Some like to describe the movement towards smaller, simpler, more sophisticated nuclear energy systems as mere hype. But serious, committed, normally reserved scientists, engineers and investors are becoming more and more convinced that real progress is underway based on solid learning from prior experience.
Before the end of this decade, there will be a number of demonstration plants operating in the US and Canada that will open the floodgates to a commercial building program that is likely to see 20 or more nuclear plants under construction at any given time, with 10 or more being completed every year.
Those numbers might be underestimated but they are more likely to be reasonable estimates of the first steps in an accelerating boom with larger numbers being achieved after more practice and supply chain strengthening.
There is a lot of work to be done, but ANS leaders and members have accepted the challenge.
The above statements and predictions are my quick summary impressions from watching the opening plenary and several executive sessions from the 2022 American Nuclear Society’s (ANS) Winter Meeting yesterday. That meeting, underway in Phoenix, AZ through Thursday, Nov 17, is the latest in a long series of ANS meetings stretching back to 1954, when the premier nuclear technical society was founded.
That was a year of almost frantic activity after President Eisenhower announced his “Atoms for Peace” program to the United Nations during a famous speech in December 1954. Snippets from that speech were used during the meeting to help inspire the audience and to remind them of the promise of the technology on which they have chosen to focus their professional careers.
It’s hard not to feel a few goosebumps hearing the President say the following:
Experts would be mobilized to apply atomic energy to the needs of agriculture, medicine and other peaceful activities. A special purpose would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.
Thus the contributing powers would be dedicating some of their strength to serve the needs rather than the fears of mankind.
From Atoms for Peace Dec 8, 1953 (21:21-21:26)
A panel discussion, moderated by John Longenecker of Longenecker and Associates, featured a range of responsible representatives from five important contributing sectors of the enterprise active in meeting the – as yet unfulfilled – promise inherent in atomic energy. It included Bradley Crowell, the newest NRC Commissioner; Steven D. Capps, Senior VP from Duke Energy; Karen File, President and CEO of Urenco; Jess Gehin, Associate Lab Director at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and Pierre Paul Oneid, Senior Vice President and Chief Nuclear Officer (CNO) Holtec International.
The group thus included a regulator, a utility customer, a uranium enrichment company, a national laboratory and a company that builds waste storage systems, decommissions closed nuclear units, has a SMR design whose initial unit will likely be built on the site of a decommissioned nuclear power plant and has a consolidated interim storage facility that is within about 2 years of being able to receive its first shipment of used fuel.
Here are a few bullets summarizing a 90 minute session that included short presentations from each panel member along with an extensive question and answer period.
- Bradley Crowell is a strong supporter of nuclear energy and believes in its potential to provide a growing portion of the world’s clean energy. He is “not anti-nuclear and did not graduate from Cornell.”
- Commissioner Crowell believes that a credible, publicly accepted nuclear waste solution must be implemented promptly or there is a risk that nuclear energy will continue to fall well short of meeting its promise.
- Duke Energy has been quietly including nuclear energy in its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for several years under the alias of ZELFR – Zero Emissions Load Following Resources
- After the October 2021 enactment of legislation in North Carolina that requires a 70% reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and 100% by 2050, Duke began openly including new nuclear in its IRP.
- Under all of the scenarios in that IRP, all 11 existing plants are retained and between 7,500 and 8,000 MWe of new capacity in the form of small modular reactors (SMR) and advanced reactors must be built.
- Steve Capps explained that the public and the politicians in Duke’s service territory, which includes South Carolina, have too many scars from the V.C. Summer debacle to entertain any consideration of a new large nuclear plant construction project.
- Site evaluations are underway, with a special emphasis on sites that currently host retired or soon-to-be-retired coal or oil plants.
- Urenco has the experience, the work force and the technology to supply uranium enriched to 20% – commonly referred to as HALEU (High Assay Low Enriched Uranium)
- It has a project that is well underway to expand its product line to include a product called LEU+ – uranium enriched to between 5% and 10% U-235. That project can be done with a modification to URENCO’s current license and an investment of between $20-$30 M.
- It has performed supporting research and estimation, is conducting detailed engineering and will submit a license application in the next couple of years to build an additional facility on its current site to produce HALEU. That project will cost between $250-$400 M and will be delivering product in 6-7 years. Centrifuges have already been ordered.
- The INL has substantial research, development and demonstration projects that are supporting most of the active advanced nuclear projects. It has a proud history of hosting 52 demonstration and research reactors, but the last initial criticality of a new reactor at INL happened 50 years ago.
- Dr. Gehin showed a slide with a development timeline that showed its first new reactor, the MARVEL, will begin operating in 2024. By the end of this decade, at least a half a dozen new reactors should achieve their initial criticalities at INL.
- Dr. Pierre Paul Oneid gave an impassioned talk about the numerous contributions that Holtec is making to help the nuclear sector begin making large strides towards achieving President Eisenhower’s well articulated vision for atomic energy.
- Starting with a phone call from representatives of Lea and Eddy county New Mexico in 2015, Holtec has designed a Consolidated Interim Spent Fuel storage site.
- The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the site has been issued. The Safety Evaluation Report is expected in the first few months of 2023. The current plan is to begin accepting shipments of used fuel in 2024.
- Holtec has been successfully decommissioning retired nuclear plants and is preparing selected sites to host “a small modular reactor.” It’s not clear if the statements are purposely understated or if the company does not want to tip its hand too early, but it’s unlikely that the company plans to build only one SMR on a site. It’s more likely that each site would host enough SMRs to use the existing transmission capacity.
Later in the day, there were two executive sessions, one focusing how Kairos is using an iterative engineering and construction process to build up its capability of producing commercially viable products and one that described how the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) is helping advanced reactor developers bridge the gap between research and development and commercially viable products.
One part of NRIC’s offered capability is a supporting infrastructure for nuclear power system demonstrations – its is difficult to call a project ready for commercial sales until after it has been adequately tested in a complete configuration. Another part of NRIC’s capability is helping to devise and test new construction techniques that are applicable to a wide range of nuclear designs. Ingredients like vertical boring, Steel Bricks™, and steel concrete composites are commercially available and proven in other industries, but the NRC has to be convinced that they can be used to provide reasonable assurance of adequate protection in a nuclear plant construction context.
The Kairos presentation was so interesting and so detailed that I am hoping to make it a focus for another post and/or an Atomic Show podcast. Per Peterson and Ed Blankford of Kairos have been welcomed guests for past interviews. Per provided a Kairos update in January 2021.