Source: Augusta Chronicle | Meg Mirshak

A highly-touted concept to build small, portable nuclear power reactors that could be moved on a railroad car or truck has made little progress in recent years, especially at Savannah River Site.

Often cited as the future of nuclear energy, the development of small modular reactors has faced funding challenges and competing energy sources – mainly falling natural gas prices that jilted the nuclear industry’s comeback – leaving some questioning if the mini-reactors will ever be viable.

Small modular reactors, or SMRs, would be about one-third the size of conventional reactors and built in factories before being transported to an area where they could be rapidly deployed and installed. Supporters believe the compact design offers improved safety and reduces capital costs and construction times.

At Savannah River Site, the pursuit of small modular reactors faded when the U.S. Department of Energy site was found diverting funds from environmental management to an SMR development project in 2012.

The nuclear watchdog group SRS Watch, directed by Tom Clements, last week unearthed additional documents on the funds obtained through a federal open records request. Nearly $750,000 was improperly diverted from an effort to clean up nuclear waste at the former Cold War-era nuclear materials complex, according to the documents.

“Improper spending on promotion of small modular reactors by SRS backfired and ended up being one reason that such reactors are no longer being actively pursued by SRS,” Clements said.

Energy Department spokesman Jim Giusti said cleanup of aging, high-level nuclear waste storage tanks at SRS was not hindered during the time when money was spent on the SMR program.

Several groups, including Oregon-based NuScale, had expressed interest in using SRS as a venue for SMR development, but they were passed over in 2012 when an Energy Department grant was offered to a rival group led by Babcock & Wilcox Co. in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel Corp.

Augusta Chronicle