Small modular reactors (SMRs) are gaining increased attention as a major opportunity in clean power production. They are a welcome tool in the necessary … [Read More...] about Why are smaller reactors attracting so much interest?
The 24th International Conference on Cold Fusion (ICCF24) was held at the lovely and spacious Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA over four days in late July. As a venture investor looking at evaluating and investing in a wide range of advanced nuclear ventures, I was invited to participate and/or sponsor the event. While I wasn’t initially convinced that cold fusion was the best use of four days, the appeal of sharing my perspective on investing in next-gen nuclear as well as having the opportunity to talk wtih attendees about the work Rod and I are doing building advanced nuclear portfolios for investors with Nucleation Capital, our non-traditional venture fund, was more than I could resist.
To our delight, ICCF24 was a surprisingly fun, well-organized and interesting event, hosted by the Anthropocene Institute. Four full days of expert sessions were capped with a hosted outdoor banquet with comic food-prep performance, gifts and dinner prepared by television celebrity Chef Martin Yan; the inspiring award of a lifetime-achievement gold medal; musical and multimedia entertainment with original rap performances about cold fusion derived from conference sessions by science impresario Baba Brinkman and much more. For those curious about where things stand with what is no longer being called “cold fusion,” I am pleased to share the following report.
First, some background
The concept of cold fusion was announced 1/3 century ago by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons.1 Their sensational revelation? The release of excess heat in a lab setting explainable only as a type of nuclear event occurring in the presence of certain metals and gases. Their claims engendered tremendous scientific interest and initial fanfare but lack of replicability or an acceptable theory to explain the effect undermined confidence and the concept quickly went from hotly debated to thoroughly debunked.
The onerous stigma of discredited science has since followed work on cold fusion yet a number of scientists had become intrigued and begun to explore the phenomenon. Researchers began to meet up periodically to discuss their work and results, forming the ICCF (International Conference on Cold Fusion) in 1990. Despite a serious lack of funding, many independent researchers and labs persisted in testing materials and produced yet more suggestive data using different combinations of metals, configurations, temperatures and pressure conditions.
In 2015, with the threat of climate change helping to convince Google to leave no energy stone unturned, a group of scientists, academics and technologists secured Google funding for a multi-year investigation into cold fusion. After three years and an investigation that tested dozens of approaches, the team published their findings in the journal Nature, acknowledging their failure to observe any transformative excess heat yet also an inability to either confirm or disprove cold fusion from their efforts. They found that better test techniques and measurement calorimetry would be helpful to go further and encouraged others to keep exploring. They concluded:
“A reasonable criticism of our effort may be ‘Why pursue cold fusion when it has not been proven to exist?’. One response is that evaluating cold fusion led our programme to study materials and phenomena that we otherwise might not have considered. We set out looking for cold fusion, and instead benefited contemporary research topics in unexpected ways.
A more direct response to this question, and the underlying motivation of our effort, is that our society is in urgent need of a clean energy breakthrough. Finding breakthroughs requires risk taking, and we contend that revisiting cold fusion is a risk worth taking.
We hope our journey will inspire others to produce and contribute data in this intriguing parameter space. This is not an all-or-nothing endeavour. Even if we do not find a transformative energy source, this exploration of matter far from equilibrium is likely to have a substantial impact on future energy technologies. It is our perspective that the search for a reference experiment for cold fusion remains a worthy pursuit because the quest to understand and control unusual states of matter is both interesting and important.“
Back to the present
The ICCF held its 24th session in northern California last week, following a three year hiatus. Those representing current ongoing research projects largely sported grey, white or no hair. The community engaged in lively debates on a whole range of issues, including what to call this type of energy. With “cold fusion” being tainted, “LENR” (Low Energy Nuclear Reactions) and “Solid-State Fusion Energy” were broadly used interchangeably, even as certain organizers urged caution about selecting any name before the underlying physics were actually fully understood.
Continued poor repeatability underpinned by the lack of a supportive predictive atomic theory that explained the heat generation effect was acknowledged. Nevertheless, there was definite progress being made in a range of areas, not least of which was a far broader appreciation of the complexity of the dynamics underlying the atomic transmutations, particularly with respect to the numbers of affected and active bodies. Unlike fusion and fission, which are nuclear events that happen as a result of direct interactions of two distinct bodies (such as between deuterium and tritium for fusion, and between uranium and a neutron in fission), research had shown that LENR involved complex mult-body interactions, which could occur with a variety of metals such as nickel, steel, or palladium in the presence of deuterium or tritium but which may also include quarks, photons, protons, neutrons or pomerons. To further complicate the matter, it is clear that those dynamics were impacted by conditions such as temperature and pressure affecting the energy of the bonds within the metallic lattices.
