Advanced Reactors

New paradigms emerge for innovation and investment in advanced nuclear energy reactor designs

Nuclear-abstract_thumb.jpg(Updated May 2019) Designers of advanced nuclear reactors seek to bridge the gap between concept and prototype. While it is too 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. A key area of interest is in small modular reactors, e.g., with electrical power ratings of less than 300 Mwe.. 

Source Listings of Advanced Nuclear Reactor Development Efforts (March 2019)

INL/GAIN Directory (March 2019)

The Idaho National Laboratory (INL), Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) has published a directory of developers of advanced nuclear energy technologies, suppliers, and national labs. 

Cover-4thEditionThis directory by INL/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).

Scroll down to the image on the page like the one on the right. The link to the full directory (large PDF file for download) is there and is updated from time-to-time.  It offers a listing of companies engaged in the development of advanced nuclear technologies. It also has supplier listings.

If you are a developer or a supplier to the advanced nuclear market, there are forms on the same page on this website you can fill out to get listed in the directory.

If you are interested in additional information please go to the contact tab for GAIN and leave a message.

Success Factors for
Advanced Nuclear Reactor Developers

In the U.S. and Canada more than three dozen firms, representing more than $1 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, and as yet unproven, technologies, and sooner rather than later. It is unclear whether they will stay in the game long enough to collect on these bets. The demise of Transatomic in 2018 is a message that some firms will not achieve their technical much less commercial objectives.

  • 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 by NeutronBytes here <<<

Investment Issues – 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.

Policy Issues –  A 2016 report by the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board concluded that it would take 25 years and $12 billion to commercialize a single advanced reactor concept.  There are lots of reports by think tanks and advocacy groups about how to change government policies that will result in speeding up the development of advanced reactors. There has got to be a better way to get there. Here are a few ideas.

A good place to start is the report by the Breakthrough Institute How to Make Nuclear Innovative.  Read the executive summary and watch the brief video on YouTube that covers the report’s key findings.

The reports’s mainstream recommendations for modernizing nuclear innovation in the United States, include;

  • Licensing reform. Licensing of new nuclear technologies will need to be reformed in order to support smaller, entrepreneurial firms and to build investor confidence as key design and testing benchmarks are achieved.
  • Public-private partnerships. National laboratories will need to provide private companies with access to equipment, technical resources, and expertise in order to lower costs and promote greater knowledge spillover in the testing and licensing process.
  • Targeted public funding for R&D. Significant and sustained research funding should be directed toward solving shared technical challenges.
  • Inter-firm collaboration. Policy and funding should be designed to encourage knowledge spillover and collaboration between companies.
  • Private-sector leadership. Public investment in demonstration and commercialization should follow private investment and avoid early down-selection of technologies.

Another center of excellence is the Nuclear Innovation Alliance which has published a four part strategy for speeding up the development of small modular reactors and advanced reactor designs.

Review of Advanced Reactors by Type

  • Power Magazine Chart of Development Status of Advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) by Type, Country, and Development Maturity

Interest in small modular reactors (SMRs) has ramped up to applications in niche electricity or energy markets where large reactors would not be viable. Examples include cogeneration in countries with small grids, remote and off-grid areas, and for nuclear/renewable hybrid projects.

Modular attributes may also enable SMRs to target the economics of serial production, offering shorter construction time frames. While significant advancements have been achieved for more than 50 key SMR technologies worldwide in recent years, most continue to crawl through the development pipeline.

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) Advanced Reactors Information Systems (ARIS) database

Power Magazine has racked and stacked the various advanced reactor technology types and arranged them in a chart. A chart displays the relative degree of development maturity by type and by country. Copy and artwork by Sonal Patel, a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine) (Updated March 2019)

Third Way Listing of Advanced Reactors

A February 2018 update by the Washington, DC, think tank Third Way, 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 original author of the report, spoke by phone with this blog about the report shortly after it was originally published by the Third Way in June 2015. The report has been updated by the Third Way several times since then. Brinton’s comments are still relevant as can be read below.

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 and expensive.

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 more than three dozen 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 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.

  • Molten salt, (fluoride, chloride) some thorium fueled
  • Liquid metal cooled, sodium, lead, and some are SMRs
  • High temperature gas (HTGR) including pebble bed type
  • Small modular reactor (LWR)

While the Third Way report does not attempt to pick winners or losers among the listed 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 provided developers of advanced reactors with a Vision & Strategy roadmap for the development of its capabilities.

Implementation will depend on appropriations by Congress which passed legislation in 2018 to reform and speed up the NRC’s regulatory reviews of new reactors. Much will depend on funding for the agency separate from its cost recovery methods that are a substantial barrier to new developers.

As a side note Congress could keep them at home by appropriation of funds to DOE to cover some of the design and licensing costs via funding opportunity announcements that would review applicants for funds and pick those with the most mature efforts. In the end advanced reactors will stimulate new supply chains, and the jobs that go with them, as well as manufacturing facilities for the reactor components, fuel, etc.

Advanced Reactors with Prospects for Shorter Time to Market

Note: This list of non-LWR types is not to be construed as investment advice.  Estimates for commercial deployment of these technologies vary from the late 2020s or sometime in the 2030s. This list is not meant to exclude other technologies which may achieve breakthroughs in the future.

~ Less than 300 MW

~ 300 MW or More

  • Terrapower, Bellevue, WA; Liquid cooled metal (sodium coolant)
  • PRISM, Wilmington, NC; Sodium coolant
  • Transatomic Power Cambridge, MA; molten salt (closed down in 2018)
  • Areva HTGR, Charlotte, NC; High temperature gas cooled pebble bed

Due to the the failure of the V C Summer project this event is now seen as a key barrier to the financing, construction and operational risks for conventional reactors. This is why DTE (Fermi III), Duke (Lee), and Dominion (North Anna II) which are NRC licensed projects, are unlikely to break ground anytime soon.

Advanced designs face even higher hurdles in terms to gaining investor confidence. It isn’t clear what it will take to get it. Changes in government policy, funding, and support through DOE national laboratories will all have to be brought to bear to make a difference.

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