Nuclear Notes — Thursday, Jan. 11
Russia: 3, China: 1, United States: 0
According to a recent announcement, Rosatom, a Russian state-owned company, will supply the fuel for China’s fast reactor, the CFR-600. The company has already completed its shipment of the fuel for the initial load and the first refueling, Rosatom says.
When the plant opens, it will make China the second country with a large fast reactor, behind Russia itself.
The American entry into the fast reactor race, the Natrium reactor, has a customer, Rocky Mountain Power, and a site, Kemmerer, Wyoming, near a retiring coal plant. It’s backed by two capable nuclear firms: GE-Hitachi, and TerraPower, the company founded by Bill Gates. And it incorporates thermal storage and thus will help balance a system that has a large input of solar energy.
But the reactor faces a significant delay because the United States does not have a source for the kind of fuel it needs, HALEU, which is low-enriched uranium but with a higher content of easy-to-split Uranium-235. In December, TerraPower said that opening the plant would be delayed by at least two years.
“Fast” reactors use a coolant that allows the neutrons, the sub-atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, to travel at very high speeds. These high-energy neutrons can split many more kinds of atoms, getting energy value out of some materials that are now considered nuclear waste.
The initial plan was to get the first core for Natrium from Russia, but that was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia itself operates two fast reactors and is building a third.
A New Reactor Comes Together
Schematic diagrams that show how new reactors will split atoms, make heat, and then create usable energy leave out lots of important details— and ones that reactor developers have to iron out before they have a working model. One of those details is falling into place for X Energy, the company that is building a high-temperature gas-cooled “pebble bed” reactor.
X-Energy has selected a vendor for its Reactor Protection System, the independent, redundant set of instruments and controls that assures the reactor will shut itself down in case of malfunction. The vendor, Paragon Energy Solutions, which supplies many conventional nuclear plants, has just completed a prototype system for X Energy.
One key requirement is that the system is safe from coding errors and cyberattacks. X Energy’s system has no software in the conventional sense. It uses Field Programmable Gate Arrays, which are hardware devices with coding instructions burned into them.
X Energy, based in Rockville, Md., just outside Washington, DC, expects to merge with an investment company and be listed on the New York Stock Exchange in the second quarter of this year. That would make it the second nuclear start-up company to be publicly traded. The first was NuScale, which went public last May.
Putting a Reactor Where It Could Do the Most Good
West Virginia is the most coal-heavy state in the country; that’s where more than 90 percent of its electricity comes from. It’s also a heavy exporter of coal-fired electricity.
But some of its coal plants are now shutting down. Whatever the political sentiment there, the economics aren’t working well.
In early January, Gates, founder of Microsoft and a major funder of TerraPower, visited a 430-megawatt plant in Glasgow, W. Va., Kanawha, that opened in 1953 and was shut by American Electric Power in 2014 because it didn’t meet the EPA’s rules on mercury and air toxics.
What’s available to replace it? Until recently, West Virginia had a ban on nuclear energy, but the state legislature repealed it last year.
“Really, I think six months ago we really weren’t on their radar much at all, nuclear wasn’t, but the Legislature did say, ‘Okay, we’re open-minded to nuclear,’ and that was quite impressive,” Gates told local reporters. He did not make any commitments, though, and the immediate problem is that the lead plant designed by TerraPower and its partner, GE-Hitachi, has been delayed because of difficulties finding the fuel. That plant is to be built at the site of a retired coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming. On the tour with him was Joe Manchin, U.S. Senator from West Virginia and a champion of coal.
A nuclear plant that displaces fossil fuels is a climate benefit anywhere. But one that displaces coal has an even bigger impact.
The United States’ drive to decarbonize went backward in 2022, according to preliminary figures from the Rhodium Group. Carbon emissions were up about 1.3 percent over the previous year, following an increase of 6.5 percent in 2021. This wipes out most of the emissions reduction achieved in 2020, which was driven by the Covid-19 pandemic.
U.S. carbon emissions growth was somewhat slower than economic growth, which is a positive sign, but not a ratio that nature cares so much about. The reductions that were achieved, according to Rhodium, were in the electricity sector, largely from substituting natural gas for coal. But that is clearly not a path to zero; it leaves a fossil fuel infrastructure in place, guaranteeing carbon emissions for decades to come.
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