- DOE Wants to Fund Fusion to Get Up a Head of Steam
- X-Energy to Build $300M Nuclear Fuel Plant in Oak Ridge
- Sweden Announces Plans To Build Nuclear Power Plants
- Poland’s Synthos Green Energy in MOU with Canada’s Laurentis To Support SMRs
- Nuclear Industry Needs More Workers than It Can Find
DOE Wants to Fund Fusion to Get Up a Heat of Steam
As an outcome of a high-level White House Conference last March, plus enabling legislation and appropriations by Congress, the Department of Energy, Office of Science, published an announcement offering $50M as part of a “Milestone-Based Fusion Development Program.” The agency said in its statement that this new public-private partnership program is the first step toward realizing the Administration’s bold decadal vision for commercial fusion energy.
It is the largest commitment of federal funds for fusion power to date and it targets success in the private sector towards commercialization rather than supporting R&D sandboxes at national laboratories. It represents an commitment to engage with fusion developers through public/private partnerships.
This program will support for-profit entities, who may team with national laboratories, universities and others, to meet major technical and commercialization milestones toward the successful design of a fusion pilot plant (FPP) that will help bring fusion toward technical and commercial success. The program is informed by recent reports from the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee; the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and industry workshops. See for instance, the 2021 NAS report Bringing Fusion to the U.S. Grid (briefing slides)
“Fusion holds the promise of being an on-demand, safe, abundant source of carbon-free primary energy and electricity, with the potential to transform the way we generate and use energy,” said David Turk, DOE Deputy Secretary
“Today, there is nearly $5 billion of private capital invested into predominantly U.S.-based fusion companies. This administration is eager to partner with these companies and work together to accelerate progress toward a future powered by fusion, offering energy abundance and energy security around the world.”
“Since the White House Fusion Summit in March 2022 and a DOE fusion workshop in June 2022, DOE has worked hard to establish this program, which makes use of DOE’s available contracting mechanisms to allow for milestone-based payments, and other mechanisms simplifying the process, to invite strong industry participation,” said Geraldine Richmond, DOE Under Secretary for Science and Innovation.
Total planned funding is up to $50 million the first year of what could be a five-year program for project teams to deliver one or more fusion power plant (FPP) pre-conceptual designs and technology roadmaps by 18 months after award. Funding for meeting subsequent milestones toward full conceptual FPP designs, up to a total period of performance of five years, will be contingent upon meeting early milestones and future annual appropriations. (DOE briefing on milestone approach for fusion FOA – PDF file)
Project teams are to be led by for-profit entities, who must meet particular milestones before being awarded funds by the Department. Significant commitment of non-Federal resources by funded project teams is expected.
The DOE Funding Opportunity Announcement, sponsored by the Office of Fusion Energy Sciences within the Department’s Office of Science, can be found here. The application deadline is 12/15/22. DOE Slide Deck
What Will Firms that are Funded Need to Deliver?
The funding opportunity announcement (FOA) is expected to award $5-25M to three-to-five project teams. There are two “swim lanes” or tiers to the funding. The principal applicant must be a for profit firm but partnerships with national laboratories and universities are acceptable. The two tracks are;
- Develop a pre-conceptual design / roadmaps for a pilot fusion plant
- Come up with improvements to the performance of current fusion efforts none of which so far have produced a long duration self-sustaining fusion process.
For either of these tracks, the project team must provide a detailed roadmap and a set of planning milestones that would result in specific deliverables within 18 months of being awarded the funding. Success with this effort can bring an additional five years of funding to produce a detailed preliminary design of a fusion power plant or specific performance improvements for development of fusion power.
Funding over a five year period could include FY23: $35M, FY24: $65M, FY25: $80M, FY26: $80M and FY27: $80M depending on congressional action to fund the program in out years.
In addition to the two tracks, DOE wants to establish a high performance computation collaborative among developers of fusion technology. Some of these facilities already exist at national laboratories putting the emphasis on focused use of these computational resources on fusion problems.
Plenty of Things to Do
A quick review of some of the trade press coverage of the fusion energy industry shows there are plenty of challenges faced by developers. Here’s a sample list.
- How do you get the heat out the machine and into a conventional steam system to turn a turbine?
