ANS Annual Meeting: Nuclear power innovation for decarbonization

June 15, 2022, 7:00AMNuclear News
Panelists (from left) Adam Stein, Jon Ball, Mike Laufer, and Michl Binderbauer during the Breaking Through: Assessing the Current State and Prospects of Nuclear Innovation in the Race to Decarbonize session at the ANS Annual Meeting.

If nuclear innovators are in a race to decarbonize, it is a race with one finish line—affordable, clean, and reliable power—and many ways to get there. Over 40 fission developers and 20 fusion developers are in the running, and while attendees of the June 13 ANS Annual Meeting executive session on Breaking Through: Assessing the Current State and Prospects of Nuclear Innovation in the Race to Decarbonize heard from representatives of just three of those companies, they presented very different designs and deployment approaches, aptly reflecting the broader diversity of nuclear power innovation.

Session chair Adam Stein, director of nuclear energy innovation at the Breakthrough Institute, welcomed representatives from an advanced non–light water reactor developer (Mike Laufer, Kairos Power), a small modular light water reactor developer (Jon Ball, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy), and a fusion power developer (Michl Binderbauer, TAE Technologies). Together they explored the challenge of engineering a significant commercial scale-up of advanced nuclear technology by the end of the decade, tackling questions of cost, schedule, supply chain, regulation, and more.

The panelists: Mike Laufer is cofounder and chief executive officer of Kairos, a company with 280 engineers focused on commercializing one reactor technology—a fluoride salt–cooled high-temperature reactor that Kairos calls KP-FHR. Having chosen to develop a reactor using golf ball–sized TRISO fuel pebbles in molten FLiBe coolant, the company is now focused on proving those technologies are safe and can be built to be both affordable and reliable, Laufer said.

Jon Ball, executive vice president of market development at GE Hitachi, described his company’s goal of reducing the size and the costs of boiling water reactor technology through the development of the BWRX-300, a 10th-generation boiling water reactor design that uses 50 percent less concrete on a per-megawatt basis than a large boiling water reactor and is capable of ramping by half of 1 percent every minute. A BWRX-300 could be operational by 2028 in Ontario after the design was selected for deployment by Ontario Power Generation, Ball said.

Michl Binderbauer, cofounder and CEO of TAE, is leading a team of 300 people with the goal of developing a fusion power plant that would go to temperatures ten times the 100 million degrees needed for conventional fusion and burn hydrogen-boron fuel rather than tritium fuel, an approach he says could simplify maintenance and avoid neutron generation. Binderbauer expects the company’s next fusion machine, Copernicus, to be running by mid-decade at about 150 million degrees, to be followed by another machine by the end of the decade as the company gradually turns up the heat.

Schedule: “Schedules are like balloons,” Laufer said. “They’ll fill with time.” Pushing back against schedule inflation is necessary, he said, and Kairos has an aggressive iterative schedule of design and testing. “Those goals are going to seem impossible at first, but if you don’t set goals that are hard, things will stretch out.”

When it comes to planning to meet regulatory requirements for commercial deployment, Laufer is trying to strike a balance between maintaining an accelerated pace of innovation and methodically documenting the company’s progress with a future license application in mind. “This is the scariest type of target,” he said, “because we can go too light and not be able to catch up, or we can go too heavy and drag ourselves down.”

Ball explained that GE Hitachi made the choice to develop BWR technology knowing that the fuel for the reactor was already commercially available. “We've been designing new fuel types since the 1950s, and our experience is it takes 10 years to design and license a new fuel type. So having that fuel licensed and commercially available we knew was a huge accelerator to trying to bring this to market.”

Binderbauer agreed with Laufer that schedules will stretch if permitted to stretch. He pointed to machine learning as a schedule accelerator for TAE. In the past, “finding maximum and minimum in some operating condition would take maybe two months,” he said. “We can do that now in 20 experiments, which is a fraction of an afternoon. . . . The human can’t do that, and so those kinds of things create schedule certainty.”

Pleasing the customer: Every panelist recognized that customers will be shopping by price. “These nuclear systems have to have world-class rule-class safety, but if they’re not economical then they’re not going to be ultimately adopted,” Ball said, noting that GE Hitachi has implemented a design-to-cost process.

Binderbauer said, “We were very driven early on by the idea that if we wanted to compete in the utility space, we had to have something that couldn’t just be carbon-free.” A fusion power plant would have to be cost-effective and maintainable, as well. “Every iteration we do an exercise where we’re looking at the latest integrated data coming out and say, ‘Are we still tracking the cost picture?’” If not, Binderbauer said, more innovation is needed to bring it back on track.

Laufer explained that while Kairos sees the United States as its primary market for the commercial KP-FHR, the company is currently working on its nonnuclear Engineering Test Unit (ETU) not to meet a customer contract but as a “purely internal project to prove what we can do.” Next up is Hermes, a low-power demonstration reactor to be built on a site in Oak Ridge, Tenn., with cost-shared support from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program.

Supply chain: Kairos Power’s ETU is testing vessel pump, fuel handling, and reactivity control systems with electrically heated molten salt. But beyond that, ETU is also testing the supply chain. “We knew that suppliers that couldn’t deliver what we needed for a nonnuclear system had no chance of delivering it [for] the nuclear system,” Laufer said, emphasizing throughout the session that Kairos is seeking schedule and supply chain certainty by using the vertical integration model exemplified by space technology company SpaceX and by seeking investors rather than vendors.

Ball said GE Hitachi has “a much different strategy” of manufacturing fuel and control systems for its designs but relying on vendors to manufacture large components. “Forgings, reactor pressure vessels are where we have probably the greatest concern of being constrained,” Ball said, noting that GE Hitachi is surveying global manufacturers to understand how many BWRX-300 modules could be built in year; the company is expecting the results of that survey later this year.

Regulation: Each panelist raised distinct and differing concerns about the regulatory process. Pressure on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to modernize the licensing process and provide regulatory certainty “has produced very little outcome in terms of how they’re going to do things differently,” Laufer said, with one notable exception: “When you come into the room and say, ‘This is something that’s different, but we think it’s reasonable,’ you have open ears, and that’s really the great benefit.”

Ball said his biggest concern was international harmonization of regulation. “If you think about hundreds of these reactors needed, if you have to license them individually in every country you will never make a dent in what’s required for climate change. If you submit a safety analysis report to a highly credible regulator, whether it’s the U.S., Canada, U.K., or elsewhere, another regulator should be able to take that and leverage it.”

From the point of view of fusion developers, Binderbauer said that the United Kingdom has recognized that fusion power options could be emerging within the next five to 10 years and has published a framework for fusion regulation. “The NRC’s struggling a little bit now because they said they lack the technical expertise today to go through that, and so we’re trying to work through the last year and a half . . . trying to come up with something that will let the U.S. accelerate rather than be stagnant.”

The market is vast: The panelists all expect future market demand for their carbon-free technologies. Currently, “There’s a fallacy in the way people look at things, thinking that solar and wind can solve everything,” Binderbauer said. “Absolutely, they’re wonderful sources of power where it fits. But there are also limitations. There’s no world that can run on 100 percent renewables.” Binderbauer said he believes that understanding is growing and creating space for all nuclear power technologies to play a role.

“I don’t consider anybody here, anybody that works in the nuclear sector broadly, as competition,” Binderbauer said. “I hope everybody succeeds because the market is vast and the world needs it. So, I think we have to deliver technology that is cost-effective and scalable. And if we do that and it’s reliable, it will get adopted.”

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