U-Battery – Micronuclear power with intriguing business model

U-Battery was one of the more intriguing presenters at the Advanced Reactor Technical Summit (ARTSIII) held at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory last week. Even though this was a technical summit, the segments of the presentation that captured my attention were the business model and the funding source. However, certain technical choices are vital to support the business model and to attract the funding source.

U-Battery is developing a micro nuclear reactor — a category of nuclear power reactors that produce less than 10 MWe — that uses a helium cooled high temperature reactor with hexagonal prismatic fuel elements similar to the ones used for the Ft. St. Vrain reactor. Like the FSV reactor, the key safety feature is a Triso coated fuel particle that has been proven to be able to retain fission products during indefinite periods of time at temperatures as high as 1800 ℃.

Though the below image is from an INL brief for a proposed system, the U-Battery fuel choice is virtually identical.

HTTR fuel 560

The reactor coolant system will have 40 bar helium circulated between through the reactor and a heat exchanger using a blower, but not one with water cooled bearings like the ones that helped to consign the FSV plant to an early demise. The secondary system is filled with nitrogen and runs through a fairly conventional turbomachine in a closed cycle cooled by low profile air-cooled cooling towers. The lack of water is both a system reliability consideration and a site flexibility feature.

The technical people who conceived the system initially considered using a thorium-based fuel cycle — which would still be an option for later iterations — but they realized it might make more sense to use uranium. That blinding flash of the obvious (BFO) happened when they learned that URENCO — which tells the world that they “… are committed to leading the way in uranium enrichment services for the civil nuclear industry” — was interested in their technology.

Though the final decisions have not been made, URENCO is backing current efforts and may decide to fund the detailed system development and licensing, participate in a partnership to build the first units and purchase them to supply power to its power-hungry facility at Capenhurst. This is a perfect nuclear version of the “eat your own dogfood” mantra well known in the tech industry.

Not only will Urenco obtain reliable, affordable, clean electricity that is a necessary ingredient to its continued success in its core business, but it will be demonstrating a technology that could result in a major demand increase for their core product offering of uranium enrichment service. With the right partnerships, Urenco could also expand into fuel fabrication. Since Urenco has energy-intensive manufacturing facilities in several countries, including the southwestern U.S., there is a terrific opportunity to achieve Nth-of-a-kind economies by meeting its own needs.

According to the presentation provided, URENCO’s current U.K.-based centrifuge plants require approximately 27 MWe. There are near-term plans to add another industrial operation (not a centrifuge) that will use another 3-4 MWe.

That means that the site could consume the output of approximately eight units of the 10 MWth variant. The building height is about 25-30 feet, the reactor, intermediate heat exchanger and turbine are all below grade.

Aside: If asked, I would counsel U-Battery to use a horizontally mounted turbine and generator arrangement vice the vertical one that their graphic illustrates. There is no value in trying to do something rare and difficult with the turbomachinery. End Aside.

Apparently, URENCO’s current site license for Capenhurst will need little, if any, modification to enable the company to build the U-Battery installations on its site. It is simply another facility upgrade as envisioned with the initial license application.

The presentation at the ARTSIII included a site map with several highlighted locations that have already been initially evaluated as suitable for the machines.

Assuming involved corporate boards decide to move forward, this project could leapfrog all other known advanced reactor developments. The partnership as described can tick almost every box needed to begin construction; they have funds, they have a design team, they have credibility, they have a site, and they have chosen a technology that has a sound basis of testing and demonstration.

The US DOE’s development of high temperature fuel manufacturing processes is complete; the fuel qualification testing program will finish crossing all of the t’s and dotting all of the i’s by 2023 with the current funding profile, but that might be dramatically accelerated with sufficient motivation and funding in the UK.

The U-Battery presenters mentioned my former employer, BWX Technologies as a potential fuel supplier. That is the company that has done the manufacturing process development and provided the Triso particles for the highly successful NGNP testing program.

Aside: If you visit the link in the above paragraph and look closely, you will note that the brochure is copyrighted in 2008. The company’s involvement in Triso fuel manufacturing is the real reason I decided to accept their employment offer after I retired from the Navy. Unfortunately, the high prices of natural gas in the 2004-2008 time frame had led the company to believe they needed to start their reentry into commercial nuclear energy with a reactor system using light water. They thought that would enable a faster market entry. End Aside.

Now that I have published this, I will start evaluating investment opportunities that can take advantage of the possibilities if they come to fruition. I’m a patient investor with a long time horizon and I do not provide specific advice related to securities purchases.

There is a good reason I keep going to conferences, workshops and summits related to nuclear energy development. Despite a pretty refined radar and a developed network of sources, I had somehow overlooked U-Battery. The first time I had heard of the company was when I read through the agenda for the ARTSIII event. If I had not been busy in a family way when I saw that agenda, I probably would have done a bit of searching, but I decided to wait to hear what the company reps had to say. The maturity of the project took me by surprise.

There are an increasing number of reasons to get excited about advanced nuclear technologies, even if the basic ideas were proposed and developed decades ago. Since deployment never occurred, the old can look new, improved and exciting to the energy market.

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