- How do you contain the 100M+ degree heat inside the machine and prevent damage to its materials from the intense field?
- Given the huge amount of electricity needed to drive the fusion process, e.g., one developer cites a need for 50 MW to produce 500 MW of power, where will that power come from? Do we need to use small nuclear reactors to jump start full size fusion power plants?
- With the incredible variety of technical approaches to fusion, how will the industry be able to create a reliable and cost competitive supply chain?
- How will suppliers know that more than just one of these devices, for any of the dozen or so designs, will actually get built?
- The nuclear energy industry has NQA-1 standards for components that are used to build fission reactors. Will the fusion industry need an entire system of quality and operating standards? Is anyone working on this issue?
- Does size matter? While the nuclear energy industry is working on small and micro fission reactors, given the amount of heat involved in fusion, is there a minimum physical size and thermal capacity for these plants? Also, is there an engineer pathway to plants that are small enough to support space propulsion or terrestrial applications that don’t require huge amounts of power?
- Fuel and materials challenges are all over the map, e.g., tritium supply, lithium supply, etc. Is the US government working on the problems given the global competition for these materials? Where is DOE’s focus on these problems? Does the industry have solutions?
- What is the pathway or roadmap from a working prototype with a self-sustaining process to a commercial design? DOE so far is only thinking about preliminary conceptual designs. It needs to see the whole path to commercialization and fund programs to facilitate US industry progress accordingly.
- Given the enormous amount of funding that has gone into the fusion startups so far, how much more is going to be needed to get to a commercial product and will investors be willing to double down on their investments?
The vast majority (90%+) of fusion energy firms plan to use the machines to generate electricity and they claim one or more of them will be in revenue service on an major power grid by the mid-2030s. By comparison, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), which is building a prototype fusion plant, has said it believes the facility will be operational in the early 2040s. Is the industry over promising to attract investors? Is the UK government’s time line more realistic?
Lessons Learned from NASA Could Help DOE
Andrew Holland, CEO of the Fusion Industry Association, said in a statement in response to the release of the FOA by DOE, “While the funding is important, the design of the program is also crucial. This program is being run under flexible contracting rules called ‘Other Transaction Authority’ that allows for a more streamlined approach without the usual bureaucracy that hampers government contracting. This is how NASA was able to support SpaceX’s accelerated pathway to cost-effective commercial space. It will allow government to ‘move at the speed of business’ and make bets that can meaningfully accelerate fusion energy.”
Funding Falls Short
Holland added: “The Fusion Industry Association (FIA) has been advocating for the implementation of this new ‘Milestone-based’ public private partnership for years. While we’re excited to see it started, this funding must only be seen as a down payment. $50M will pay for important planning, but it won’t meaningfully accelerate pilot plants on its own; fusion needs a program that is 10 to 20 times bigger.”
As of September 2022 industry data collected by the Fusion Energy Association (FIA) indicates there is $4.7 billion in private investment in 20 commercial companies in the US and three dozen globally. Half of the investment commitments were made in the last five years.
Despite all of this concentration of activity, the fusion energy industry is not happy with the attention and funding DOE has given to the nuclear power industry (fission). Bob Mumgard, Ph.D., CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, complained in testimony on 09/15/22 to the Senate Committee on Energy & Nature Resources that DOE has put up several billion dollars so far through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program. He wants to see a similar scale commitment to fusion and more.
Mumgard observed that the five-year funding profile announced by DOE “falls short” of what is needed to deploy a commercial fusion plant in the US. The US must move fast and he cited congressional support fort NASA’s approach called COTS – commercial off the shelf – contracting method. He pointed to NASA’s upfront appropriation of $500M to be spent over five years on new rockets. He praised the NASA effort and said it does two important things.
- It provides the private sector a level of confidence that the public sector is seriously committed to drive matching investments in the private sector
- It gives a government agency the ability to plan over a longer time horizon and not have to worry about year over year appropriations.
FIA’s Holland agrees. He said in a statement published on the group’s website, “While we’re excited to see it started, this funding must only be seen as a down payment. The $50M will pay for important planning, but it won’t meaningfully accelerate pilot plants on its own. Fusion needs a program that is 10 to 20 times bigger.”