While the exact set of phenomena that unfold to release energy remains unclear, what was not debated at all was whether the potential to release heat was real. It clearly is, despite the extended difficulty scientists have had pinning down theory and practice. This issue seems entirely settled. Decades of work by hundreds of researchers reporting on their experiments and experiences of heat release “anomalies” have begun to provide a far more nuanced picture of the dynamics and the parametric guideposts that will eventually enable those studying them to narrow in on the controlling aspects.
According to Dr. Florian Metzler of MIT, the revelation of data points around these phenomena closely mirrors the progression of reporting around anomalies for other deeply complex physical effects, such as the work that preceded the development of the transistor, the solid state amplifier or that which is continuing on superconductors. At some point, the data generated will provide sufficient guidance to enable patterns to emerge that may result in a profound shift in our understandings as well as tranformative technologies, just as Bell Labs did, despite widespread skepticism, to finally figure out how to make reliable transistors, which innovation revolutionized electronics.
In the meantime, there are researchers pursuing the bigger picture on the theoretical side, and making strides towards creating a true “proof of principle” design, starting with known mechanisms which include a better understanding of how host lattice metals absorb energy, get excited and emit an alpha particle. Increasingly, those seeking to deploy LENR systems will move from uncontrolled behaviors to deliberately engineered systems that produce useful amounts of energy. Once that happens, LENR may well emerge as a readily deployable type of consumer-facing nuclear, where a wide range of low-cost materials could be combined at nearly any size or configuration to generate electrons or heat for use in homes, schools, stores, boats, planes and other places where both electricity and heat are used but in smaller amounts.
Two Big Announcements
$10 Million from ARPA-e. Though there were no technological breakthroughs announced, there were some very exciting funding announcements. During his presentation, ARPA-e fusion program director, Scott Hsu, announced a new $10 million funding solicitation round that will select a number of LENR project teams to fund. This funding decision came out of ARPA-e’s Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions Workshop, held in October of 2021, which solicited input from experts on the best approach for breaking the stalemate that has long existed between lack of funding and lack of results in cold fusion. In anticipation, most likely, of the urgency with which any breakthrough will need to be commercialized, this program requires that applicants form into full business teams that bring a variety and balance of skills, blending technical with marketing and finance.
Eyeing a $100M XPrize. Although organizers were not ready to announce the competition or the specific requirements, work has begun to raise the capital necessary to offer a $100 million XPrize to the first team to produce a replicable, accepted, on-demand LENR system. Peter Diamandis, founder of the XPrize, addressed the assembled group and revealed info about the behind-the-scenes efforts, decisions and negotiations that must be completed in order for the XPrize organization to officially offer the prize and start the competition. The news and prospect of there being a very large XPrize that might be offered was very well received. It was also clear that, much like with other XPrizes, news of a prize being in the works can shake loose investment capital for promising ventures sooner rather than later.
LENR Lessons and Learning
According to the Anthropocene Institute, there may be 150 or more initiatives or ventures currently working on LENR research or development. ICCF24 organizers opted not to host a huge expo but instead invited the community to submit posters or abstracts for the conference. One had to become a sponsor in order to secure space to showcase one’s efforts at the event. As a result, only a few LENR ventures displayed LENR demos and, of those on display, only one actually demonstrated an effect. Nevertheless, there were a few ventures in attendance claiming to have working systems that generate excess energy and endeavoring to raise venture funding to get to the next stage.
For those of us interested in the investment opportunities, ICCF24 provided ample opportunities for mingling with and meeting those gathered at ICCF24. People were happy to share their opinions on the state-of-the-art and these conversations provided a gauge on community sentiments. Not surprisingly, many were wary of existing energy production claims. Such caution is prudent for anyone prone to giving credence to any claim until repeatable energy production is demonstrated without question. This has yet to be achieved. But, to complicate matters, lack of demonstrable evidence but doesn’t fully refute claims either. There are, in fact, few good means of measuring small amounts of incremental heat produced in a system that is already hot or has another source of energy adding power. There are tabulation methods that have been proposed but lack of suitable measurement equipment or agreed upon verification methods is yet another challenge for the successful emergence of this technology. Thus, the race to the finish line for understanding and controlling these reactions continues both on the theoretical side as well as on the practical application side with no clear winner or timeline in sight, making early-stage investment decisions little more than a bet on a team and a dream.
