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Nuclear Notes — Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022

Matthew Wald

Advanced Reactors are On the Horizon, but an Advanced Licensing Rule is Not

Three years ago, Congress told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop a modernized licensing rule that would accommodate innovation and remove the obstacle of an outdated regulatory structure that was geared toward an earlier technology. But the draft rule released by the Commission’s staff doesn’t meet the mandates that Congress laid out. In fact, it may be worse than the current regulations.

The failure threatens the goal of having advanced reactor technologies can be deployed at a large scale in the 2030s.

In a new blog post and analysis, Breakthrough experts explain the problem.

Egg Delayed; Chicken may be Rescheduled

Advanced reactor developers have been warning that there is a chicken and egg problem in moving to advanced nuclear: The reactors need new fuels that are richer in uranium-235, a need the commercial fuel sector has been slow to fill, because the fuel companies are not sure that there is a market.

TerraPower, the nuclear energy company funded by Bill Gates, plans to supply an advanced reactor to PacifiCorp, to be built in Kemmerer, in southeast Wyoming. It’s a design that integrates cheap, simple thermal storage, designed to help balance a system that is overloaded with solar at noon but short of power at sunset. But the project, called Natrium, needs advanced fuel. The plan was to buy it from Russia, but that was before Russia invaded Ukraine.

TerraPower hopes the Energy Department can come to the rescue with uranium at higher enrichments, diluted from bomb-grade uranium, but the department says it can’t manufacture the fuel fast enough. So TerraPower says the project may be delayed to 2030 from 2028.

TerraPower and its partner GE-Hitachi are looking for other sites in the western United States where they could build such plants. Terrapower said, in a statement, “We are confident the federal programs to catalyze the production of HALEU will be operational in a timeframe that works for these plants.”

The Energy Department has promised the project, called Natrium, about $2 billion in a 1:1 match. Natrium is one of two flagship projects under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. The other is X-Energy’s XE-100, which also needs uranium at higher enrichments, along with Karios Power’s test reactor, called Hermes. No word yet on whether that schedule will slip.

But Kairos announced last week that it had struck an agreement with Los Alamos National Laboratory for the lab to make fuel for Hermes.* The Kairos and X-Energy fuel are in the form of “pebbles” made up of uranium dioxide covered with layers of carbon and silicon carbide. Each pebble (more like a tennis ball) is its own container for the fuel and is capable of withstanding extremely high temperatures.

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Yes, They’re Drilling, and No, it’s Not for Fossil Fuels

As the year ends, NuScale Power, which has won design approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its small modular reactor, and NuScale’s first customer, the Utah Associated Municipal Power System, released a recap of activities in 2022. Here, technicians are drilling at the Idaho National Laboratory, where the NuScale plant will be built, to test soil conditions at a candidate location.

Zero-Carbon Air Travel, with Nuclear Roots

In a zero-carbon economy, nuclear reactors are likely to do a lot more than just make electricity. They can also direct their output toward making hydrogen, especially when electricity demand is low or when the system is flooded by electricity from intermittent sources, like wind and solar.

Four U.S. legacy reactors are exploring hydrogen production, and some advanced reactor designs have been optimized for making it.

The production of hydrogen fuel may be the way to marry nuclear and aviation, which among the industries that emit carbon dioxide, is considered one of the hardest-to-abate cases.

Airbus, the European manufacturer, says it is developing a fuel cell, a device that turns hydrogen into electricity, to turn propellers to power the airplane. And it is modifying the fuel tanks on its test A380 plane to carry hydrogen instead of jet fuel.

Aircraft manufacturers’ interest in hydrogen comes as hopes for hydrogen-powered cars is dissipating. Hyundai and Toyota still make them, but battery-electric cars (which can also use energy from nuclear plants) have eclipsed hydrogen.

Hydrogen can be made with electric current from any source by splitting molecules of water, H2O, so wind and solar sources could make carbon-free hydrogen. But nuclear reactors are better suited to making hydrogen because they are copious sources of heat. If the water is heated, it can be split with about 30 percent less electricity.

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It’s not Waste, it’s a Spaceship Battery

Space probes that go where solar panels won’t work can usually get their energy from a form of plutonium that is relatively short-lived and gives off heat, which can be converted to electricity.

But until now, Europeans got their plutonium from Russia; a source now cut off because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now the European Space Agency is turning to Americium 241, which can be extracted from spent fuel from power reactors, among other methods.

Americium isn’t as radioactive as the plutonium isotope, plutonium 238, so a spacecraft has to carry more of it. But it is cheaper and more abundant, and it lasts longer.

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You Want It When?

Two huge new nuclear reactors, both pressurized water models, are on the brink of commercial operation. To get here, they took two very different paths.

Barakah 3, which is the third of a four-unit nuclear plant being built in the United Arab Emirates, has reached 100 percent power, according to the owner, Nawah Energy Company. It will go into commercial operation in early 2023. The project has demonstrated that nuclear reactors can be built fairly swiftly; Building Unit 3, from groundbreaking to activation, took 100 months, slightly less than Barakah units 1 and 2.

The reactor is a Korean unit, rated at 1,400 megawatts. It’s based on a design by a U.S. company, Combustion Engineering, and is slightly more advanced than the design used at Palo Verde, in Arizona. Combustion Engineering is now owned by Westinghouse, which licensed the use of the design in the UAE. But Westinghouse is suing Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) and Korea Electric Power Corp. (KEPCO), the builders of Barakah, because those companies reportedly want to sell the same model to Poland, without licensing fees.

The other new reactor is Vogtle 3, being built by Georgia Power near Augusta. It recently loaded fuel and was expected to achieve its first criticality (i.e., split its first atom) imminently, but commercial operation will not come before the second quarter of 2023. Construction began there in March 2013, 18 months before Barakah 3, putting it approximately 2 years behind Barakah 3.

Barakah 3 benefited from being the third in a series; building the second or third model of something is almost always easier. In fact, Georgia Power says that Vogtle 4 is benefiting from lessons learned at Vogtle 3. And Vogtle is a bigger challenge because it is a first-of-a-kind project in the United States, and some work was slowed by the pandemic.

But there are faster paths to completion. Another twin-unit AP1000, Haiyang, in China, achieved commercial operation in October 2018, after a groundbreaking in July 2008, including a delay for regulatory review after the Fukushima accident. China paused approvals of new nuclear plants for three and a half years after the Fukushima event.

Clearly, construction schedules can be improved.

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*An earlier version of this post misstated the kind of uranium that Los Alamos National Laboratory will be using to manufacture fuel components for Kairos Power's test reactor. That reactor will require fuel enriched up to 19.75 percent, not the 5 percent level that is commercially available now.