Atomic Show #303 – Bret Kugelmass, CEO Last Energy
Last Energy is an innovative new company governed by a philosophy of avoiding the invention of anything that has not been done before. They have created a business that is laser focused on building, owning and operating small (20 MWe), modular pressurized water reactors and selling the electricity they produce under long term power purchase agreements.
On Atomic Show #303, Bret Kugelmass, the founder, president and CEO of Last Energy describes the path he took from earning a masters degree in robotics at Stanford, through the founding and operation of a successful drone company, to a highly respected podcast, through a non profit think tank and into a utility company that has designed a nuclear power plant that can begin operating as early as 2025 with commercial scale repetition starting almost immediately.
Where some believe that nuclear fission requires highly specialized equipment, Last Energy has found that pressure vessels, pumps, piping, heat exchangers and valves of similarly high quality standards are widely available from experienced, commercial suppliers. Their systems, structures and components (SSC) use well-accepted ASME codes and standards and are often identical to the SSC that have been used for decades in chemical processing, oil and gas, and other industrial applications.
Last Energy has chosen a small number of initial deployment locations, specifically in the UK, Romania and Poland. They are aiming to supply power to major industrial consumers that need somewhere between 20 and 100 MWe. They will connect to their customers “behind the meter”. From the customer point of view, Last Energy power will look and act like the electricity they currently purchase from their local utility company.
Last Energy systems will have approximately 2 m diameter pressure vessels that can accommodate full length fuel assemblies and standard control rods with proven drive mechanisms mounted on the reactor head. There will be fewer assemblies in the core, and they will be replaced as a whole unit every 6 years. Each plant will have a single steam generator and coolant pump.
Kugelmass explains the reasons behind the company philosophy and design choices. He provides a good summary of their business model and their driving motivations.
One aspect of Last Energy’s plans should motivate US politicians to modify our current export control regime. Even though their plants are designed to be well within the production capability of US manufacturers, the company is studiously avoiding the production of any nuclear component in the US. Export control processes are too burdensome to be economically justifiable.
I hope you enjoy the show and participate in the conversation.
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Who thinks nuclear reactors are not being built in the liberal democracies for lack of public outreach and websites?
Every nuclear vendor on the planet could make a very small PWRs like WEC, GE, CE, B&W, RR did over 50 years ago. Still no orders for more Lomonosovs and UAMPS hasn’t broken ground on an approved NuScale.
You think maybe there is a reason NuScale has two steam generators?
Kugelmass is media savvy for sure, and pathologically optimistic. Quite silly.
I love the cold shoulder quote. I once did the research to see if my employer could build a 30MW wood burning power plant in southern Indiana. I found that the capital cost of an outright loan at 10% overwhelmed all other costs and the price per MW was more than average wholesale in Indiana. Along the way Duke was building a new 700 MW plant not far away for 3 billion. Roughly $4000 / KW. A coal plant. Going back to that 30 MW. I was going to get a percentage of the profit if we could build it. I would be swimming in cash if we had been able to do it. Let’s see 8760 hours X $60 MWH X 20 MW = $10,512,000 per unit. Let’s say that we get the cost to build about the same as our coal plant above. $4000 / KW or 120 million each. This would include the first load of fuel since that cost is basically a capital expense in Bret’s six year model at about $100,000 for the fuel. He will not pay for additional cooling pools or dry cask storage using the reactor vessel for those. Savings. Ok, how many people are really needed to run a 20 MW plant 24/7? I roughly estimate 25 per shift or about 75 people total. Roughly 7 million / year. Toss in maintenance etc for an additional 1 million. So you have a rough profit of 2 million / year on a 120 million investment. About a 1.6% return. https://www.globalpetrolprices.com/Poland/electricity_prices/ Notice that retail prices are often well above the $60 MW for generation. Usually generation is about 1/2 the cost of consumer retail so in Poland that would be $85 MWH or 14,892,000 / year or a rough profit of $6.8 million or 5.6 % return. Not a bad year over year return on investment.
