Zeno Power will repurpose legacy radioisotope source from ORNL

January 31, 2024, 12:03PMNuclear News

Zeno Power announced on January 26 that it will get the strontium-90 that it needs to fuel full-scale radioisotope power systems (RPSs) for national security and space exploration missions from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM). Under a public-private partnership, a large legacy RPS known as the BUP-500 that had languished, unused, in storage at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been transported to an unnamed commercial radiological facility in Pennsylvania—Zeno Power’s subcontractor—where the Sr-90 it contains will be repurposed as heat sources for Zeno Power devices.

“This innovative partnership will transform legacy byproduct material—a taxpayer liability—into a clean energy asset that will advance national security and scientific missions,” said Zeno’s cofounder and chief executive officer Tyler Bernstein.

Just days earlier, Zeno announced that it had selected Westinghouse Electric Company, headquartered in Cranberry Township, Penn., to process radioisotopes to fabricate its heat sources.

Reduce, recycle, revitalize: Zeno has received more than $40 million in government contracts to deliver RPSs that will enable critical operations on the seabed, in orbit, and the surface of the moon. The company hopes to commercialize its RPS technology for clients seeking a compact and reliable source of clean power by 2026.

The Sr-90 secured from ORNL’s BUP-500 will power new RPSs, including those Zeno Power is under contract to provide to the Department of Defense.

“The theme of this partnership with DOE is ‘reduce, recycle and revitalize’: We’re reducing a DOE liability, recycling nuclear material for beneficial reuse, and revitalizing Sr-90 RPS technology for 21st-century applications,” said Harsh S. Desai, Zeno’s chief commercialization officer.

The BUP-500 is unloaded from a transport vehicle. (Photo: Zeno Power)

A win-win: The BUP-500 (or Byproduct Utilization Program 500-watt Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator) was stored at ORNL for nearly 40 years before its recent transfer to Pennsylvania. The move was arranged with support from OREM’s environmental cleanup contractor, United Cleanup Oak Ridge (UCOR), according to a DOE announcement.

Built in the mid-1980s at ORNL, the BUP-500 was never deployed. Before the partnership with Zeno Power, OREM expected to store the device for another 30 years before disposing of it. Because it was stored at a facility that is scheduled for demolition at ORNL, finding a new use for the BUP-500 “accelerates the clean-out around that facility, avoids the costs associated with disposal, and significantly reduces liability at ORNL,” according to the DOE.

“This is a win-win scenario that’s removing a significant source of radioactivity at a savings to taxpayers, while also supporting nuclear innovation,” said OREM manager Jay Mullis.

PNNL helps with testing: Last fall, Zeno announced that it had completed the design, fabrication, and testing of its Z1 Sr-90 heat source. That testing was performed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and according to Zeno it confirmed that the company’s patented technology provided increased specific power (watts-thermal per kilogram), compared with historic Sr-90 heat sources, and verified that Zeno’s fabrication process can be demonstrated in a hot-cell environment using radiological material.

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