New paradigms emerge for innovation and investment in advanced nuclear energy reactor designs
(Updated Janaury 2017) Designers of advanced nuclear reactors seek to bridge the gap between concept and prototype. While it is early for investors and potential customers to easily pick winners from an increasingly crowded field of advanced reactor projects, new patterns of investment, including public/private partnerships, are creating opportunities for entrepreneurial developers.
In the U.S. and Canada more than three dozen firms, representing about $1.3 billion in impatient investor money, are currently pursuing technological innovations in nuclear energy. These firms include large, big-name projects, with deep pockets, like TerraPower, and small startups like Terrestrial Energy with Series A funding.
All of them are placing their chips on a comeback for nuclear energy driven by the need to decarbonize the generation of electricity needed to power the global economy.
While large, light water reactors will continue to be significant players in the mix, the bet is that there will also be market opportunities for reactors based on new, unproven technologies, and sooner rather than later.
- Development of roadmaps by independent developers to achieve commercial success of advanced nuclear reactors are the primary objectives as compared to the past where R&D milestones met by scientists inside government funded national labs were what counted.
- Start-up models adapted from Silicon Valley are being used to organize the efforts with venture capital funding in the mix.
- There are significant differences in the time lines and prospects for success between developers of small modular reactors (SMRs) based on conventional light water reactor technologies (sooner), and those efforts that are based on fast neutron reactors that don’t use water as a moderator or coolant (later).
- Public/private partnerships with government agencies, labs, private firms, and non-profit R&D centers are the key to access to test facilities, advanced computing capabilities, and support for development of advanced materials and new types of nuclear fuels.
- Creating a “culture of innovation” globally will be necessary to create the “ecosystems” of capabilities and resources needed for these new nuclear technologies to achieve market acceptance and to have on impact on decarbonizing electrical generation.
- Some reactor design efforts will stop at the stage where intellectual property can be licensed by a developer to a deep pocket reactor vendor or state-owned corporation.
- · The problem for a Chief Nuclear Officer at a major electric utility is that there is no center or cohesion to this collection of innovation efforts. The many different types of technologies, each with their respective technical and economic drivers, remain to be proven through testing and the rite of passage of safety review by regulatory agencies.
- · Eventually, to achieve success, the design effort must cross a gap between media hype and prototype to get on the road to completing a unit that can be sold to customers.
>> Read the full report here <<<
The missing piece is a nuclear energy investment bank. The nation needs a government backed investment bank to secure capital at reasonable interest rates for development of advanced nuclear reactors. See this blog’s proposal to create one.
Third Way Profiles Advanced Nuclear Reactor Developers
(Update February 2018 – Interactive Map )
June 2015 – A report by the Third Way, a Washington, DC, think tank, details the mix of firms in the U.S. and Canada which includes small startups and big-name investors like Bill Gates. All are placing bets on a comeback for nuclear energy working to get their respective technologies to market in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.
Samuel Brinton, the report’s author, spoke by phone with this blog in June 2015 about the report shortly after it was published by the Third Way. The report has been updated by the Third Way several times since then.
Brinton, who is an MIT graduate in nuclear engineering, said that most of the startups are seeking to develop smaller and more efficient nuclear reactors. If successful, they will be the answer, collectively, to the anti-nuclear rant of now former VP Al Gore who once told a congressional committee that all reactors all come in one size – large.
Some of the most interesting characteristics of the new designs are that they are engineered to use spent nuclear fuel. Brinton estimates that over time, if even just eight of the 33 designs listed in the report make it to market, their life cycle demand for spent nuclear fuel could add up to as much as 25% of the current US inventory. A few designs propose to use thorium as a fuel. Another feature is that coolants run the gamut including liquid metal, high temperature gases, and molten salt.
Here’s a brief run down of some of the firms profiled in the Third Way report by type. Readers will note there is overlap among the types. This is the classification used in the Third Way report. The report also discusses work on fusion reactors and nuclear batteries, but those projects are not addressed here.
Reactor Types by Design Approach
- Molten salt, some thorium fueled
- Liquid metal cooled, some SMRs
- High temperature gas (HTGR)
- Pebble bed (HTGR)
- Small modular reactor (LWR)
While the Third Way report does not attempt to pick winners or losers among the 33 designs, Brinton said some of the advanced designs, as distinct from LWR type SMRs, are more likely to make it to market sooner rather than later. Brinton didn’t put a time line on any of the designs on his informal short list which isn’t part of the official report. In any case none of these designs is likely to emerge from an NRC licensing process before the middle of the next decade.
Some won’t even submit in the U.S. deeming the NRC being incapable of reviewing their technology. For its part the agency has published a 23 page “Vision & Strategy” document to provide developers with a roadmap for the development of its capabilities. Implementation will depend on appropriations by Congress. However, the current trend at the agency is downsizing its new reactor licensing staff.
Reactors with Prospects for Shorter Time to Market
Note: This list is not to be construed as investment advice.
~ Less than 300 MW
- Terrestrial Energy, Mississauga, Ontario, CA; Molten salt
- Advanced Reactor Concepts, Reston, VA; Liquid cooled metal
- Gen4 Energy, Denver, CO; Liquid cooled metal
- General Atomics, San Diego, CA; High temperature gas
~ 300 MW or More
- Terrapower, Bellevue, WA; Liquid cooled metal
- PRISM, Wilmington, NC; Sodium coolant
- Transatomic Power Cambridge, MA; molten salt
- Areva HTGR, Charlotte, NC; High temperature gas cooled
- General Electric/Hitachi, Wilmington, NC; Liquid cooled metal
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