Non-attendees might dismiss it a just another nuclear industry conference full of talk signifying nothing, but the 2023 edition of the Advanced Reactor Summit (AR Summit) – hosted by the US Nuclear Industry Council in Charlotte, NC from Jun 20-21 – felt very different to me.
This year, the US NIC AR Summit marked its 10th year. Several of the notable attending organizations from earlier years are mere memories. TransAtomic, Hyperion (later renamed as Gen IV), B&W mPower (my former employer) and Westinghouse SMR are companies or projects that did not gain sufficient traction to persist in the extreme endurance contest of SMR and advanced reactor development.
In contrast, some of the earliest attendees have grown considerably and passed through important milestones. These are not just technical milestones or innovations; the more interesting developments include business partnerships and project deployment.
An exciting advancement over prior AR Summits was the major role that customers played in presentations and hallway conversations. Though nuclear utility operating companies like Duke Energy, TVA, Southern Company and Ontario Power Generation (OPG) made important and encouraging presentations, the strong demand signals provided by Nucor – the largest steelmaker in the US, Dow – one of the largest chemical companies in the world, and Microsoft – one of the world’s largest data center operators – made an even bigger impact on most attendees.
Presentations from Nucore, Microsoft and Dow validated many of the concepts that have long motivated advanced nuclear developers. They showed that credible customers were willing to pay for process heat, always-on carbon free power, and behind the meter installations.
Each of the three said they were willing to assist entities that would own and operate the facilities in obtaining affordable financing by inking long-term, economically viable power purchase agreements (PPAs). Projects with PPAs from established, well-capitalized companies are almost as bankable as a captive base of ratepayers. None of them want to own or operate nuclear power plants.
This post is a sampling of information gleaned during the event. There may be additional posts based on presentations and conversations at the Summit. Several important players in the advanced nuclear community did not attend the conference.
NuScale became a publicly traded company with the stock ticker of SMR. It later inked a partnership deal with Nucor that includes Nucor purchasing a strategic equity stake in NuScale.
Holtec has continued developing its SMR-160 business, mostly with its own money from successful enterprises in nuclear waste storage and power plant decommissioning. It has identified at least two sites that it already owns as potential hosts for a multi-unit SMR-160 power stations.
Kairos has grown rapidly and was recently notified that the NRC has approved the final safety evaluation of its construction permit application (CPA) to build Hermes, a 30 MWth test reactor, in Oak Ridge, TN.
Terrestrial Energy has completed stage 2 of the Canadian Nuclear Society Vendor Design Review process.
Oklo had a painful learning experience but is steadily progressing towards a new license submission for a 15 MWe reactor that uses the same core as its early 1.5 MWe design. The key enabler for increasing power without changing fuel quantity is using pumped liquid metal (sodium) to transfer heat instead of passive heat pipes. The new design is essentially a modern, refined version of the EBR-II.
X-Energy has constructed a fuel fabrication facility and is now working with a new, exciting customer for its first of a kind plant under the DOE’s Advanced Reactor Development Program (ARDP). That customer, Dow Chemical, is one of the largest chemical producers in the world. Its demand for both electricity and ultra-reliable industrial heat is well suited for demonstrating especially useful aspects of X-Energy’s design for a power station with four independent high temperature gas cooled reactors. (With four reliable units that can use online refueling, Dow expects to be able to achieve 99.95% reliability during scheduled operating periods.)
TerraPower has created growing community support for its project in Kemmerer, WY that will help transition a coal-anchored town to a nuclear town by using an adjacent site and existing grid connections. TerraPower has also developed a medical isotopes business and is developing a Molten Chloride Fast Reactor with a well-planned, phased approach through effects testing and a series of test facilities. Commercial availability is expected in the mid 2030s.
The company formerly known as B&W is now called BWXT. Though it cancelled its integral light water reactor (mPower) project, it maintained its interest in advanced nuclear and small modular reactor development. It is progressing rapidly on the very small reactor power system developed for the DOD Pele project and it is developing a parallel commercial version of the system called BANR.
Ultra-Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) completed a pilot fuel fabrication facility in less than one year and has already started making its patented fully ceramic microencapsulated fuel. As a subcontractor to Blue Origins, USNC recently delivered a batch of FCM™ fuel to NASA made in that facility. It announced that it had selected Gadsden, AL to host a 578,000 ft2 manufacturing plant with the capacity to produce 10 of its MMR™ plants each year.
