The Atomic Show Podcast includes interviews, roundtable discussions and atomic geeks all centered around the idea that nuclear energy is an amazing boon for human society.
Atomic Show #288 – Per Peterson, CNO, Kairos Power
Per Peterson in R-Lab with ETUDE, the scaled water test version of the Engineering Test Unit now in construction in AlbuquerqueImage provided by Kairos Power
Kairos Power Is developing a truly new nuclear fission power technology. Their KP-FHR (Kairos Power - Fluoride Salt Cooled, High Temperature Reactor) combines the solid fuel form usually associated with gas-cooled reactors with the fluoride molten salt often associated with fluid-fuel reactors.
For Atomic Show #288, my guest was Dr. Per Peterson, Kairos Power's chief nuclear officer (CNO). Per explained the technical logic leading his company to make its ground-breaking choices.
Before describing process of making technical choices, Per provided a brief summary of the KP-FHR technological development history. The FHR originated in a conversation with MIT's Dr. Charles Forsberg and later became the subject of an integrated research program between MIT, University of Wisconsin, and Dr. Peterson's academic home at University of California's Berkeley campus.
As Per was careful to point out, the program was primarily funded with Department of Energy (DOE) academic research grants and involved a number of both graduate and undergraduate research students from each of the participating institutions.
This type of project grant program is aimed at giving students practical design experience and providing purpose for experiments, equipment design and testing. Sometimes, as in the case of the FHR, members of the research team recognize that they have a product that can be commercialized because it has characteristics that are superior to similar products in the market.
Three members of the FHR integrated research project team, Per Peterson, Ed Blandford, and Mike Laufer founded Kairos Power in 2016 as a venture-funded Silicon Valley company to refine their ideas and commercialize the technology they had helped to develop within the academic setting.
In 2018, I talked with Ed Blandford and Per about Kairos Power, this show is part of my promise to provide updates on an intermittent basis.
Brief description of the KP-FHR
The nuclear fission heart of the KP-FHR is a pebble-bed reactor with 4 cm diameter fuel elements that each contain thousands of TRISO fuel particles in a graphite matrix. Fission heat generated in the reactor is moved by a pumped flow of fluoride salts through a heat exchanger that transfers the fission heat into nitrate salts similar to those used in concentrated solar thermal power systems.
The nitrate salt is pumped through a second heat exchanger (steam generator) that functions as a water boiler to produce steam with temperature of 585 ℃ and pressure of 19 MPa. As Per explained, that combination of temperature and pressure is equal to the most modern coal fired steam plants.
In fluoride salt the fuel elements have a slight positive buoyancy. To provide long operating periods without a large amount of excess reactivity at the beginning of core life, the KP-FHR includes an online fueling system that removes pebbles at the top...
Atomic Show #287 – Darren Gale, VP Commercial Operations, X-Energy talks about Xe-100
X-Energy is the lead recipient for one of two industry groups selected to receive $80 M in Department of Energy (DOE) funding as part of a public-private partnership program to demonstrate advanced nuclear power plants on an aggressive time table.
Its primary partner in the endeavor is Energy Northwest, which currently owns and operates the Columbia Generating Station in eastern Washington. Energy Northwest will be the owner and operator of the demonstration power station, which will consist of a four-unit installation of X-Energy's Xe-100 high temperature gas cooled reactor.
Each unit is designed to produce 80 MWe, resulting in a power station output of 320 MWe.
Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program
The award is part of the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which also includes two additional development pathways with longer horizons. The $80 M in FY 2021 funds is a down payment that will provide funds for completing detailed design work and beginning the licensing process.
Future appropriations will be required to complete the projects; the funding opportunity announcement for the program included an award ceiling of $4 B to be shared among three different development pathways.
For Atomic Show #287, I spoke with Darren Gale, X-Energy's Vice President for Commercial Operations. Darren is the company executive with direct responsibility for executing the company's contract with the Department of Energy and delivering on the promise to design, license and construct an advanced nuclear reactor power plant.
The ADRP has an aggressive target date for beginning to deliver electricity to the grid is the end of 2027. During our conversation, Darren explained how his company is positioned to deliver on its promise.
Xe-100 Design history
We spoke about how X-Energy has been working on its high temperature pebble bed reactor design for more than a decade. X-Energy was founded in 2009 by Kam Ghaffarian, a successful entrepreneur who founded Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies (SGT) in 1984. Dr. Ghaffarian remains the owner of X-Energy, but is being joined by additional investors.
