In November 2018 Energy Central posted a question about success factors for advanced nuclear reactors. The resulting Q&A discussion garnered over 6,000 page views. Now three years later some trends are emerging that indicate the answers are more complicated, but also there are opportunities to get to the answers in ways that rely on methods of producing industrial process which succeeded in the U.S. over 100 years ago.
As some readers may recall, US Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover pointed out that paper reactors are easy to design. The hard part is building one.
This axiom was proved recently as Transatomic Power folded its high-profile tent saying that their design would not be commercially viable.
7Examples of advanced designs include TRISO fueled systems, molten salt, sodium cooled, lead cooled, etc. It’s a long list. See the home page for the GEN IV international program which lists six generic types of advanced reactors.
So, what are the success factors that will bring any of these designs to market and what firms are more likely to master them than others?
The Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) publishes a directory of U,S, based developers of advanced nuclear energy technologies, suppliers, and national labs. The current edition lists nearly three dozen efforts in the U.S. to develop advanced nuclear reactors and about 30 key suppliers who want to produce components to build them. Efforts to build demonstration units are also underway.
This directory by GAIN was created in partnership between the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) and Third Way, with the help of the United States Nuclear Infrastructure Council (USNIC).
Questions About Advanced Reactors
In 2018 Energy Central posted just one question about what success might look like for advanced nuclear reactors. In 2021, as the number of efforts to design and build them has expanded. Here are three questions, and a take on the answers.
QUESTION #1: How do we balance diversity and standardization design of various types of advanced reactors? Is this a valid question or is that a false dilemma? Especially for smaller designs, it would appear to be imperative to standardize and expedite the development of economies of scale to help build robust supply chains and factory fabrication of small modular reactors, e.g., less than 300 MWe.
The theoretical global market for SMRs and advanced reactors is quite large, but at this stage, given current market opportunities and industrial/manufacturing capacity, what is the best way to proceed?
ANSWER #1 This is a false comparison. In any technology led industry there will always be customized, one-of-a-kind solutions for projects that have unique requirements, and for which the customer’s needs to satisfy them are not bounded by profitability considerations. A key example is the DOD effort to develop transportable 1-5 MWe SMRs for tactical readiness power supplies at forward locations.
The DOD effort is on to something which will be very important for industrial uses of process heat from micro reactors. The factor is that they will be transportable.
For instance, the life cycle of a chemical processing plant is such that at some point it will be rebuilt or a new plant will be built at another location.
Either way, a micro nuclear reactor that can be moved, to take advantage of new plant configuration, or moved to an entirely new location, is far more competitive than one that is much larger and is permanently in place for its entire life cycle.
Further, no commercial factory is going to want to deal with the burden of legacy spent fuel in dry casks at a site it no longer uses. These types of costs are unsustainable especially in the absence of a solution for permanent repositories for spent fuel.
For customers for whom profitability is a key factor, vendors will be forced to limit their investment in technological innovation in order to standardize components that can be delivered in volume by their supply chains at competitive price points. This is the only path that makes sense to enable factory production of SMRs.
Some vendors who are further along in their designs, such as TerraPower and X-Energy, may see standardization around reference designs as a non-starter given where they are in the maturity of their development cycle for their innovations in reactor design.
Light water SMRs, such as the one being developed by NuScale, will have an advantage in terms of time to market over advanced designs (thermal, fast) because LWR technologies, fabrication of components, and operations of these designs are well known and represent far lower risks for customers even for FOAK units.
Advanced designs will need to prove their worth and practicality of their technologies. These outcomes will be achieved through first-of-a-kind (FOAK) prototypes, making some test data public or at least available to potential customers under NDA, and other measures to build investor and customer confidence.
These measures are the same for LWR and advanced designs. These measures are that the units can be built on time, within budget, and successfully and reliably operated at a profit for electricity generation, process heat applications, and other uses such as desalinization.
In Canada there are 13 advanced reactor development efforts now in various stages of Vendor Design Review with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. Of the 13 designs, 11 will use HALEU or TRISO fuels and will offer customers multiple opportunities for process heat applications with the resulting additional revenue streams for utilities that deploy them.
Process Heat Profiles of Advanced Reactors in CNSC’s Vendor Design Review Program.
Cost considerations for all types of SMRs will be in the forefront of customer issues in addition to questions of complexity, ability to produce large numbers of units in factory settings, thus achieving economies of scale, etc.
Also, advanced designs under 300 MWe, even in configurations of multiple units per site, are unlikely to be 100% “replacement” technologies for LWR SMRs or full size LWRs, e.g., 1000MWe or more. Both types of designs are likely to be offered by vendors through the rest of this century. Utilities may build SMRs in some markets such as eastern Europe,, but for Asia’s mega-cities, the full size units will be needed to meet demand for electricity.
Advanced designs at the lower end of the power spectrum, for niche uses such as off the grid locations, make be among the first types to enjoy market acceptance. Applications on a “micro grid” may be the unique kind of niche that can be filled by these advanced designs that will come as low maintenance “packages” that don’t require the support of a 50-300 MWe LWR SMR.