Several commercial developments were described in some detail during the AR Summit.
NuScale and Nucor
NuScale has attracted several strategic investors/partners that will help build its plants and/or buy power from those facilities. A notable recent addition to the NuScale team is Nucor, the largest steel maker in the United States.
Nucor is so excited about the capabilities that SMRs offer to meet some of its most challenging requirement that it sent Leon Topalian, its Chairman, President and CEO, to the summit to meet members of NIC and to provide a keynote address. (Attendees also appreciated Nucor’s hospitality as the sponsor of a rooftop welcoming reception.)
Aside: Topalian proudly reminded the audience that Nucor’s initial name was Nuclear Corporation of America. It long ago pivoted to focus on steel making but is now returning to its roots. End Aside.
Nucor operates 50 electric arc furnaces in the US. Its total electricity demand is about 50 GWe that has little variation during the 8760 hours of each per. Assuming Nucor facilities have capacity factors that are close to 90%, its electricity demand is almost 50% of the power produced by the current US nuclear fleet.
Its demand is growing as it adds new facilities. A new facility that will be one of Nucor’s largest factories is planned for West Virginia. Topalian told the keynote audience that Nucor began laying the state and community acceptance groundwork for using advanced nuclear systems to power that new facility as soon as they chose West Virginia as the host. The company recognized the need to change both perceptions and laws. The company was part of the effort that effectively convinced the state to remove its nuclear prohibition.
Holtec began its efforts to design an “unconditionally safe” (Kris Singh’s words) reactor in 2011, in the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident. It has continued to refine its SMR-160 design and to develop a business model that will enable successful deployment at scale.
It owns four sites with existing reactors. Four of the five existing reactors are being decommissioned, while the Palisades unit has a better than 50% chance of being restarted in the next 2-3 years. According to Kris Singh, Holtec’s founder, president and CEO, the NRC has made the important decision that the process for returning Palisades to operating status will involve a reinstatement of the previous license, not a new license application. (Singh received a Trailblazer award from NIC; he made the statement during his acceptance speech.)
Holtec has a well-established position as a nuclear supplier in Ukraine; it has been providing products and services there for close to 20 years. As a result of wartime damage, Ukraine will have a pressing need to replace coal power plants. It has indicated an interest in licensing and building 20 SMR-160 units at sites that currently host coal power plants.
Holtec has submitted an application to the DOE Loan Program Office for $7.2 B, much of which would be used to construct manufacturing capacity that is 5 times larger than its currently operating factory in Camden, NJ. That capacity might be in the form of a single very large factory, or it might be multiple installations that are similar to the existing factory.
Dan Stout, Chief Nuclear Officer of the Ultra-Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), gave an inspiring talk with the refrain of “skin in the game.” (Disc: Nucleation Capital has skin in USNC’s game. We recently added an equity stake in the company to our growing portfolio of advanced nuclear companies.)
A longtime attendee at AR Summits, Dan offered his views on how things have changed since the first summit in 2014. That debut event happened when there was growing realization that the Nuclear Renaissance had not successfully achieved lift-off. He suggested that history had shown that talk of a Nuclear Renaissance in the 2000’s might have been a matter of “irrational exuberance.”
Aside: I don’t shy away from using the term Renaissance to describe nuclear industry’s inevitable path to success. The 300 year long historical period known as the Renaissance took about 50 years to get going after a lengthy period of stagnation often called the Dark Ages. Before that happened, there was a proto-renaissance period that served as a necessary step for shaking off the effects of a lengthy intellectual slumber. End Aside.
The game has changed since the period in the immediate aftermath of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 when a dozen or more projects involving a total of more than two dozen reactors submitted combined license applications to the NRC. Invariably, those projects involved very large reactors ranging in capacity from 1100 MWe to 1650 MWe.
Those large projects were eventually categorized as “bet the company” developments. In what turned out to be wise decisions for the corporations involved, almost all of them chose to cancel their projects and avoided the risks that would have piled up during a period of very low natural gas prices and painful programs full of lessons learned for designers, regulators, manufacturers and constructors.