Whichever group manages to overcome these obstacles and develop a securely working system—whether or not they have figured out the underlying theoretic basis—would, however, have a significant strategic and financial advantage. Not only would they find capital resources, they would have a clear lead in getting a viable product to market in what would clearly be a huge market. Sadly, given cold fusion’s still lingering stigma, LENR developers face extra jeopardy in any overstatements that could reverberate to set back the entire field. For now, this makes fundraising a particular challenge for all developers, even among those investors quite aware that LENR may one day compete in the vast energy market.
Given the potential value of this technology, it is no wonder that dozens of cash-strapped researchers and venture teams have soldiered on for decades. Now that ARPA-e has chosen to continue the work initiated by Google to identify a proof-of-concept design, there is new-found scientific integrity and rebranding to be done. There is also a greater awareness that what set cold fusion back and derailed early efforts was not scientific fraud but rather its far more complex sub-atomic transmutations, its multibody interactions combined with environmental factors such as temperature, pressure and light that varied by selection of component materials. These complexities still need to be sorted out but could potentially provide many viable options for sourcing and construction of systems and thus help to reduce manufacturing costs.
Not surprising then, was the participation at ICCF24 of several of the most respected and active venture funders in the nuclear space, including Matt Trevithick, who recently left Google and joined the venture fund, DCVC; Carly Anderson from Prime Movers Lab; Kota Fuchigami from Mitsubishi; and Shally Shanker of Aiim Partners. How and where these firms choose to invest in LENR will not be known for some time. Still, if nothing else, this conference established that informed investors do recognize that LENR exists and they are watching its progress. If the work progresses as anticipated by the community, LENR will eventually become a ubiquitous source of safe, low-cost, readily-manufacturable, clean, popular and broadly applicable commercial nuclear energy that provides abundant energy. For those still pondering “how hot is cold fusion?,” there is discernable warming, so it may be time to start paying attention.
[NOTE: Nucleation Capital is the only venture fund focused on investing in the advanced nuclear ventures which enables both large institutional funders and accredited individual angel investors to participate at the level that works for them. For ICCF24, Nucleation trialed a special promotional rate that remains available to Atomic Insights readers through August. If you’d like to learn more about why investing in venture capital can improve your overall portfolio performance, click here.]
1. “Bridging the Gaps: An Athhology on Nuclear Cold Fusion,” compiled and edited by Randolph R. Davis, published by WestBow Press, 2021.
Small modular reactors (SMRs) are gaining increased attention as a major opportunity in clean power production. They are a welcome tool in the necessary transition from an energy system dominated by hydrocarbon combustion to one that produces more power for more people with dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
As a partner in Nucleation Capital, a venture capital fund that focuses on the commercial opportunities that are anticipated by advanced nuclear technologies and power systems, I thought it would be useful to discuss reasons why so many are eager for the arrival of the growing slate of smaller nuclear reactors that are under development. For important reasons there are few mentions of individual companies.
Like traditional large nuclear reactors, SMRs generate power from fission. They don’t produce any air pollution components like NOX, SOX, mercury or fly ash. Unlike large reactors, which were built as large infrastructure projects, the expectation is that SMRs can be constructed more quickly from prefabricated components so that they can be rolled out at an increasing rate once they have completed a necessary product demonstration phase.
Some energy observers see SMRs as the appropriate evolution of nuclear for use with a more distributed grid. Others believe the sector has been widely “hyped” in online energy forums but won’t be available in the time frame needed to address climate change. So how should those for whom the term SMR is just now entering their lexicon think about this technology?
Why does fission excite anyone?
Uranium and thorium are two of nature’s most incredible clean energy storage assets. If completely fissioned, a handful of nuclear fuel weighing a kilogram contains more stored energy than 50 large tanker trucks filled with petroleum.
At the current diesel fuel price of $5.60 per gallon, 50 trucks can carry more than $3,000,000 worth of fuel. In contrast, nuclear power plant owners pay approximately $1,700 per kilogram of fuel in the form of finished assemblies.
The tiny waste production per unit energy released is an inherent aspect of concentrated fission reactions. Unlike combustion, all ingredients needed for fission are contained inside fission fuels. (Combustion needs an external source of oxygen in greater masses than the fuel itself.) The mass of fission wastes is slightly less than the mass of fission fuel; the mass of combustion wastes are about 2.5 times the mass of input fuel.
No fission product wastes need to be routinely removed to allow the reaction to continue operating for its design fuel cycle. None need to be discharged to the environment. Fission reactors are clean enough, safe enough and independent enough to operate inside sealed submarines carrying crews of several dozen people. Those submarines have gone to every part of every ocean on the planet.
Fission even works in the vacuum of deep space.
