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Nuclear Notes — Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023

Matthew Wald

Breaking the Post-Soviet Nuclear Monopoly

Westinghouse has signed a contract with the operators of the Kozloduy nuclear power plant, in Bulgaria, to provide unit 5 of the reactor with fuel for the next ten years, replacing Russia as a supplier. Bulgaria, struggling to cut energy ties with Russia, is hedging its bets; it signed a contract with Framatome, the French company, to supply the other unit, unit 6. Both reactors are Soviet-era VVER-1000 pressurized water models, and they use fuel in the same form as French and American reactors, a ceramic pellet in a metal wrapper, but the fuel is a different shape.

Units 1-4 were shut by Bulgaria as a condition of its joining the European Union.

Nuclear is Not Just Clean; it’s Award-Winning Clean

Kairos Power has made the Global Cleantech 100 list. The annual list, which covers energy, agriculture, chemicals, transportation, and everything else that must change to get us to a net-zero carbon economy, cites Kairos for using “a novel advanced reactor technology for nuclear fission, leveraging tristructural isotropic fuel and using molten fluoride as a coolant instead of water.”

The fuel, known as TRISO, is fissile material in concentric layers of tough, heat-resistant materials. (It’s known as a “pebble bed.” It might be more accurate to call it a “tennis ball bed” reactor, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it.) Using molten fluoride as the coolant allows operation at low pressure but very high temperature, which aids in efficiency.

Inclusion in the list is another sign of wider acceptance of nuclear energy as clean, especially among technology experts.

The list, compiled annually since 2009, was drawn this year from more than 15,000 entries. Previous winners include NuScale Power, which has a light-water design notable for extreme simplicity, not requiring electricity, extra cooling water, or operator action in case of malfunction.

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An R&D Organization Works to Become a Business Incubator

The U.S. Department of Energy is so deep into so many areas of science—from materials research to sequencing the human genome—that in the 1990s, one assistant secretary joked that what “D.O.E.” really stood for was “Department of Everything.”

But now its role is changing. The department is administering billions of dollars in grants to help get smart new nuclear reactor designs off the drawing boards and into commercial service. Its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program is helping advance a dozen reactor technologies.

But government bureaucracy does not always mesh well with the culture of entrepreneurial start-ups. Federal procurement rules center on deliberate procedures for competitive bidding and other worthy precautions, but start-ups are focused on getting to market as soon as possible.

Demonstrating new nuclear technologies in this decade is a goal of the DOE as well. The Nuclear Innovation Alliance, a small think tank based in Washington, DC, commissioned a report on how the DOE could improve its procedures, to make its help more useful.

The report, Transforming the U.S. Department of Energy: Paving the Way to Commercialize Advanced Nuclear Energy, written by me (!), will be released today (Thursday, Jan 19), with a panel discussion including Dr. Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary for nuclear energy, senior staff members of the relevant House and Senate committees, and other experts.

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Investment Continues to Flow into Nuclear Start-Ups

X-Energy, one of the two flagship projects under the Energy Department’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, is getting $25 million in investments from two South Korean companies: DL E&C, a leading construction company, and Doosan, a manufacturing conglomerate. The company’s technology is a high-temperature reactor using graphite and helium. Doosan could use steam from the reactor for various industrial purposes, not just for electricity.

X-Energy is negotiating the terms of a larger investment from Whale Investment Co., a private equity company based in Seoul.

X-Energy is planning to go public in the second quarter of this year, through a merger. It would become the second advanced reactor company to go that route; NuScale Power recently did the same recently, trading under the symbol SMR.

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It’s Not Just the Grocery Store: Inflation Hits Nuclear Construction

The U.S. launch customer for NuScale Power’s first plant, Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, set a benchmark price for electricity from the plant at $58 per megawatt-hour. But that was in mid-2021, and since then, prices of lots of things have gone up, including steel, concrete, labor, and the other ingredients of a power plant.

The customer, known as UAMPS, has a project management committee that has been following the cost estimates. The committee has established an updated price target of $89 per megawatt-hour, “which reflects the changing financial landscape for the development of energy projects nationwide.” The project still needs further approvals within UAMPS, a consortium of 48 public power entities.

But engineers are already at work evaluating several plant construction sites within the Idaho National Laboratory, and the project is scheduled to submit an application next January for a combined construction license and operating license. (This is possible because NuScale already has a design approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)

Inflation is not just a nuclear problem. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in December that the price of battery packs for electric vehicles rose 7 percent from a year earlier. The big driver was an increase in the price of cobalt, nickel, and lithium.

A Seattle consulting company, LevelTen Energy, found that in the third quarter of 2022, contract prices for solar energy were up 30 percent from the same quarter a year earlier, and wind contract prices were up 37 percent.

And the price of a megawatt-hour on the wholesale market is up sharply, too, the amount varying by region, but driven in part by higher prices for fossil gas.

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