Now we have a much larger catalog of sizes and capabilities. USNC’s current offering is a micro-modular reactor (MMR™) with a capacity of 15 MWe and a thermal storage system that enables rapid response to electricity supply or demand. It is small enough so that building one or more isn’t even close to being a “bet the company” proposition.
It is designed to be intrinsically safe, with redundant, robust radioactive material (fission product) retention barriers within the reactor fuel. It uses standard Triso coated particle fuel and surrounds those particles in a carefully deposited matrix of silicon carbide (SiC).
SiC, the same material used in military grade armor, reinforces the Triso coating layers. It contributes to the functional containment paradigm of ensuring that the reactor cannot release radioactive material to the environment under any credible circumstances. This enables a vast simplification in all required systems OUTSIDE of the reactor core.
As Stout enumerated, there are just 6 components in the nuclear heat supply system (NHSS) – reactor vessel, hot gas duct, intermediate heat exchanger, helium circulator, control rod drive mechanisms and graphite.
USNC is developing two demonstration projects, one in Canada and one in the US. It’s working with both regulators and contributing to the effort to harmonize regulations so that it can sell the same product in multiple jurisdictions.
Both projects will be demonstrating full scale, commercial MMRs. The path is similar to the US Navy’s path of prototyping new reactors in a way that provides immediate, directly relevant learning. It’s the same path that Atomic Insights has suggested.
In Canada, licensing is made a little simpler by siting the plant at a designated research laboratory. In the US, the partnering customer is the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. As a major research university, it can readily license a reactor using 10CFR50 section 104(c). With its large campus it has enough internal power and heat requirements to provide a useful power absorption capacity.
Aside: Current and former Navy Nukes might recall the unique, creative systems attached at the back end of the shafts where the screw would be when the plant is on a ship. Reactor power has to go somewhere. End Aside.
USNC has made tangible progress towards building initial units as well as developing an order book for follow-on units after demonstrating their ability to deliver. Stout said that there has been such strong interest among customers that it has had to begin prioritizing its projects. Customers willing to make tangible, bankable commitments will presumably move up on the prioritized list.
The company sited and constructed a fuel fabrication facility in Oak Ridge in less than one year. Starting with a building shell, the company installed electrical systems, HVAC, process equipment, and control systems. It wrote operating procedures, hired and trained a workforce, obtained permits for handling uranium and began manufacturing nuclear fuel.
Though the facility has a limited capacity, it was designed and constructed as a modular production line that can be duplicated to add more capacity. There are already agreements in place and plans underway to add a duplicate production line in a Framatome factory in Richland, WA.
Immediately following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, USNC decided to eliminate dependence on Russian nuclear fuel products, including enrichment. Though its MMR achieves optimum performance using high assay, low enriched uranium (HALEU), it can also operate well with less enriched fuel called LEU+. That fuel produce contains between 5 and 10% U-235.
Urenco will be supplying commercial quantities of the fuel to customers by the end of 2025. (The key performance disadvantage of LEU+ compared to HALEU is a reduced interval between refueling. That disadvantage isn’t very important for demonstration plants.)
In March 2022, USNC and Urenco announced a contract for delivery of LEU+, which will ensure that fuel does not delay demonstration units.
Stout concluded his talk with a major announcement. After a year-long search involving 16 states, USNC selected Gadsden, AL (about 60 miles northeast of Birmingham) to be the site for its first MMR Assembly Plant. The facility budget is $232 M. It will create 250 manufacturing jobs in a 528,000 ft2 factory. The expected operational date is in 2027.
That announcement inspired sustained, loud applause.
GE Hitachi and TVA
“Advanced” is not a word that requires radically new invention. It can be used to describe refined products that have been made new and improved by applying experience, quality advances, modern controls and displays and improved materials.
GE Hitachi (GEH), which traces its nuclear roots to the earliest stages of nuclear power development, has created an advanced reactor that builds on experience with nine previous generations of boiling water reactors.
Jay Wileman, President and CEO of GEH Nuclear, and Jeffrey Lyash, President and CEO of TVA discussed GEH’s BWRX-300 with Todd Abrajano, President and CEO of the US NIC. Unfortunately, OPG’s Ken Hartwick was unable to attend.
The BWRX-300 and its design features have been described in several posts published during the past 4-5 years. Like all new nuclear developments, it will not be an overnight success. The new information provided at the 2023 AR Summit was focused on commercial developments that lend credence to the notion that the interrupted Nuclear Renaissance is experiencing new momentum.
