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Nuclear Notes—Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022

Matthew Wald

Welcome to Nuclear Notes, a weekly update from the Build Nuclear Now campaign by the Breakthrough Institute and Third Way. Every Thursday, I’ll be bringing you the most important news in advanced nuclear energy—the safe, zero-carbon energy solution the United States needs—as we push for the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors by 2030.

Modular Reactors in Darlington, Ontario

Ontario Power Generation is moving towards building a small modular reactor, a GE-Hitachi BWRX-300, at its Darlington site, and the Canada Infrastructure Bank has agreed to finance the first stage, including design work, site preparation, and ordering long lead-time equipment.

The Canada Infrastructure Bank is a Crown Corporation, a government-owned entity that operates for the public benefit and invests in revenue-generating infrastructure projects.

The reactor is the tenth version of the General Electric boiling water reactor. (Hence the “x” in its name.) It will use fuel that is already commercially available, and most of its components are already in use in operating nuclear plants.

OPG says it expects to make a construction decision by the end of next year. Building an SMR at Darlington, where it currently operates heavy water reactors, is part of its plan to reach net-zero carbon by 2050.

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Natrium in Kemmerer, Wyoming

The ducks are getting into a row for the Natrium reactor.

Natrium, to be built on the site of an old coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, will produce energy 24/7 but will use a heat battery to store much of it during daylight hours when solar energy floods the grid. When the sun goes down, the plant will use the heat to make steam, which will be used to make electricity.

The project is being built by GE-Hitachi and TerraPower, Bill Gates’ nuclear company.

At the end of last week, Global Nuclear Fuel, a subsidiary of GE, and TerraPower, announced that they would build a new facility at an existing site in Wilmington, N.C., to make the fuel for the reactor. GE has been making reactor fuel in Wilmington for more than 50 years.

Construction, which will be partly paid for under the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, will employ 500 people over five years. The plant will have a permanent workforce of about 100.

The fuel will be metallic in form. (Most reactors today use ceramic fuel.) It will use uranium with a richer mixture of U-235, the type that splits most easily, and will get more work out of the fuel than today’s reactors. It will operate at higher temperatures, which aids efficiency in electricity production.

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Reprocessing Initiatives

Don’t take out the trash just yet…

ARPA-E, the Energy Department’s agency for funding high-risk, high-payoff technology investments, is putting $38 million into ways to recycle spent fuel from nuclear reactors.

The reactors running today produce prodigious amounts of energy, but they use only a small fraction of their fuel. When fuel rods are removed from the reactor, they contain large amounts of unused uranium and reactor-grade plutonium, which was created in the core when uranium atoms absorbed stray neutrons that did not go on to split other uranium atoms.

Much of that can be reused, but the United States turned away from reprocessing in the 1970s when it became clear that supplies of virgin uranium were plentiful and when the Federal government wanted to discourage the use of the technology in countries that might divert the plutonium for military use. But ARPA-E (modeled after the Pentagons’ Advanced Research Projects Agency) believes that the technology is better now for extracting useful materials from the spent fuel that is now considered as “waste,” and that the plutonium can be monitored, or kept mixed with other materials so that it is not suitable for military purposes.

Reprocessing would reduce the volume of spent nuclear fuel, but a burial place would still be needed for the rest.

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Answers on Fuel for Advance Reactors

The chicken/egg question of fuel for advanced reactors appears to be approaching an answer.

Most advanced reactor designs call for a form of uranium fuel that is richer in the U-235 type than fuel used in reactors today. While today’s reactors use Low Enriched Uranium, LEU, in which one atom in twenty is U-235, advanced designs call for High Assay Low Enriched Uranium, or HALEU, with enrichments approaching one atom in five. (Higher than that is considered high-enriched uranium, which is restricted for proliferation reasons.)

Enriching uranium to higher levels is not a technical challenge, but the companies that do that kind of work have resisted making needed investments to commercialize fuel with higher enrichments because they have not been convinced that any advanced designs that would use the fuel would ever be built. Advanced reactor developers, on the other hand, have wondered how much they should invest in machines for which no fuel is commercially available.

Now the Department of Energy has notified manufacturers that it wants to buy HALEU for a fuel bank, which is likely to help break the logjam and get the investments started.

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