Examples of Trade-Offs Between Innovation and Market Share
Here are a couple of examples from other industries about the trade- off between technological competitiveness and market share.
- IBM PC 8-Bit Bus and Add-on Cards
When IBM offered the first personal computer, it used an 8-bit bus for adapter cards because there was a robust after-market of video cards, modems, LAN network cards, etc., parallel and serial ports, and other devices that relied on the 8-bit architecture.
When IBM’s competitors Compag and AT&T offered faster PCs with a 16-bit bus, their market share struggled to have an impact on IBMs success due to a lack of after- market products. Compaq was eventually acquired by HP and the AT&T 6300, a unique and fascinating piece of hardware, only had robust sales with large federal government procurements.
- Coal v. Diesel Power for US Railroads
It took more than two decades for railroads to make the transition to the highly efficient diesel electrics due to the huge investment railroads had in not only their existing steam locomotives, but also their reliance on existing suppliers of fuel (coal), parts, and services for them.
Ultimately, railroads switched from coal fired locomotives to diesel based on fundamental bottom line considerations. The huge infrastructure for coal-fired engines became a relic.
The switch from coal to diesel fuel required an entirely new and massive investment in support infrastructure for each railroad which in turn created a huge demand for components and facilities to support it that took time to be met by suppliers some of which were brand new to the industry. The technology to fuel diesel locomotives was entirely new for the industry in every respect which resulted in a huge demand for capital investments.
Because of the delay in adoption of diesels caused in part by World War II, the efficiencies offered by diesels, more horsepower per unit, much lower labor costs, and lower maintenance costs per mile of operation were not realized until the late 1950s.
A diesel fuel facility for the Union Pacific RR in California
QUESTION #2: there are host of design considerations for advanced nuclear: safety obviously, but also simplicity and ease of construction, supply chain availability, back-end fuel cycle sustainability, security and safeguards, flexibility in deployment and application, etc. Do you see any pair of design considerations for advanced reactors that may pose a dilemma—may be challenging to reconcile or perhaps even mutually exclusive?
ANSWER #2: For three of the leading types of advanced designs, HTGR (TRISO fuel or graphite block), sodium cooled (fuel in the sodium or heat pumps), and molten salt (fuel in the salt or in fuel assemblies) each of them will place demands on fuel fabrication suppliers that will be complex and expensive to meet their requirements. Like the transition from coal to diesel, the new fuel requirements will drive significant investments in capital equipment and plants. The availability of fuels for these designs will be a key factor in time to market for each of them.
The U.S. government is investing in development of high assay low enriched fuels (HALEU), e.g., greater than 5% and less than 20% U235 level of enrichment. The market for these fuels may develop slowly as the time to market for many advanced designs is at least in the latter part of this decade or the early-to-mid 2030s. Advanced reactors, including advanced SMRs, may develop more quickly in other countries in which case export opportunities could appear for U.S. based HALEU type fuel supplies.
A paradox may arise in which it will turn out the US government will have subsidized these fuels for use by global competitors to US developers of advanced reactors.
Fully Ceramic Microencapsulated (FCMTM) fuel pellets, an advanced and proprietary reactor fuel designed by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) for their Micro Modular Reactor (MMRTM). Funded through the Canadian Nuclear Research Initiative (CNRI)
Management of spent fuel from advanced reactors will also be an issue as neither the US nor many other countries have yet to successfully provide permanent solutions for even LWR spent fuel.
Eventually, the use of interim storage sites and reprocessing of spent fuel or advanced designs that can use it, will provide a disposition pathway for spent fuel from advanced designs for some, but not all of the volume that will be produced over the next 100 years.
QUESTION #3: The nuclear community has been keen on seeking lessons, models, and templates from other industries and sectors. With respect to many of the issues, what are some industries, sectors, or even historical case studies that might be overlooked, but you believe would be invaluable for the nuclear industry, advanced reactor developers, etc. to examine or investigate further?
ANSWER #3: The case of the U.S. Railroad Administration (USRA) is instructive in this regard. The use of reference designs in the U.S. has a good history in the form of the experience of the U.S. Railroad Administration during World War I. Is there a case to be made to borrow the idea of reference designs from steam locomotives to apply it to the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors?
In the second decade of the 20th century, just over 100 years ago, steam locomotives needed to make a major leap in terms of designs that would deliver more power more efficiently and which could be manufactured quickly and in large numbers.
In 1918 Railroads Were not Getting the Job Done: The problem in 1918 AS THE U.S. entered the war in Europe, was that U.S. railroads were unable to mobilize their equipment, locomotives and rolling stock, and rail lines, to support the vast logistical demands of the war effort.
The locomotives in service at the turn of the century were underpowered for the train loads that the war time effort demanded of them. Rail cars were unable to carry the larger volumes of cargo that needed to get materials and equipment to U.S. ports to support troops in Europe.
The USRA standard locomotives and railroad cars were designed by the United States Railroad Administration (USRA), the nationalized rail system of the United States during World War I. A total of 1,856 steam locomotives and over 100,000 railroad cars were built to these designs during the USRA’s relatively short three-year tenure.
