- MIT Public/Private Partnership Expands Effort to Develop a 10 MWe ‘Plug-and-Play’ Nuclear Battery
- Q&A On Nuclear Batteries – A Conversation with Jacopo Buongiorno,
Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT
- Oklo Awarded a DOE Technology Commercialization $2M Cost Share Fund Award to Commercialize Advanced Fuel Recycling and Fabrication Capabilities
- Curtiss-Wright Selected to Participate in the Development of Digital Twin Technology for Advanced Nuclear Reactors Plant Monitoring and Diagnostics
MIT Public/Private Partnership Expands Effort to Develop a 10MWe ‘Plug-and-Play’ Nuclear Battery
Jacopo Buongiorno, TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), is acting on a vision of developing a fleet of rugged, small-scale, portable nuclear batteries that could bypass the grid and provide onsite electricity and heat directly to end users.
It combines the idea of off-the-grid distributed power and community micro-grids. A fleet of nuclear batteries fleet requires no new transmission lines, or upgrades to the grid, or banks of energy storage for backup. They can support a single facility, a community microgrid, or other specialized local use without being connected to a grid.
In MIT’s view in the current era, a nuclear battery can generate about 10 MWe of electricity and/or heat which it says is the energy output equivalent to that of a giant solar field or wind farm, but which requires only a fraction of the land use.
“Nuclear batteries are geographically unconstrained, so we can decarbonize at every latitude and in every climate,” says Buongiorno.
“The idea is to make these batteries ubiquitous, situating them at first in factories, military bases, EV recharging stations, desalination plants, data centers, airports and seaports, and eventually in shopping malls, high rises, and communities as local energy sources,” says Buongiorno, director of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (CANES).
This distributed network would make a “substantial dent in carbon emissions in sectors that are hard to electrify,” he says. He adds that they would be resilient than the aging and vulnerable power grid on which the nation currently depends.
“The ambition is massive, because the class of problems we’re dealing with is massive.” (Essay)
The concept of a nuclear battery isn’t new. As far back as 2004 DARPA was working on micro power sources. These designs used NASA’s radioisotope thermonuclear generators (RTGs) as spring boards for advanced design concepts. More recently, Silicon Valley startup Oklo in June 2020 submitted its license application for a 1.5 MWe micro reactor and has a site license to build one at the Idaho National Laboratory.
Conceptual image of a nuclear battery, including (from left to right) the instrumentation and control module, the reactor, shielding and heat transfer module, and the power module. Image: MIT.
Composition of the Nuclear Battery Consortium
In January 2021, Buongiorno and a group of collaborators drawn from the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratories, energy and manufacturing industries, and legal and architectural firms announced the launch of a non-profit consortium, the Advanced Nuclear and Production Expert Group (ANPEG). This acronym deliberately echoes MPEG, the international standard for encoding digital images and video media.
ANPEG is a global consortium dedicated to developing low-carbon energy systems based on a “plug-and-play” nuclear micro reactor – or Nuclear Battery – that will provide flexible, resilient, and cost-effective energy solutions to support advanced production activities, energy equity and climate change mitigation and adaptation.
“MPEG established plug-and-play standards for digital compression and performance that big technology players used as the basis for their competing products,” says Buongiorno.
“We want to apply the same idea in the development of nuclear batteries, by creating a shared set of standards, regulations, and business models that will spur battery designs for a wide range of applications.”
Buongiorno and consortium members, which at MIT also include Koroush Shirvan (NSE), Charles Forsberg (NSE) and John Parsons (MIT Sloan), intend to make an impact on carbon emissions in the very near term. Nuclear batteries, they believe, are ideally suited for this challenge. See for instance Charles Forsberg’s brief paper on R&D work planned to address markets and economics of fission batteries.
The consortium did not name any external investors. Also, given that the principals of the group have long standing commitments to their academic careers at MIT, it may be that the strategy of the group is to develop intellectual property in sufficient detail to license it to a firm that can complete an engineering designs and take it across the finish line for an NRC license.
Future Success will Depend on the Design and Costs for the Customer
The micro nuclear reactors, as well as containment and energy conversion systems at the heart of the battery concept, are built on mature nuclear technologies, Buongiorno says, and they include include U.S. Army test efforts to develop small mobile reactors (SMRs) for tactical readiness and new prototype systems from NASA like KiloPower.
“Ten years ago, these batteries would have been a pipe dream, but their building-block technologies have matured to a point where they are credible, and today they present a unique opportunity,” says Buongiorno.
While the consortium has not offered any information on the design of its nuclear battery, it has provided some broad brush informati0n on the general characteristics of what it proposes to develop. Challenges ahead include overall design, testing and qualifying fuels, heat transfer mechanisms, and safety design reviews.
According to the consortium, inside heavily shielded, 20-foot-long containers, nuclear batteries will function nearly autonomously, with simple coolant systems and minimal maintenance needs. They will be robust against extreme conditions while meeting NRC safety standards. This means they can complete the necessary regulatory testing and licensing in a fraction of the time typical of larger-scale nuclear reactors.
