Industrial energy giant Babcock & Wilcox Co. is bucking a trend among nuclear technology suppliers that has seen reactor sizes swell and their price tags balloon.
As the Ontario government recently learned, buying a two-reactor nuclear plant that generates at least 2,400 megawatts now costs more than $20 billion.
Babcock has designed a more bite-sized reactor that can be built in a factory and shipped by railcar, and its Canadian subsidiary in Cambridge is in the running to help engineer and make the mini nukes.
Called the mPower, the 125-megawatt reactor has a tenth of the power output of most next-generation reactor designs. Measuring five by 25 metres and weighing about 400 tonnes, it would be entombed underground and would require refuelling of enriched uranium every five years over a 60-year life.
"Right now nuclear is so big that only the very largest utilities can afford them," said Chris Mowry, chief executive of B&W Modular Nuclear Energy LLC, the company set up to bring the mPower to market.
"You can take more of an incremental approach, and this has a lot of appeal to utility customers around the globe," he said, adding utilities in Ontario and western Canada have expressed an interest.
Steve Aplin, an energy consultant with The HDP Group Inc. in Ottawa, said the small-is-better message resonates with capital and loan guarantees hard to come by.
"This opens all sorts of markets," said Aplin. "It builds on existing technology and fuel, so it's not an unproven concept..." Mowry said the light-water reactor has a modular design, can be built in a factory and watt for watt is competitive with larger reactors.
Design work is expected to continue into 2011, when Babcock plans to apply to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for certification.
And when might the first mPower reactor emerge in Canada? "You're really talking about a 2014 timeframe, earliest," Mowry said.
Natalie Cutler, a Babcock spokesperson, said work on the mPower design has started in Cambridge, which has about 750 employees and manufactures components and equipment for Canada's nuclear industry. "We are optimistic we will be able to use our manufacturing capabilities to produce elements of the reactor system in several years, once the design is complete and licensed," said Cutler.