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Small Nuclear Reactors May Spur Factory Jobs, Exports, U.S. Says

The Obama administration’s plan to develop a new generation of small nuclear reactors may spur U.S. manufacturing jobs and exports, the Commerce Department said.

Building “small modular reactors,” about a third the size of the nuclear units now used by power companies, may provide “tremendous new commercial opportunities for U.S. firms and workers,” the department’s International Trade Administration said today in a report.

Most U.S. reactors have capacities from 800 megawatts to 1,200 megawatts, according to the report. President Barack Obama’s budget request for fiscal 2012 seeks $67 million to help companies such as Westinghouse Electric Co., a unit of Tokyo-based Toshiba Corp., and Babcock & Wilcox Co. of Charlotte, North Carolina, develop small reactor designs and win approval from U.S. nuclear regulators.

The nuclear plants generating 300 megawatts or less would be built in retooled U.S. factories and shipped by rail, unlike large reactors that are assembled on site and depend on components from Japan and South Korea, according to the report. If small-reactor manufacturers can “prove their designs in the domestic market” for new power plants, they will likely start making export sales, the report said.

The Obama administration is “very, very positive about small modulars,” even as it supports the construction of larger reactors with federal loan guarantees, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters Feb. 14.

Small reactors power more than 80 U.S. Navy vessels. While those units are allowed to use more highly enriched nuclear fuel than civilian facilities, small nuclear units developed for power plants may “resemble the naval reactors that have been operating for decades,” according to the report.

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