Conceptual Image of a Nuclear Battery and Its Generator
“What’s exciting is that while the traditional nuclear reactor development paradigm requires a decade or more and upwards of $10 billion, the first prototypes of these tiny reactors, with a core the size of a human being, could be fabricated in a few years, for less than $100 million which is a two-orders-of-magnitude reduction in the cost of development,” Buongiorno said.
Nuclear batteries could serve large markets like heat and electricity for factories, residential complexes, hydrogen plants and freight ship propulsion. Also, they could also occupy such special niches as desalination and flood protection pumps on islands; containerized agricultural production and aquafarming; portable data centers; portable biopharma manufacturing; and even power for space ships and bases on the Moon and Mars.
Bringing such a radical enterprise to fruition requires realistic cost modeling. In ANPEG’s model, a nuclear battery energy provider would customize its service to the needs of the end user, guaranteeing heat and electricity at a given price over a period of time. This provider would safely swap the nuclear fuel in and out, offsite. Independent of the grid and with low operational expenses, nuclear battery electricity prices could prove to be competitive against prices charged by electric and heat utilities.
New Nuclear Paradigm?
Buongiorno sees development of nuclear batteries as “the logical consequence” of his work over the past five years. In 2016–2018, he led ‘The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World’ study for the MIT Energy Initiative, which took a hard look at the increasingly difficult development and deployment of nuclear energy in western economies. A fundamental finding is that the successful deployment of nuclear energy as a means of achieving decarbonization depends on control the costs of building new nuclear reactors.
“This got me thinking about how to change the paradigm,” he says. “Nuclear energy must shift from expensive and lengthy construction mega-projects to becoming an affordable just-in-time service. This shift can only be enabled by a radical change in scale and technology.”
A year ago, Buongiorno began reaching out to potential collaborators, fellow researchers and stakeholders from industry and government who recognized the potential of batteries with the maturing of nuclear technology. Acting as self-described “catalyst,” Buongiorno has organized a group of 30 into a formal organization on a fast track.
The Path Forward for ANPEG
By the end of this year, ANPEG will have identified the regulatory requirements and best business models for advancing a market-ready battery. The next phase will assemble nuclear battery makers, operators and utilities that can build, deploy and operate the fleet of batteries. After this comes the creation and testing of a nuclear battery prototype at one of the national energy laboratories.
There are what Buongiorno calls “potential showstoppers”—shifting economic tides or security issues, for instance. But there is an overwhelmingly compelling case to move forward: shifting to carbon-free energy generation—now. “With nuclear batteries we are not talking decades but half a decade, and that’s why this is a game changer,” says Buongiorno.
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Q&A On Nuclear Batteries
A Conversation with Jacopo Buongiorno,
Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT
Conducted by the MIT Press Office
Q: The idea of smaller, modular nuclear reactors has been discussed for several years. What makes this proposal for nuclear batteries different?
A: The units we describe take that concept of factory fabrication and modularity to an extreme. Earlier proposals have looked at reactors in the range of 100 to 300 MWE of electric output, which are a factor of 10 smaller than the traditional big nuclear reactors at the gigawatt scale. These could be assembled from factory-built components, but they still require some assembly at the site and a lot of site preparation work. So, it’s an improvement over the traditional plants, but it’s not a game changer.
This nuclear battery concept is really a different thing because of the physical scale and power output of these machines — about 10 MWe. It’s so small that the whole power plant is actually built in a factory and fits within a standard container.
This provides several benefits from an economic point of view. Deploying these nuclear batteries does not entail managing a large construction site, which has been the primary source of schedule delays and cost overruns for nuclear projects over the past 20 years.
The nuclear battery is deployed quickly, say in a few weeks, and it becomes a sort of energy on demand service. Nuclear energy can be viewed as a product, not a mega-project.
Q: You talk about potentially having such units widely distributed, including even in residential areas to power whole neighborhoods. How confident can people be as to the safety of these plants?
A: The nuclear battery designs that are being developed are exceptionally robust; that’s actually one of the selling points for this technology. The small physical size helps with safety in various ways.
First, the amount of residual heat that has to be removed when the reactor is shut down is small.
Second, the reactor core has a high surface-to-volume ratio, which also makes it easier to keep the nuclear fuel cool under all circumstances without any external intervention. The system essentially takes care of itself.
Third, the reactor also has a very compact and strong steel containment structure surrounding it to protect against a release of radioactivity into the biosphere. To enhance security, we envision that at most sites these nuclear batteries would be located below grade, to provide an additional level of protection from an attacking force.
Q: How do we know that these new kinds of reactors will work, and what would need to happen for such units to become widely available?
A: NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratory demonstrated a microreactor for space applications in three years (2015-2018) from the start of design to fabrication and testing. And it cost them $20 million, leveraging the available Department of Energy nuclear technology infrastructure. This cost and schedule are orders of magnitude smaller than for traditional large nuclear plants that easily cost billions and take between five years and a decade to build.
