Two reports sound alarm on supply chain deployment risks—for fission and fusion

May 19, 2023, 7:00AMNuclear News

Reports released this week point to a clean energy future fueled by atomic energy—if and when pressing supply chain issues can be resolved. Advanced Reactor Roadmap, Phase 1: North America, released on May 15 by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Nuclear Energy Institute, takes a broad look at the deployment of advanced fission reactors and identifies supply chain ramp-up as one key enabler. The Fusion Industry Supply Chain: Opportunities and Challenges, released by the Fusion Industry Association on May 17, focuses on fusion energy supply chain issues.

Double take: Both fission and fusion technology developers are confronting supplier reluctance to make needed investments—and without those investments, the full potential of the technologies may not be reached. Consider the parallels between these conclusions from the two reports.

On uncertainty:
EPRI/NEI fission report—“The industry is pursuing the expansion of the supply chain for advanced reactors; however, uncertainty in the timeliness and scale of advanced reactor deployment is likely to suppress the investment needed in the supply chain.”
FIA fusion report—“The biggest challenge is balancing supplier scale with risk. Fusion companies need suppliers to scale ahead of demand, but suppliers are reluctant to do so without commitments or clarity, which fusion companies still struggle to give long-term.”

On specific needs:
EPRI/NEI fission report—
“Advanced reactor technologies . . . incorporate new materials and innovative components for which there is little experience in manufacturing. The shift from in-field construction to factory manufacturing of advanced reactors enables larger-scale deployment, but it also makes the need for a strong domestic supply chain even more essential to meeting the market need.”
FIA fusion report—
“The companies commercializing any fusion technology will need a breadth of highly specialized and precision manufactured components, whether high-powered magnets or lasers, power electronics and semiconductors, ultra-efficient heat management technologies, or materials that can withstand the extreme conditions in a fusion vessel. And, they will need the fuel that powers the reaction.”

The fission report: EPRI and NEI released the first phase of their Advanced Reactor Roadmap at the Nuclear Energy Assembly as “an achievable path for the successful deployment of advanced reactors in North America as part of the clean energy transition.”

The EPRI/NEI roadmap outlines a recommended approach to help the nuclear industry realize the potential value of advanced reactors; discusses seven “enablers” for large-scale deployment, including conditions related to policy, regulatory, and public acceptance; and establishes targets for 45 key actions necessary for delivering advanced reactors into the market. Those 45 actions address strategic priorities in licensing, fuel cycle, supply chain, construction, operation, and workforce development.

Fission specifics: “The supply chain has been identified as a strategic element because advanced reactors employ fuels, coolants, technologies, deployment models, and other attributes and capabilities that extend beyond those of the current operating fleet of LWRs and CANDU reactors,” the report states.

The report identifies five key supply chain issues and 16 associated actions. The actions include both assessments and documentation to be carried out immediately, and R&D, collaboration, and investments to address identified needs by specific target dates between 2024 and 2030. These are the five key supply chain issues:

  • Lack of fabrication capability for module fabrication.
  • Shortage of nuclear-grade components.
  • Small forging facilities inadequate to handle potential demand.
  • Specific materials supply chain gaps.
  • Commercialization of advanced manufacturing capabilities.

Several specific supply needs are listed, including basic commodities (raw materials, steel, concrete, rebar, pipe, etc.), manufacturing (alloys, casting, forging, modularization, etc.), non–light water technology products (such as molten-salt heat exchangers and pumps, and nuclear-grade graphite), a sustained supply of spares and replacement components, and nuclear fuel.

The fusion report: The FIA released The Fusion Industry Supply Chain after surveying its members to analyze the current fusion supply chain and project demand growth. The report found that concern about geopolitical supply risk among the technology developers in its membership was limited, and that a more pressing concern was “a reluctance amongst suppliers to make the investments needed without firm commitments.”

Based on a survey of 26 private fusion companies and 34 supplier companies, the FIA calculated that the supply chain was worth more than $500 million in 2022 and could increase to more than $7 billion by the time companies build their “first-of-a-kind” fusion power plants.

The FIA asked fusion suppliers about their confidence in the fusion industry by posing this question: “Fusion companies hope to scale rapidly in the coming years which may create a rapid increase in demand on the supply chain. Please indicate your position with regard to supporting this.” (Source: FIA, The Fusion Industry Supply Chain: Opportunities and Challenges, chart 13)

Fusion specifics: Seventy percent of fusion companies said their suppliers see building the capacity to meet future demand as too risky without committed orders, according to the report. The report includes several recommendations to address supplier reluctance:

  • Increase public and private fusion investment to build confidence about the necessary supplier scale.
  • Experiment with risk-sharing financing to enable suppliers to invest in new capacity.
  • Create online networks and an annual supplier event to foster communication between fusion companies and suppliers.
  • Deploy standardization and regulation to bring more certainty to the supply chain and confidence to long-term investments.

“While most of the materials and components for commercial fusion power plants will be met through already existing supply chains (concrete, steel, power electronics, etc.), there are a limited set of supply chain needs that are unique to the fusion industry,” the report states. “These are mostly specialized manufactured components, such as high-powered magnets, laser components, heat management technologies, advanced materials, high-powered semiconductors, and fusion fuel. Needs also include specialist contractors to help make parts, as well as legal services.”

Specific needs will vary based on a company’s approach to fusion energy. Several supply needs are listed in the report, including vacuum pumps; heat management technologies; deuterium, tritium, or other gaseous fusion fuels; power semiconductors; specialized metals such as high-grade steel; first wall materials; HTS wire; magnets; cryogenic devices; lithium; rare earth metals; common metals such as nickel and copper; and lasers and laser components.

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