR-160 project and will also support assessments towards government-funded design testing, including phenomena assessments, scaling analyses, safety analysis assessments and benchmarking, and identification of recommended experimental tests.

Holtec launched its SMR-160 development program in 2010 and is one of only a handful of SMR developers that have formally submitted design details to the NRC. The design review is currently in the pre-application phase, according to the NRC's website.

In parallel, the SMR-160 partners are moving forward with development plans in Canada, where there are numerous on-grid and off-grid deployment opportunities and the regulatory scheme is considered less prescriptive than in the U.S. The SMR-160 team have applied to the Canadian nuclear safety commission's (CNSCs) pre-licensing design review and the start date for the review is pending.

In addition, GE Hitachi has agreed to provide engineering and design expertise to advance the development and licensing of the ARC-100 sodium-cooled fast reactor.

GE Hitachi will license to ARC Nuclear the intellectual property associated with its PRISM sodium cooled fast reactor design and provide ARC Nuclear with tools and resources covering nuclear power quality, safety and training. ARC's SMR design is based on capacities of 100 MW or 200 MW while GE Hitachi's PRISM reactor is designed for capacities of 165 MW and 311 MW and can use spent nuclear fuel as a feedstock.

The ARC-100 design began Canada's Pre-Licensing Vendor Design Review process in the fall of 2017, according to the CNSC. GE Hitachi has yet to formally submit the PRISM for regulatory licensing, according to the NRC and CNSC websites.

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