These nuclear batteries are ideally suited to create resilience in every sectors of the economy, by providing a steady, dependable source of carbon-free electricity and heat that can be sited just where its output is needed, thus reducing the need for expensive and delicate energy transmission and storage infrastructure. If these become as widespread as we envision, they could make a significant contribution to reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
There are half a dozen companies now developing their own designs. For example, the MIT group noted that Westinghouse is working on a nuclear battery (eVinci) that uses heat pipe technology for cooling, and plans to run a demonstration unit in three years. This would be a pilot plant at one of the national laboratories.
Technical Specifications of Westinghouse eVinci SMR. Image: IAEA / Westinghouse
Other efforts include that the US Department of Defense (DOD) said on March 22, 2021, that it exercised contract options for two teams, one led by BWXT Advanced Technologies and the other by X-energy, to proceed with development of a final design for a transportable advanced nuclear microreactor prototype.
After a final design review in early 2022 and completion of environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the two companies may be selected to build and demonstrate a prototype.
The reactor can be subjected to more extreme conditions than would ever be encountered in normal operation, and in doing so show by direct testing that failure limits are not exceeded. That provides confidence for the subsequent phase of widespread commercial installation.
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Oklo Awarded a DOE Technology Commercialization $2M Cost Share Fund Award to Commercialize Advanced Fuel Recycling and Fabrication Capabilities
Oklo is partnering with the Department of Energy and Argonne National Laboratory to advance electrorefining technologies to produce fuel for advanced reactors.
This technology will help reduce fuel costs for advanced reactor designs while reducing waste by turning used fuel into advanced reactor fuel.
Oklo Inc. (Oklo) announced a $2 million cost-share award from the Department of Energy (DOE) supported by the Technology Commercialization Fund (TCF). Oklo is matching $1 million in funds and is partnering with the DOE and Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) on this public-private partnership. The TCF project will enable the commercialization of advanced fuel recycling capabilities by utilizing electrorefining technology (PDF file).
Conceptual Image of Pyroprocessing Plant at Argonne National Laboratory. Image:ANL.
The electrorefining process helps reduce fuel costs for advanced reactors. Thermal reactors access a fraction of the energy in fuel, while fast reactors coupled with electrorefining can unlock the remaining untapped energy in fuel while reducing the volume and radiological lifetime of the waste material.
“We are proud to be selected to accelerate the commercialization of advanced fuel recycling and development and bring clean power to market quickly and cost-effectively,” said Caroline Cochran, co-founder and COO of Oklo.
“When your fuel is millions of times more energy-dense than alternatives, that’s a key enabler to deliver the cheapest forms of clean power available to humanity,” added Cochran.
“There are tremendous energy reserves in used fuel that can help provide clean power to the world.”
The DOE’s commitment to industry partnerships helps propel the commercialization of promising technologies.
“The award showcases the DOE’s priority to support the private sector in bringing next-generation fission to market,” said Jacob DeWitte, co-founder and CEO of Oklo. In addition, this public-private partnership will enable commercial opportunities to convert the country’s used fuel into clean energy.
Oklo Site License at Idaho Lab
In June 2020 the NRC accepted the Oklo Micro Reactor License Application for Review and has agreed to review the application for a combined license for a 1.5 MW micro
The Aurora, which is the name for the micro reactor, is an advanced fission power system that consists of a small reactor with integrated solar panels. It uses liquid metal to move fission heat out of the reactor core and into a secondary power generation system and generates approximately 1.5 MW of power.
The proposed Aurora design uses heat pipes to transport heat from the reactor core to a supercritical carbon-dioxide power conversion system to generate electricity.
Technical Parameters of Oklo 1.5 MWe Micro Reactor: Table: IAEA
Oklo has said it has budgeted “in the order of” $10M for construction and $3M a year for operations of the Aurora plant.
On fuel cycle costs Oklo said that because of the type of reactor and fuel cycle, only a single core load is required for the license lifetime of 20 years. The Aurora will generate both usable heat and electricity.
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Curtiss-Wright Selected to Participate in the Development of Digital Twin Technology for Advanced Nuclear Reactors
Plant Monitoring and Diagnostics
Curtiss-Wright Corporation (NYSE: CW) announced that it has been selected to participate in Project SAFARI, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded project to develop Digital Twin technology for advanced nuclear reactors.
Project SAFARI is one of nine initiatives under the Generating Electricity Managed by Intelligent Nuclear Assets (GEMINA) program sponsored by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
ARPA-E GEMINA projects aim to transform operations and maintenance systems in the next generation of nuclear plants through the development of specialized Digital Twin technology.
For Project SAFARI, Curtiss-Wright will collaborate with a multidisciplinary team – comprised of the University of Michigan, Idaho National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, and Kairos Power – to develop Digital Twin technology that would allow new nuclear power plants to be constructed and operated more efficiently for increased reliability, safety, and cost savings.
“As an industry-leading supplier of advanced plant monitoring and diagnostic systems, Curtiss-Wright is uniquely positioned to participate in the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors and other Generation IV projects,” said Lynn M. Bamford, President and CEO of Curtiss-Wright Corporation. “We are proud to share our broad and diversified nuclear plant monitoring experience and insight in support of the DOE’s Project SAFARI.”
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