Lyash, who entered the nuclear profession in 1981, said he had never been more excited about the future of nuclear as he is today. But he also told the audience that they collectively bore a responsibility for ensuring that the industry does not experience another disappointing period.
He highlighted a few reasons for his excitement. His company is experiencing significant increases in customer demand, with annual load growth of close to 1,000 MWe even though the effects of widespread electrification efforts have not yet become visible on demand charts. At the same time, TVA is retiring about 1,000 MWe/yr of dispatchable carbon-based generating capacity. Combined, the two factors lead to a 2,000 MWe/yr demand for new clean generation.
He doesn’t see any way for a future with both energy security and decarbonization without a major role for both existing nuclear plants and a growing nuclear fleet that is 2-3 times larger than today’s fleet in 2050. That fleet will include both electricity production and process heat delivery and will serve both grid demand and isolated demands.
His company wants products that are focused on constructability, operability and licensing. They have a current demand and need plants that can be reliably deployed to meet that demand as promptly as possible.
Their first BWRX-300 is slated to be built at the Clinch River site where the company already holds an early site permit currently sized for 900 MWe. But there are plans underway to modify that ESP to allow for a four unit power plant with each unit producing 300 MWe to be in service by the mid 2030s. The schedule includes the first unit with an “unlap” interval to the second unit, with closer spacing from 2-3 and from 3-4.
That longer interval between 1-2 allows time for lessons to be learned and incorporated into the second unit. The shorter overlap for following units will optimize workforce and learning.
Lyash, an experienced executive, offered an opinion about cost estimates that is useful for all developers. “Never do a point estimate in public.” He said he knows what the project will cost but he is not willing to share that information outside of the team working on the project.
TVA is the fast follower in BWRX-300 deployment. The first units are scheduled to be built by OPG at the Darlington nuclear station. Like Clinch River, that site is already permitted to be the host of a nuclear power plant. Recently, OPG announced that its plans for BWRX-300 are not limited to building a one of a kind demonstration unit. The Darlington site plan now consists of 4 units.
In addition to the two North American projects, GEH has a significant near-term opportunity in Poland. Poland has one of the most emissions-intensive power generating systems in the world, and it has an historical aversion to dependence on Russia.
GEH’s Jay Wileman reported that he had just visited Warsaw and engaged in talks with government officials as well as Orlen-Synthos. He described Orlen-Synthos as a huge industrial player with a strong balance sheet and a large need to decarbonize. It has already identified 6 specific sites that will host a total of 20 units with a potential for up to 80 units in Poland alone. There are several additional customers in Poland’s neighborhood.
During both the TVA-GEH presentation and another one that included representatives of the CNSC and the NRC, there was some discussion about a cooperative group associated with BWRX-300 deployment. Referred to as the 5 CEO group, it includes Rumina Velshi (CNSC), Chris Hanson (NRC), Jay Wileman (GEH), Ken Hartwick (OPG) and Jeff Lyash (TVA). This arrangement helps to align resources, set priorities, and improve coordination among other strengths. It might serve as a model for other large scale, multi-jurisdiction projects.
A major focus is to overcome regulatory differences in order to allow the same product to be built in many places so that benefits of standardization, factory manufacture and learning can be maximized. Instead of picking sites and then designing plants to fit the site, the plant design comes with site specifications. This allows a customer to find a site that meets the specifications instead of other way around.
In future posts, I will share more about the AR Summit, but for now, it’s time to move onto other projects. This post has already been delayed long enough. It is high time I shared it without waiting for it to be perfected.
As always, comments and questions are welcome.
It’s important for me to acknowledge that I have either personal or company skin in the game in several of the companies mentioned in the above post. I’m a writer, thinker and columnist, not an unbiased reporter. In addition to Nucleation Capital’s equity in USNC, my modest portfolio of publicly traded companies includes NuScale, AAC (the acquisition company with an agreement to merge with X-Energy), BWXT and GE.
Nucleation Capital and I will continue investing in advanced nuclear companies because we believe in the sector’s enormous potential to make the world a better place and to produce strong returns for investors. If you are interested in joining us and taking advantage of our research and diligence efforts, please make direct contact.