What about time to build the first one? Hum, he wants to use all currently available parts. So your limit to build would be the order lag time, assembly, and whatever regulations are needed to go from greenfield in a specific country. He is now quite familiar with the regulations in various countries and has chosen places friendly and needing power. This all looks doable to me.
Good podcast –
As much as I like to see the newer technology such as the use of Thorium, Molten salt and Molten metal reactors, pebble bed fuel, etc I liked the idea of using the “tried and true”. Three old adages came to my head while I was listening to your guest speak:
KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid
Don’t reinvent the wheel
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
However, I was also reminded of a PWR I used to work at. It had hundreds of employees. It produced a gigawatt of power and so was able to pay for those people. Unless the rules are greatly minimized, I can’t see a 20 MW plant being economical. Maybe, it can essentially stand alone and unmanned like a gas turbine in a substation.
I admired the guest’s optimism. There seems to be a plethora of companies wishing to produce small modular reactors. I think many will fall by the wayside. Perhaps his company could thrive by making a joint venture with one of the others who could use his sales skills.
This sure is an interesting approach, but god that timeline seems nuts! I wish Brett all of the luck in the world though, since it would really shake things up to a have a relative new comer beat all of this “established” Western SMRs makers by a mile. Is it realistic in the licensing regimes being discussed though? I am only familiar with the US NRC and know that such a short timeline would be effectively impossible even if all I had to do after getting the license was load fuel and bring the plant to power.
You do answer your question – Brett is not realistic.
It reminds me of the 2000s when I was an engineer at GEAE (Cincinnati) taking NukeE classes at UC with (nearly exclusively) foreigners from Eastern Europe, Asia&Pacific, etc.. One of these colleagues (BSME Aerospace) told me that SHE had ‘designed’ a jet engine for her senior project…. drew it out on a 2m long piece of paper even. She was dead serious then, and would probably tell the story unchanged today.
I just smiled. At the time I was a small, but productive cog in the machine that kept the fleet of CFM56 (737 engine) in the air, but SHE had ‘designed’ such a thing as an undergrad.
Many people lack a frame of reference…
While I appreciate what Brett is trying to do, the flood of small modular Gen III “plus” LWR designs on the market right now is only serving to delay and hinder the deployment of far more efficient -both in terms of thermal efficiency and fuel utilization- Gen IV designs. I’m fully behind extending LWR service lives but can’t in good conscience support the development of new LWR designs.
As engineer poet once said about open 100…. the last cannibal to the table gets the cold shoulder. Wonder where he is.
I spent some time to listen to this podcast, and I still have two questions
about module size and its effects on reactor safety.
(1) Can an LWR+SMR plant with two or more units shut down without requiring
any external power to drive active core cooling, just by leaving at least one
SMR unit running?
(2) Does SMR unit size affect the active cooling time required for the last unit
to shut down safely?
Since lack of active cooling power was apparently what caused the meltdown
at Fukushima-Daiichi, and apparently what enables Putin to continue to hold
Zaporizhzhia hostage, I think this question is still relevant.
(1) No, their are many solutions to assure adequate cooling during shutdown. It’s simply a matter of cost/benefit.
(2) It depends on the design features for safe shutdown. The physics of decay heat stay the same regardless of reactor size, however, you could consider the difficulty of passively removing decay heat to roughly follow the relationship between surface area and volume.
So the opportunities to passively and safely remove decay heat does tend to have more cost effective solutions for a smaller reactor size, all other things kept constant, especially power density.
Nuclear power plants don’t typically include use of the electricity they produce to provide onsite power because of the difference between the “format” of the electricity suitable for transmission versus that useable for cooling pumps.
Onsite diesel generators are used for onsite power if offsite power is lost.
Designing a plant that needs no offsite power or onsite diesels in order to shutdown safely is one of the goals of typical advanced nuclear plants, however, it’s not essential to eliminate diesels to be safe.
Taking your statement one step further – a core with a lower power density for reasons like gas cooling, allows even more cost effective decay heat removal.
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