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X-Energy to Build $300M Nuclear Fuel Plant in Oak Ridge
X-energy, which is developing an advanced nuclear reactor design with funding from the Department of Energy, announced this week it will build a $300 million commercial advanced nuclear fuel facility in Oak Ridge, TN. The company said the first of a kind commercial scale plant will initially support 400 jobs. The plant will break ground in November. A subsidiary, TRISO-X, LLC, will build and operate the plant.
The 500,000-square-foot nuclear fuel manufacturing facility at Horizon Center Industrial Park is slated to open in 2025. The facility will produce eight tons of fuel per year, but executives hope to double the figure by the early 2030s. Pete Pappano, the president of TRISO-X, told local news media the company plans to build an identical facility to eventually produce 32 tons of fuel. The reactors that will use the company’s fuel are Xe-100 high temperature gas reactors, also developed by X-energy, and the factory also can manufacture fuel for other reactors that need TRISO fuel that are not designed by X-energy.
The company, which already has a presence in Oak Ridge, said it chose Oak Ridge for its historic ties to harnessing nuclear power and proximity to hubs of science and technology in the area, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory. X-energy currently has 50 employees working in Oak Ridge between a pilot-scale fuel facility inside Oak Ridge National Laboratory and a research and development facility in the Centrus Technology Manufacturing Center.
“We’re extraordinarily proud of our relationship with Oak Ridge,” Clay Sell, CEO of X-energy, told Knox News. “It’s an original nuclear town, it’s a extremely well-informed community, it’s an extremely talented community, so it has the skill set that we aspire to attract.”
X-Energy’s HTGR, funded in a cost sharing effort under DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, is to be built near Richland, WA, and is on a schedule to be completed by 2028.
The Xe-100 is an 80 MW reactor that can be scaled into a “four-pack” 320 MW power plant and even larger as needed. According to X-energy it can be manufactured and shipped to site using existing road and rail, bringing nuclear power within reach for countries, utilities and communities.
Maryland-based X-energy previously chose Oak Ridge for a pilot-scale nuclear fuel facility to further develop its Triso-X fuel and support the Xe-100 design.
In August, X-energy and US-based chemicals company Dow said they will collaborate to deploy Xe-100 reactor technology at one of Dow’s US Gulf Coast sites.
Dow, based in Midland, Michigan, said the reactor is expected to be operational by 2030. It said the Xe-100 would provide cost-competitive, carbon free process heat and power to the Dow facility.
In July, X-energy and Ontario Power Generation signed an agreement to look for opportunities to deploy the Xe-100 reactor at industrial sites in Ontario and identify further potential end users and sites throughout Canada.
In a separate development, last March, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation announced it would invest $13 million over five years to establish a manufacturing facility at the East Tennessee Technology Park near Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
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Sweden Announces Plans To Build Nuclear Power Plants
(NucNet) Sweden’s incoming government will ask state-run utility Vattenfall to plan and procure new nuclear power stations potentially making the country one of an increasing number turning to commercial reactors as a source of low-carbon, baseload energy supply.
“New reactors will be built in Sweden,” said Ebba Busch, whose Christian Democrat party belongs to an alliance that won the most seats in last month’s general election. The right-wing bloc is scheduled to become the nation’s next government in a parliamentary vote later this month.
Sweden now joins other countries in Europe that are turning to nuclear power in response to record high energy prices and fears over the security of key infrastructure.
Last June, Vattenfall said it will be starting work on a pilot study on the feasibility of deployment of at least two small modular reactor (SMR) units at the site of the Ringhals nuclear power station.
The company also said it plans to invest about $215M (€220m) in its nuclear operations in Sweden to ensure plants remain well-equipped to supply stable and safe baseload power well into the future.”
Sweden has six commercial nuclear power units in operation at three sites: Forsmark, Oskarshamn and Ringhals. According to International Atomic Energy Agency data, nuclear energy provided about a third of the country’s electricity generation in 2021.
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Poland’s Synthos Green Energy in MOU with Canada’s Laurentis To Support SMR Deployment
- Plan is to deploy first BWRX-300 by end of decade
(NucNet) Canada-based Laurentis Energy Partners and Polish energy company Synthos Green Energy announced last week the signing of an agreement to support the development and deployment of small modular reactors (SMRs) in Poland.
