X-Energy is the lead recipient for one of two industry groups selected to receive $80 M in Department of Energy (DOE) funding as part of a public-private partnership program to demonstrate advanced nuclear power plants on an aggressive time table.
Its primary partner in the endeavor is Energy Northwest, which currently owns and operates the Columbia Generating Station in eastern Washington. Energy Northwest will be the owner and operator of the demonstration power station, which will consist of a four-unit installation of X-Energy’s Xe-100 high temperature gas cooled reactor.
Each unit is designed to produce 80 MWe, resulting in a power station output of 320 MWe.
Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program
The award is part of the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which also includes two additional development pathways with longer horizons. The $80 M in FY 2021 funds is a down payment that will provide funds for completing detailed design work and beginning the licensing process.
Future appropriations will be required to complete the projects; the funding opportunity announcement for the program included an award ceiling of $4 B to be shared among three different development pathways.
For Atomic Show #287, I spoke with Darren Gale, X-Energy’s Vice President for Commercial Operations. Darren is the company executive with direct responsibility for executing the company’s contract with the Department of Energy and delivering on the promise to design, license and construct an advanced nuclear reactor power plant.
The ADRP has an aggressive target date for beginning to deliver electricity to the grid is the end of 2027. During our conversation, Darren explained how his company is positioned to deliver on its promise.
Xe-100 Design history
We spoke about how X-Energy has been working on its high temperature pebble bed reactor design for more than a decade. X-Energy was founded in 2009 by Kam Ghaffarian, a successful entrepreneur who founded Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies (SGT) in 1984. Dr. Ghaffarian remains the owner of X-Energy, but is being joined by additional investors.
The design is mature and the company has been engaging with the NRC for several years. It expects to be able to submit a license application within the next year or two; part of the uncertainty includes determining the most appropriate and streamlined licensing pathway.
The Xe-100 is a helium-cooled, high temperature pebble bed reactor that has a number of similarities to the Chinese HTR-PM. They share a common heritage tracing back through the South African HTGR program and to the German AVR demonstration reactor.
As Darren explains, the Xe-100 includes a number of refinements in its fuel design and in its fuel handling system that enable more efficient fuel use.
Another design difference is that each Xe-100 reactor/steam generator modules are connected to its own Rankine cycle steam turbine. In the HTR-PM design, two reactor/steam generator modules feed a single larger turbine.
The 80 MWe power output selection was influenced, in part, by the availability of off-the-shelf steam turbine power plants. Unlike light water reactors, the Xe-100 will produce steam at temperatures (565 ℃) and pressures (16.5 MPa) used in modern supercritical steam systems.
Like the HTR-PM, Xe-100 reactors are continuously fueled while operating, eliminating the need to schedule refueling outages. There will still be a need to periodically shut down the reactor for inspections and steam turbine maintenance. X-Energy expects that there will be more requirements during the early years of operation while the company and the regulator gain experience and understanding of operational effects.
Eventually, though, the company expects to achieve somewhat higher than average availability than conventional reactors that require unavoidable outages for refueling.
The project will be built in eastern Washington at WNP-1, a site that was licensed for construction of a nuclear power plant in 1975. Using a site that has already been reviewed and approved for use as a nuclear plant greatly reduces the amount of time and effort required for long lead time environmental impact reviews, seismic surveys, and site pre construction surveys.
Though the original plant was never completed, certain civil structures, including a water intake system and pump house were completed before the project was cancelled. Darren explained that the existing infrastructure at the site would require refurbishment, but it enables a more rapid timeline than a greenfield.
X-Energy is in the hiring mode. The Xe-100 team head count is approximately 50. Some of the necessary tasks will be completed by contractors. But Darren expects that the permanent team will expand to include 200 or more people within the next year or two.
Most of the project design work is taking place at X-Energy’s Rockville headquarters, but current restrictions related to COVID-19 have required some creative uses of remote work, multiple buildings, and video conferencing. As a result of the learning that has come with that experience, X-Energy will be somewhat flexible in allowing some employees with key skills to work from remote locations.
The Xe-100 demonstration project is an exciting opportunity for advanced reactor designers and supporters to turn ideas and concepts into functioning equipment that generates real power and heat.
I hope you enjoy this episode and participate in the comment threads, especially if you have questions that are not addressed. As you will hear towards the end of the show, Darren expects to be able to return several times during the course of the construction project.