Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Small Reactors, Big Potential Impact: NANO Nuclear Microreactors Shaping the Future of Energy Infrastructure

One of the urgent and most important issues of our time is energy. Safe, reliable energy is essential for economic prosperity, infrastructure and quality of life. It powers our transportation systems, communications networks and water treatment facilities. Imagine our hospitals without electricity or our homes without power. In short, energy is the driver behind life as we know it today.

Here in the Northland, a reliable power grid is a must. I know people who would die were we to experience an extended mid-winter power outage. 

For this reason I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about the power grid that most of us take for granted. Here in the United States it seems the lights are always on. Having lived in Puerto Rico 40 years ago, I learned that much of the world lives under a very different set of circumstances. Brownouts and blackouts were a regular occurrence there.

As we attempt to move our world to a cleaner energy solution, many experts and scientists believe the only way for this to succeed is by the adoption of nuclear power solutions. 

One company striving to play a role in this nuclear revolution is NANO Nuclear Energy Inc. NANO Nuclear is an emerging, early-stage microreactor technology company seeking to become a commercially focused, diversified, vertically integrated technology-driven nuclear energy company. The work they are doing is cutting edge and timely. With 16+ years of capital markets experience, founder Jay Jiang Yu serves as executive chairman and president. In 2021, Mr. Yu was recognized as one of The Outstanding 50 Asian Americans in Business. NANO's CEO James Walker, a Nuclear Physicist with multiple degrees was, among other things, project lead and manager for constructing the new Rolls-Royce Chemical Plant. Together they are addressing several questions related to nuclear technology and the future of energy. 

Jay Jiang Yu, Serial Entrepreneur
EN: What first prompted you to take an interest in nuclear technology?

Jay Jiang Yu: My interest came together when I wanted to focus on investing in the next clean energy sector. Wind and Solar had very little innovation, but Nuclear Tech piqued my interest because of the baseload energy output and the advancement in material science to make Nuclear Small Cheaper and Safer. What reinforced my business thesis on creating NANO Nuclear Energy was what the Chairman & CEO of Blackrock, Larry Fink stated, “It is my belief that the next 1,000 unicorns — companies that have a market valuation over $1 billion dollars — won’t be a search engine, won’t be a media company, they’ll be businesses developing green hydrogen, green agriculture, green steel and green cement,” Fink wrote, using the tech-industry term “unicorns” to refer to start-ups valued at $1 billion.”

James Walker: Our initial energy assessment included the consideration of other energy sources, such as wind and solar. SMRs were initially examined, but it became apparent that the market with far larger potential was in more deployable energy systems that could service remote locations more readily; the only candidate that could satisfy this market was microreactors because of their high-capacity factors. The market has exceedingly large potential, with tens of thousands of mining operations running on diesel fuel, which could financially benefit from a steady source of clean and portable energy over a 20-year period.  We identified a large potential customer base for deployable mobile reactors, for remote industrial and manufacturing projects, current and previously uneconomic mining sites, oil, and gas projects, military bases, remote towns and communities, islands or emergency sites (post-earthquake, tsunami, hurricane etc.) to re-establish electrical power during the absence of electric grid availability. Additionally, tens of thousands of mine sites that are not currently economically viable could suddenly be made viable with inexpensive, clean energy, creating the potential to free up huge deposits of mineral wealth. This possibility can be applied most notably to Africa, where mineral wealth exists but is often inaccessible due to the power demands of modern mining operations. Similarly, all remote industrial projects could potentially benefit from our microreactors. Wherever diesel generators are deployed, our microreactors could provide a power source with fewer inherent logistical challenges, as they do not require daily refueling like diesel generators.

If countries are also serious about electrifying their transportation infrastructure, only microreactors would be able to service charging stations for electric vehicles throughout the country. Wind and solar can only be sited where they can generate sufficient output energy, and batteries cannot be shipped to charging stations on a daily basis, especially outside of cities, or between urban developments. Microreactors could make it possible to actually eliminate the need for fossil-fueled vehicles, which no other energy form can currently claim.  