The signing took place at the ministry of climate and environment in Poland, following a meeting between Ontario Canada’s energy minister Todd Smith and the Polish undersecretary of state Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertynski.
The agreement enables international collaboration between Laurentis and Synthos Green Energy, beginning with early project planning. In December 2021, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, BWXT Canada, and Synthos Green Energy announced plans to support the deployment of SMRs in Poland. BWXT Canada is positioned to be a supplier of components for the program which could build as many as 10 SMRs.
Based in Canada and with operations in Europe, Laurentis is a wholly-owned commercial subsidiary of Ontario Power Generation (OPG). OPG is owner of the Bruce, Darlington and Pickering nuclear power stations in Ontario.
Synthos Green Energy, with its partner PKN Orlen, the largest multi-energy company in Central Europe, has established the joint venture company Orlen Synthos Green Energy to deploy a fleet of GE Hitachi (GEH) BWRX-300 SMRs in Poland, with the first scheduled to be in operation by the end of this decade.
Synthos Green Energy wants to benefit from OPG’s project to deploy BWRX-300 SMRs in Canada. Rafal Kasprów, chief executive officer of Synthos Green Energy said, “The fact that the BWRX-300 technology has been chosen by experienced utilities from Canada, the country with decades of experience in nuclear business, confirms that we have made the right decisions and that we are on the right track,”
“Working with Canadian entities, such as Laurentis Energy Partners, will allow us to learn from the first planned BWRX-300 deployments in the world, to accelerate project development in Poland.”
OPG announced in December 2021 that it would work with GEH to deploy a BWRX-300 SMR at the Darlington new nuclear site – the only site in Canada licensed for a new nuclear build – with the goal of constructing Canada’s first commercial, grid-scale SMR as early as 2028. OPG is also collaborating with the Tennessee Valley Authority on development and commercialization of the BWRX-300 at its Clinch River site.
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Nuclear Industry Needs More Workers than It Can Find
According to a report by the Reuters wire service, the global nuclear industry faces many technical and political challenges but sourcing sufficient workers may be its largest obstacle. Recently, Craig Piercy, CEO of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) said that, as climate pressures and increasing investment lead to an expanding nuclear power industry, sector heads were growing concerned by a lack of a workers.
Within the U.S. nuclear energy sector, almost 100,000 people are directly employed in high-quality, long-term jobs, but this number jumps to 475,000 when secondary jobs are included, according to the U.S. Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). Given the ambitions of the US, the UK, and other nations, substantial growth in the nuclear labor force is needed to keep up with demand. In the UK each large-scale nuclear power plant could support up to around 10,000 jobs at peak construction.
In addition to developments in the US, the UK is planning its own ambitious expansion of its nuclear industry over the next few years, and many countries in Europe, threatened by an energy supply squeeze, are considering expanding the lives of existing plants and adding new reactors.
A collaborative macroeconomic “input/output” study by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) ‘Measuring Employment Generated by the Nuclear Power Sector’ helps give a broader understanding of the problem.
Direct employment for a single unit 1,000 MW advanced light water reactor during site preparation and construction at any point in time for 10 years is around 1,200 professional and construction staff, or about 12,000 labor years.
Approximately 600 administrative, operations and maintenance, and permanently contracted staff are employed annually over 50-year operation, or about 30,000 labor years.
Around 10 years of decommissioning needs some 500 people employed annually, while over some 40-to-60 years to manage nuclear waste, another 80 people are employed.
Total direct employment in the nuclear power sector of a given national economy is therefore roughly 200,000 labor years over the lifecycle of 1,000 MW of nuclear generating capacity, the report concludes.
In May, the British government announced sweeping and ambitious plans for nuclear power, including tripling capacity by 2050, or by 24 GW, and pumping over 2 billion pounds ($2.3 billion) into the sector by 2030.
“With the UK government’s new targets, we will see several pinch points when new projects overlap where the sector will struggle to find the right skills. This goes beyond nuclear, with a lack of skills in [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] and construction globally,” says Georgina Hines, a Policy Analyst at the UK Nuclear Industry Association.
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