Among the small number of small modular reactors currently in operation around the world, there are two on a ship floating off the far eastern coast of Russia. Russia also builds commercial nuclear icebreakers.
By Will Wade (Bloomberg) The invasion of Ukraine has put the United States and Europe on a war mission to ditch Russian fossil fuels. This series looks at accelerating zero-carbon alternatives by lowering political and financial barriers.
The construction of large conventional nuclear power plants is slow and expensive. This is one of the reasons the industry is banking its future on a new generation of advanced small reactors. Still in development, these offer the promise of carbon-free energy and could support the ebbs and flows of renewable energy in the clean grids of the future.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine pushes Western countries to break their dependence on Russian energy exports, in part by accelerating green technologies that will replace fossil fuels, one solution may be to boost the deployment of nuclear energy. Advanced nuclear startup Oklo Inc. says it could build a new plant within about a year. It wouldn’t be big, but it could be ready quickly if the United States was willing to speed up the regulatory process, Oklo CEO Jacob DeWitte said.
However, the type of fuel his reactor would run on is rare and comes mostly from Russia at present. A domestic supply would take years to start.
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While conventional nuclear reactors have a capacity of around 1 gigawatt (1,000 megawatts), Silicon Valley-based Oklo has designed a 15-megawatt system that could provide clean power to around 10,000 homes. The first would fit in a small warehouse and cost around $50 million. After that, additional systems could start rolling out of the factories every three to six months, according to DeWitte, and could be assembled quickly on site, thanks to Oklo’s modular design.
“All of this we could do in a few months,” DeWitte said. “It takes time, but it’s not years.”
DeWitte says the design is ready to go, but he can’t proceed without a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Oklo submitted a 2020 application, which the agency rejected in January, saying it was missing some key details. The company says its technology is different from conventional reactors, as is its application; it plans to submit a revised version by the end of the year.
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Expectations for advanced nuclear have been high for years, but the fledgling industry still has little tangible to show for them. Based on the current crisis, governments could provide more support to the sector as a potential solution. If the US government made it a national security priority, much of the regulatory process could potentially be expedited. Efforts are already underway on Capitol Hill to streamline the licensing process for small reactors.
Deploying more nuclear power at home could eventually free up US fuel supplies that could be routed elsewhere. And once the production process is in full swing, small modular reactors could be shipped in parts and assembled overseas, relieving other countries’ demand for coal or natural gas.
However, the NRC approval process is comprehensive and time-consuming for one reason: the risk of a catastrophic accident. Even if companies say they’re ready to start construction, it may not be prudent to rush the process, said Chris Gadomski, chief nuclear analyst for BloombergNEF, a clean energy research group. . New reactors must be checked. And since none of them have ever been built before, bugs could appear once they start moving from blueprints to factories.
Among the small number of small modular reactors currently in operation around the world, there are two on a ship floating off the far eastern coast of Russia.
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“It’s a great thing to go from a PowerPoint reactor to a real operating reactor,” Gadomski said. “When you allow a nuclear reactor, if something goes wrong, everyone starts pointing fingers.”
Some small reactor designs may be more difficult to speed up. TerraPower LLC announced plans last year for a 345-megawatt plant in Wyoming that is expected to come on stream in 2028. The company, founded by billionaire Bill Gates, plans to submit its NRC license application at the end of the year. ‘next year.
Even with full government support, construction will initially take four to five years, said Jeff Navin, director of external affairs for TerraPower. Once production is running, subsequent plants would take about three years and cost about $1 billion each.
Part of the challenge is that most of these advanced reactors use new technologies. Unlike conventional nuclear power plants used today, TerraPower will use liquid sodium as a coolant instead of water. It will also include a molten salt storage system to conserve heat that will allow operators to increase production in times of high electricity demand. Oklo’s design uses liquid metal as the coolant.
“The first one always takes longer,” Navin said. “It will take about seven years from the handshake to the operation.”
Besides the technical challenges of building something that has never been built before, the two companies and some other advanced nuclear developers expect to use a new type of fuel that is currently in short supply. Fuel for conventional reactors is made with advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium to a concentration of around 4% to 5%. For HALEU – low-enriched uranium at high dosage – the same machines increase this rate to almost 20%. Most of the world’s supply of HALEU comes from Russia, and there is no commercial supplier in the United States.
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Centrus Energy Corp. attempts to fill this gap. The company already has NRC approval, as well as a demonstration line of 16 centrifuges capable of producing approximately 1 metric ton of HALEU per year. CEO Dan Poneman said it would take him 42 months to install 120 centrifuges, enough to produce 6 tons a year, and then another six months to add another 120 machines, for around $500 million to $1 billion.
The nuclear industry is evolving at a notoriously slow pace, largely due to critical safety issues. However, timelines set by companies pushing for the industry’s next generation show that these cutting-edge technologies could be ready in the near future.
“We can do it quickly when we think about it,” Poneman said.