A USRA designed ‘Mikado” 28-2 type steam locomotive built for the Nickel Plate Road
For instance, 625, or one third of the locomotives built using USRA designs in the period 1918-1928, were among the most powerful and efficient type for moving freight. This was the 2-8-2 wheel arrangement, also known as the Mikado type. The design was so successful that it was copied by 20 countries for their railroads.
The locomotive designs prepared by the USRA were the nearest thing the American railroads and locomotive builders ever got to standard locomotive types.
After the USRA was dissolved in 1920 many of the designs were duplicated in significant numbers with 3,251 engines of various USRA designs being constructed overall. A total of 97 railroads used USRA or USRA-derived locomotives. U.S. railroads continued to adapt USRA designs for new steam locomotives until 1953 more than 45 years after the concepts came off the drawing boards.
How to Develop Reference Designs and Standards for Advanced Reactors
A Role for the ANS Standards Program
The American Nuclear Society (ANS) has an ongoing standards development program with a long and successful track record of publishing nuclear safety and design standards in the U.S.
The question is could the ANS standards program be used as a fulcrum for leveraging its standards work to extend to development of reference designs for various types of advanced nuclear reactor? Obviously, ANS would need to collaborate with other key organizations to carry out such an endeavor. Here are some ideas about how that collaboration could work.
A role for ANS Standards could be to convene working groups composed of relevant organizations to develop and document reference designs for these reactor types to help speed up the overall development timeline of these types of advanced reactors.
The designs could be made available in a knowledge engineering database that would also accumulate test data from work on prototypes which would be used to refine the reference designs.
As some of the testing of new advanced designs may take place at national labs, some of this information would automatically be in the public domain as it would have been paid for by the government. There would need to be careful protection of proprietary information until such time as it was covered by patents and could be licensed if desired by the owners of the intellectual property.
The reason for this aside is that it may be that some developers of advanced nuclear reactor designs have it in mind to cash out by licensing their work to organizations that have the organizational horsepower, and investor confidence, to actually build them.
Advantages of Reference Designs
As we know from the work of the GEN IV international forum, having a body of technology-based standards for each of the reactor types with regard to their unique characteristics is helpful. A force multiplier would be to address these conceptual efforts from the perspective of the technology neutral standards that ANS has published.
It would not only simplify the design effort for each developer, but also give the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) a framework to assess the safety of each design type.
The agency has been authorized by Congress to work on this issue since 2018. Over the years, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has identified specific policy issues associated with licensing advanced, non-light-water (non-LWR) and LWR reactor designs. Readers are advised that reviewing this library of policy papers is a daunting undertaking.
A Proposal for Roles and Responsibilities for Collaboration
No single organization can make the journey alone to develop a series of reference designs. Nuclear reactors are just too complex for complete technical mastery to live in one place. The organizations that would need to be involved in the standards process are;
- U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (regulation)
- INL Nuclear Reactor Innovation Centers (testing)
- American Society of Mechanical Engineers (quality standards for components)
- United States Nuclear Industry Council – (supply chain fabrication)
- U.S. Department of Energy (funding and program management)
The ANS Standards program, as a neutral scientific and technical organization, is in a unique position to facilitate the development of reference designs through the standards development process because of its long experience in convening industry subject matter experts to come together to write performance and risk-based standards for the industry.
The role of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would be to provide requirements on the types and level of detail of the data in the reference designs that it would need to conduct a safety design review and licensing of a new advanced reactor for each of the three types.
The role of the Nuclear Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) would be to develop methods of test to confirm design details, e.g., performance, materials, pressures, radiological protection, etc.
The role of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers would be to adapt its nuclear quality standards for the evolving technical performance characteristics of advanced reactors.
The role of the United States Nuclear Council (USNC) would be to provide not only the one-off components for prototype systems for testing, but also to assess how manufacturing of key components could scale to support factor construction of reference designs as adapted by each nuclear reactor vendor.
The role of the Department of Energy would be to provide funding and program management to pull the pieces together. This would lift the administrative burden from ANS and the other collaborating organizations so that they could conduct their work.
If successful, the potential outcome is that the publication of reference designs for the three reactor types noted here, could reduce the development time scale for bringing these designs to market and to deploy them to address decarbonization objectives.
The ideas here aren’t unique for use just in the U.S. In fact, if successful in the U.S., the concept of linking performance and risk-based standards to the conceptual reference designs developed by the GEN IV could be extended to international collaboration. Such an effort might break down regulatory barriers in export markets potentially speeding up the entry of advanced designs to them as a result. While GEN IV is indeed an international effort, the role of collaboration among key stakeholders at the national level looks like a useful next step.
- American railroads in the middle of a war effort rose to the challenge and using reference designs brought the design and manufacturing of steam locomotives into the 20th century.
- One hundred years later the nation and the world are facing the challenge of global warming and the need to decarbonize electricity generation and process heat applications.
- Building 100s or even 1000s of SMRs in both LWR and advanced designs will require a manufacturing base and supply chains similar to the profiles of the major automakers.
- The examples exist for the nuclear industry to follow in the footsteps of the railroads. It isn’t only a matter of technology. It is also a matter of resolve.
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