Those physical and economic facts almost beg power plant designers to think about building a wide variety of machines in order to use that amazing source of energy in as many parts of the diverse global energy markets as possible. Power systems using combustion fuels range in size from model trains to multi GWe power stations. Fission-based power systems need sufficient size to support a chain reaction, and to provide adequate shielding, but that still leaves a wide spectrum of potential applications and sizes.
Today, advanced nuclear innovators are designing reactors that will meet the needs of a much broader range of energy users than traditional nuclear could previously address.
Why did fission reactor unit size get so large?
The earliest reactors were small; the core of EBR-I (Experimental Breeder Reactor I) was roughly the size of cylinder that could snuggly contain an American football. It produced a 1.5 MW of heat and 200 kW of electricity. That was enough to power the building that housed it.
But since the dawn of the First Atomic Age, the primary design trend has been to strive for ever larger units in hopes of reducing the cost of the electricity they generate. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, engineering degree programs taught that the “economy of scale” meant that equipment cost did not grow as rapidly as capacity.
For example, a pump that could produce ten times as much flow should only cost four times as much based on cost computations using input materials.
Design engineers learned by experience that bigger factories, bigger refineries and bigger mines could produce cheaper commodity products.
Seeing nuclear power plants as electricity factories, they could not help but believe that achieving economy of scale required them to design ever larger reactors and to place them in increasingly large groups at massive power stations.
There is a diseconomy of scale with super-sized units
Larger units can successfully use the economy of scale to lower the cost per unit of output but it isn’t the only kind of scale that can drive down costs. Ever larger units can also run into diseconomies of scale that plague mega-projects in construction, mass transit, sports complexes, and airports.
The experience of the industry in building the Vogtle AP1000s shows that there is such a thing as too large. In contrast, the economies of scale that we believe will aid in the appeal of SMRs takes the form of mass production and is expected to enable the construction of SMRs to more closely follow the declining cost curves experienced by wind and solar projects.
How can smaller reactors be produced and operated economically?
After observing the challenges associated with building only very large nuclear plants, there is a growing field of nuclear system developers who consider nuclear power plants to be a product, not a factory. A phrase that is repeatedly heard at gatherings of modern nuclear system developers is “We want to build airplanes, not airports.”
Entrepreneurial companies that see nuclear power systems as products understand that “scale” means building large quantities of the same product. They need to be positioned to meet the needs of a sufficient number of customers who want to buy enough machines to provide the opportunity to capture cost reductions from “experience curves” where cost declines as a result of cumulative product volume.
One advantage of smaller systems is the improved ability to use factory manufacturing techniques. Of course, the components used in conventional large reactors are produced in factories, but then they are individually shipped to the site to be assembled into an operating plant. With reactors that have the size and complexity closer to that of large ships or commercial aircraft, it is possible to assemble and transport complete or nearly complete products.
Factory workforces have many advantages over site construction workforces. They can improve productivity by repeating similar tasks regularly, They can live and work in cities served by mass transit. They can implement quality assurance techniques and environmental consistence systems that are difficult to achieve at remote large plant assembly sites.
Several of the entrepreneurial advanced nuclear companies are looking to scale their businesses using a hybrid approach. They recognize the need to build large quantities of their power- and heat-generating machines but they have found that there’s a limited universe of customers who want to operate nuclear power systems under current and foreseeable oversight regimes.
One solution to this problem is “Energy as a Service.” Companies can build, own and operate a fleet of their own small modular reactors to produce electricity and heat as the products they sell to willing customers. At least some of the companies following this path are keenly aware that there are numerous advantages to co-locating a significant number of the members of their nuclear fission fleets on each site they develop.
That statement is especially true under current regulatory requirements for security, oversight and quality assurance. Large numbers of smaller units on a single site also take advantage of repeatable, consistent work for the inevitable site-specific parts of erecting a power station. They can share transmission and cooling infrastructure, training, emergency response and administrative facilities.
One more variation on the SMR business model is the detectable emergence of developers that want to build on skills they’ve gained in deploying, owning and operating other kinds of power systems. They believe that certain SMRs, once designs are approved, can be readily integrated by project developers that specialize in engineering, permitting, construction, local politics, working with regional operators, and developing logistical supply chains for projects that blend clean energy production for local grids with water purification, carbon capture, hydrogen production and other revenue opportunities.
What about the waste for small modular reactors?
Lindsay Krall, Rodney Ewing and Allison Macfarlane recently published a paper titled Nuclear Waste from Small Reactors in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science describing the larger surface to volume ratio of smaller reactors as a disadvantage.
Aside: Neutron Bytes published an article with extensive commentary on the study; though there is some overlap between that article and this one, this contains a few additional points of interest. End Aside.
