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Nuclear Notes—Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022

Matthew Wald

Another advanced reactor? Да. (Da.)

Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company, has confirmed plans to build a third “fast” reactor at Beloyarsk. The reactor, BN-1200, follows the BN-600 and the BN-800, which are already in operation. The numbers in their names refer to their approximate output, in megawatts of electricity.

The reactors use sodium to carry the heat of fission out of the core. That energy can, in turn, be converted to steam and then electricity. Since sodium does not reduce the speed of neutrons—the sub-atomic particles that are liberated when an atom is split and that go on to split other atoms—these reactors are “fast” reactors, with high-energy neutrons. Such reactors can use a wider variety of material as fuel, and they can recycle elements of used fuel.

The United States operated a commercial fast reactor from 1963 to 1972, but the industry since dropped the technology in favor of light water.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some U.S. developers of components for reactors had hoped to use the BN-800 to expose samples of materials that would be used in American fast reactors to intense neutron bombardment, for testing purposes. The process would help further develop fast reactors and other advanced technologies in this country. That is now out of the question. There is another possibility: the Department of Energy has proposed building a U.S. test reactor. But Congress has not provided the funding.

China, meanwhile, also has a sodium-cooled reactor, the CFR-600 (600 megawatt output), under construction in Fujian province.

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Like Time’s Person of the Year, for Tech Geeks

Time Magazine named NuScale’s small modular reactor module one of the 200 Best Inventions of 2022. Yes, there are 199 other gadgets on the list, but being recognized for good design by a general interest publication is an infrequent event for nuclear energy. The reactor appears in the “Green Energy” section.

The NuScale design has an emergency cooling system that does not require any pumps, electricity, additional water, or even operator action to perform its function. It will be built in a factory, which will help with cost and with quality control, and shipped in three parts to the plant site. The first plant is supposed to be in service in Idaho in 2029.

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Re-Learning Nuclear Fuel Manufacturing

In the 1940s The United States invented uranium enrichment, the process by which types of uranium are sorted to produce a blend more suitable for reactors. But the Atomic Energy Commission, and its successor, the Department of Energy, failed to modernize the production plants and eventually got out of the market. The government spun off its outdated enrichment plants to an entity called United States Enrichment Corp.

As far as government privatizations go, this one was on par with Amtrak and the Postal Service; USEC inherited an outdated technology, called Gaseous Diffusion, and was not competitive.

Now, spurred by a desire to be free of reliance on Russian enrichment, and by the need for a new, richer blend to run advanced reactors, Congress has appropriated money to start a modern native enrichment technology. Last week [RIGHT?Katie:announced nov 10], the Energy Department awarded $150 million for a demonstration project, using American centrifuges. The recipient is a subsidiary of the privatized entity, which is now called Centrus Energy. The new centrifuges are in Piketon, Ohio, at the site of a former gaseous diffusion plant.

The centrifuges will produce small amounts of enriched uranium, which will be used for initial batches of the higher-blend uranium, so the new fuel can be tested before industrial—scale manufacturing.

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Nuclear Does It in the Dark

At the COP27 meeting in Egypt, a variety of energy customers, suppliers and other entities have signed on to the Carbon-Free Energy Compact, a set of principles to drive change in the energy system.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association whose largest members are the companies that operate nuclear reactors, was quick to jump on board. “It’s not enough to decarbonize some hours of the day,” said Maria Korsnick, the president and CEO. “To meet our climate goals, we must create an energy system capable of providing carbon-free electricity every hour of the day.”

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From Pioneers of Aviation, the Wrights and Glenn Curtiss, to Nuclear Energy

American high-tech companies are turning their attention to nuclear. Curtiss-Wright—a 93-year-old company formed by the merger of entities founded by the aviation pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright and Glenn Hammond Curtiss—has reached an agreement with X-Energy to help deploy that company’s high-temperature pebble bed reactor. In a session with stock analysts at an industry conference on Nov. 10, Lynn Bamford, the chair and chief executive officer of Curtiss-Wright, said the company would provide $100 million in equipment for each X-Energy reactor.

Broad corporate interest in advanced nuclear is a sign of consensus among many corporate leaders that the nuclear start-ups will actually produce commercial products. Bamford was upbeat about more than just X-Energy. He talked about “a complete change of sentiment” about nuclear energy in the United States.

“One of the things that's really exciting is there's very strong bipartisan support for returning the U.S. to being the nuclear powerhouse in the world,” he said. “There's a handful of major players that are going after the larger small modular reactors, and we are very much pursuing content with TerraPower, GE Hitachi, Rolls Royce to just name a couple of the more prominent names.”

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