The design is mature and the company has been engaging with the NRC for several years. It expects to be able to submit a license application within the next year or two; part of the uncertainty includes determining the most appropriate and streamlined licensing pathway.
The Xe-100 is a helium-cooled, high temperature pebble bed reactor that has a number of similarities to the Chinese HTR-PM. They share a common heritage tracing back through the South African HTGR program and to the German AVR demonstration reactor.
As Darren explains, the Xe-100 includes a number of refinements in its fuel design and in its fuel handling system that enable more efficient fuel use.
Another design difference is that each Xe-100 reactor/steam generator modules are connected to its own Rankine cycle steam turbine. In the HTR-PM design, two reactor/steam generator modules feed a single larger tu...
Atomic Show #286 – Chris Wright, CEO Liberty Oilfield Services
Chris Wright is the CEO of Liberty Oilfield Services, which recently became the second largest US company performing the work of drilling and completing oil and gas wells in shale formations.
He is a leader in the field of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal well drilling, having been involved in the revolutionary technology development since the days when George Mitchell was stubbornly experimenting in the Barnett Shale.
Among those who focus on the energy industry and attempt to understand its current situation in order to gain some insights into the future, the growing natural gas supply in the US gets a lot of attention. Cheap natural gas gets credit for a steady drop in annual US CO2 emissions as it has pushed a growing amount of coal out of the market.
That same product – cheap natural gas – has also been blamed for reducing revenues enough at a number of existing nuclear plants to push their owners into closing the plants for economic reasons. Despite successful efforts to reduce operating costs at those plants, shrinking top-line revenue from selling electricity into low-priced wholesale markets means they do not make enough money to meet corporate goals.
After hearing Chris Wright on Robert Bryce's excellent Power Hungry podcast, I realized it would be worthwhile to invite him onto the Atomic Show to provide a deeper explanation of the revolution in natural gas production.
Chris gets into some deep technical details about how technology has dramatically improved in his field. He explains how competition and a relentless focus on providing a better product has driven that improvement.
He is justifiably proud of the benefits that his industry has provided to the world, but he also provides some important support and advice to people who are working to improve nuclear fission energy.
It might surprise many, including some of Chris's colleagues, to learn that Chris describes himself as a huge supporter of nuclear fission energy. He provides some compliments and some tough love for those of us who are working to improve the technology's chances of competing and serving customer needs.
I think you will thoroughly enjoy listening to Chris's thoughts about energy and its importance for human development and prosperity.
As always, I'm interested in hearing what you think. I'm pretty sure this show will provoke some deep thinking in what might be completely new directions, so I'd like you to share some of those thoughts.
Atomic Show #285 – MMR at Illinois
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has a stretch goal of completing its next research and test reactor by the end of 2025. It has assembled a team that includes several other major universities, national labs, and industrial partners.
It has selected the MMRTM, a product that is being developed by USNC (Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation), for its ability to meet most of a long list of important attributes that will support a wide range of university research and development goals.
For this Atomic Show, I spoke with Dr. Katy Huff, Dr. Caleb Brooks – both of whom are on the UIUC engineering faculty – and Mark Mitchell, the USNC executive leading the MMR development program.
They explained the history of their visionary project and provided the basis for their firm belief that they can license and build a new research and test reactor within the next five years.
Why does UIUC need a new reactor?
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has a long tradition of leadership and innovation in nuclear science, technology and engineering. For 38 years (1960-1998) it proudly operated the Triga-Mark II research reactor to support student development and to contribute to the advancement of nuclear science and technology.
But that valuable asset was, like so many US research reactors, decommissioned during the Dark Ages of US nuclear power development in the 1990s.
By the end of that decade, student enrollment in nuclear engineering and science majors had dropped to near the fiducial level, there were few, if any prospects for new nuclear power projects, and federal support for nuclear research had been completely eliminated in during several budget cycles.
Universities didn't see any reason to keep supporting research reactors, so they shut them down.
But concerns about fossil fuel sustainability and climate change have helped to renew global interest in nuclear energy development and deployment. Students are again selecting nuclear focused majors and are developing new ideas about ways to use nuclear technologies to improve the human condition.
Even though student interest in nuclear has been growing in the US for at least 15 years, university research reactor shutdowns have continued and no new ones have been built.