The paper authors chose to conduct their study using publicly available information on three (out of dozens) small modular reactor designs. They looked at an early version of the NuScale Power Module, Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR™, and Toshiba’s 4S (a reactor system that has not been actively marketed since 2011.)
To the surprise of the lead author, that paper received unusual attention from the press.
I didn’t really know how the article would be released. There was a copy of the paper circulated to the media or to the press some five days in advance of the article’s publication. So, reactor developers were contacted by the press about the article before it was even published. As a scientist, I was just thinking, “Oh, thank God, this paper got accepted, and I don’t have to work with it anymore.” But then the release of the paper shocked me.Diaz-Maurin,François Interview: Small modular reactors get a reality check about their waste, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jun 17, 2022
The attention was likely related to press releases issued by the host institutions before the study was actually published.
Both NuScale and Terrestrial Energy challenged the study’s conclusions about their systems. Dr. Jose Reyes, NuScale CTO, wondered about the way advanced copies of the study were released to the press and asked PNAS editor-in-chief May R. Berenbaum if PNAS had implemented a new policy about paper promotion.
It seems likely that summaries of the paper’s tenuous conclusions will be repeatedly introduced into discussions of small modular reactors. If not fully understood, the assertions about increased waste production might hamper SMR deployment.
The paper stated that smaller cores leak a larger portion of the fission neutrons and those neutrons activate structural materials. It also stated that increased neutron leakage leads to lower fuel efficiency because a reactor with increased neutron leakage needs a higher concentration of fissile material to maintain criticality.
Discussions with several nuclear design engineers that are not working on SMRs confirmed that those statements contained some truth and were worth consideration, but also described how they did not tell the complete story about waste generation from smaller nuclear plants.
Those design engineers pointed out that a marginal increase in the amount of waste generated per unit energy output would not make much of a difference in the effort needed to address long term storage or disposal of radioactive materials.
The paper expressly ignored the potential to reduce radioactive waste by recycling material and fuel.
This study also neglects to consider reprocessing, recycling, and dilution because these treatments will not eliminate the need for the storage, transportation, treatment, and disposal of radioactive materials.Krall, L.M.; Macfarlane A.M.; Ewing, R. C. “Nuclear waste from small modular reactors” PNAS Vol. 119, No. 23 May 31, 2022
In her interview with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dr. Krall pushed back on the headlines that emphasized the high end of the range of estimates offered. She said that high end estimate of increased waste generation only applied to sodium, a coolant proposed for use by several small and advanced reactor developers.
…for a sodium-cooled reactor, for instance, that sodium coolant is likely to become low-level waste at the end of the reactor’s lifetime, because it becomes contaminated and activated during reactor operation. So, the “up to 30 times more waste” that’s been driving the headlines, it’s mostly the sodium coolant.Diaz-Maurin,François Interview: Small modular reactors get a reality check about their waste, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jun 17, 2022
For sodium waste, reuse in new reactors has the potential for a dramatic decrease in waste that needs to be processed for disposal, but only if there is a growing population of sodium-cooled reactors.
The potential for reuse of sodium from reactors is limited. The most likely utilization would be as a reactor coolant, but there are currently no LMFRs being constructed where sodium waste is available. (Emphasis added)IAEA Radioactive Sodium Waste Treatment and Conditioning, Jan 2007. p. 46
Small reactors also have some advantages in fuel and nuclear plant material systems that include recycling. They are going to be easier to disassemble for some of the same reasons that they will be easier to assemble. Recycling factories can be less costly when designed to handle a more steady flow of smaller pieces and parts.
The Krall et. al. study also did not credit advanced reactors with fuel efficiency gains that arise from using operating temperatures that are significantly higher than those that are possible in large light water reactors.
Few of the teams designing SMRs point to reductions in waste generation as a major selling point, but quite a few of the designers point out the potential that fast reactors have for using recycled materials from the current used nuclear fuel stockpile and describe the efficiency gains from reactor systems that are capable of achieving much higher temperatures than conventional light water reactors.
Engineering is a profession that recognizes tradeoffs. Improvements in one design measure often results in a reduced performance in another design measure. Establishing priorities and determining the best overall choices requires expert, detailed knowledge that often isn’t available to outside academics. Small modular reactor developers and their backers have evidently determined that improving passive heat removal, constructibility, financial performance and customer acceptance are more important than the potential for a marginal increase in waste generation.
Waste from smaller modular reactors needs to be well managed, but neither the waste nor the misleading media headlines that appear to detract from the clear benefits of this emerging technology, should be seen as significant hurdles to their successful development.
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