Leaders in nuclear at UIUC decided several years ago that they need to take aggressive action to address the growing challenge of increasing student population and fewer physical reactors for them to use in their education, research and professional development programs.
Why the MMR? Why now?
University research reactors have always been modest in their thermal power capability, and they have generally been designed with passive safety features that make them appropriate for student learning and management.
Even though the 15 MWth MMR is designed to provide useful power and electricity, it is also designed to be extremely safe without operator action. With its molten salt heat storage separating the nuclear reactor heat source from the adjacent plant heat conversion system, it is also designed for flexibly shifting its production from electricity to heat or to other useful products.
That flexibility is attractive to a large university that has a variety of student research endeavors along with a large physical plant that includes on-campus power and heat generation.
Atomic Show #284 – Meredith Angwin, Author of Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid
Meredith Angwin has become an authority on the arcane topic of governing electric grids in the United States. She's concerned and thinks others will may share her concern when they recognize there is a key missing element in grid governance.
There is no organization or individual that is responsible for making sure that electricity is generated, transmitted and delivered to customers.
Various organizations, often with competing or conflicting interests, have shared responsibility for different parts of the system that includes generators, transformers, switchyards, transmission lines, distribution lines and billing systems, but "the market" has been assigned the responsibility of supplying wholesale electricity.
And that market is not the free market, but instead is a hybrid that is governed by an ever changing stack of layered rules where many of the important decisions are made by participant groups that do not include customers or even enabled representatives of customers.
A growing portion of the grid's electricity is dependent on free, but uncontrolled natural flows. Another portion comes from generators whose fuel is delivered by capacity-limited pipes in a "just in time fashion." When the natural flows are interrupted or something interferes in the pipelines's capability to deliver fuel, generators stop producing power.
There are processes that can be called into action, but costs can skyrocket in times of scarcity. Some market players thrive in times of crisis and have few incentives to ensure those crises never arise.
Meredith has produced an accessible, clearly written book that reveals important aspects of a complex topic. It deserves to be on the reading list for people who are interested in electricity.
It belongs in the library of every congressional and senatorial office. At least one person in each staff should be assigned the task of reading it and preparing a report for their member.
Governors and state level legislators might want incorporate lessons revealed in the book and reconsider their decisions to rely more heavily on markets than on well-regulated monopolies with an obligation to serve.
Meredith is a delightful guest who brings the wisdom of a long and productive professional career to her writing and speaking engagements. I'm pretty sure you are going to like this show.
As always, I invite you to participate in the discussion thread.
Atomic Show #283 – The Good Energy Collective
Jessica Lovering, Rachel Slaybaugh, and Suzy Baker founded and lead Good Energy Collective, a policy research organization that is actively "building the progressive case for nuclear energy as an essential part of the broader climate change agenda."
Inspired by the dynamic leaders and new organizations that are successfully making the case that addressing climate change is an imperative that demands immediate action, they determined that now is the time to build coalitions and join forces with others who share similar concerns.
They recognized that nuclear energy is often left out of discussions, and they believed that needed to change. They have each been studying and working in nuclear energy fields for a decade or two and understand that it is fundamentally capable of supplying the clean, abundant, reliable and affordable energy that should be more equitably available to everyone.
But they also recognized that "nuclear" needed to look very different from the image that it currently creates when the word is spoken or written.
Not only is there a need for additional new technologies and designs that make nuclear energy accessible to broader applications and a greater diversity of customers, but methods used to talk about nuclear energy need to be improved and modified to suit current times. Old ways of doing things need to be altered in recognition of past failures, real and perceived.
Though they believe there is a continuing role for large nuclear power plants that can serve the needs of densely populated cities, they also know that the spectrum of communities and customers is so large that it demands a wide variety of solutions.
They are devising and promoting new ways of engaging with people who might eventually choose to use nuclear technology to address their energy needs. But before that happens, they have to learn, trust and accept. They want to help create situations that have better chances of success because entire communities are supportive and encouraging.
Good Energy Collective was officially launched in August 2020, but it has been busily publishing reports, stimulating discussions and developing coalitions. Its leaders do not believe there is any time to waste. They are highly motivated to make rapid changes that will enable a better story to be told about the future of nuclear energy.
Please listen carefully to these amazing women tell their story and share their plans to modernize nuclear energy products, projects and perceptions.