We also believe the shipping industry is a major area of potential growth for our company. The U.S. Navy has already demonstrated decades of successfully powering large ocean-going ships with nuclear fuel without incident or any carbon emissions. Oil tankers, shipping container vessels and other large ships all use bunker fuel, which is incredibly polluting and bad for the environment.  Global focus will eventually shift to substituting this fuel as soon as a candidate is identified. We believe we will have that replacement technology in our nuclear microreactors. 

EN: Though the concept is not entirely new, there has been a lot of focus recently in small scale nuclear technology. What is the difference between solid core battery reactors like ZEUS, low-pressure coolant reactors like ODIN and the Thorium reactors we have been reading about?

JW: We are developing two advanced portable nuclear microreactors in technical design and development. The first, “ZEUS”, is a Solid Core Battery Reactor, designed by world-class engineers trained at the University of California--Berkeley, has a fully solid core, where heat is removed solely by thermal conduction. This requires the deployment of high conductivity, high melting materials, and careful materials design. The reactor will use uranium dioxide fuel, so no new fuel developments are necessary. Reactivity will be controlled with absorber drums outside of the central core. The generated heat will be conducted from the fuel to the outside of the core via thermal conduction through a thermally conductive material, allowing for the elimination of coolant, creating a far safer reactor than historically developed. Heat will be removed from the outside of the core by recirculated air or helium gas, which delivers the heat to the gas turbine to produce electricity. The gas turbine will be affixed to the top of the reactor to reduce piping and minimize the size of the plant. The benefit of not incorporating a primary liquid loop reduces the manufacturing costs, and enhances simplicity for modeling, testing, optimizing, and constructing. 

The secondary loop outside the monolith will be inert gas allowing to reach high temperatures and direct heating of a gas turbine which will be compact and small. Without coolant, typical reactor pumps and piping can be removed from the design, allowing for further compactness, with the aim being to construct a full core and electricity-generating gas turbine within a container meeting International Organization for Standardization (ISO) specifications. The smaller power core will also mean fewer neutrons are absorbed by the non-fissionable materials, allowing for longer operational life despite the small core.   

Our second reactor in development, “ODIN”, will be a Low-Pressure Coolant Reactor, which uses relatively simple uranium and zirconium HALEU hydride. The zirconium hydride densely packs hydrogen and so provides substantial moderation. Low pressure “solar” salt (sodium-potassium nitrate eutectic) coolant will be used to minimize the stress on structural components and improve the reliability and service life. The design will take advantage of the natural convection of the coolant for heat transfer to the power conversion cycle at full power, as well as for decay heat removal during reactor shutdown, operating transients, and off-normal conditions. A nitrogen or open-air Brayton cycle will be used for power conversion due to its simplicity, flexibility, and its wide use within the conventional power industry. Reactivity control system design will have high reliability and robustness by minimizing the number of moving parts.  

The U.S. has tried for 50 years to create thorium reactors, without success. Four commercial thorium reactors were constructed, all of which failed for a variety of reasons, and because of the complexity of the technical challenges, thorium reactors are far more expensive than uranium-fueled reactors.

Non-fissionable thorium must also be mixed with either fissionable plutonium or uranium-235. It captures a neutron and converts to uranium-233, which itself is fissionable.

Uranium-233 is a very efficient fuel for nuclear weapons. It takes about the same amount of uranium-233 as plutonium-239 – six kilos – to fuel a nuclear weapon. The U.S. Department of Energy created 96 kilograms of uranium-233 through their thorium experiments.

EN: There are many approaches to reducing dependence on carbon-based or clean tech energy. For decades the government has devoted its efforts to solar and wind projects through tax credits, loan guarantees, etc. Why has it taken so long for government to work harder to support nuclear solutions, since they are far more efficient?

JW: There was genuine hope that wind and solar would be able to provide an alternative solution to fossil fuels, especially when deployed at large scales. Unfortunately, low capacity factors, high storage costs, large land requirements, sparse suitable locations for siting, and degradation of equipment, all summated to an eventual conclusion that they would not be able to replace fossil fuels on any wide scale, and certainly not on any location without optimal climate conditions. This can be seen most evidently in Germany, which chose renewables such as wind and solar over nuclear, and ended up with more expensive power, and a higher carbon footprint, and now finally is returning to nuclear energy. All governments now realize that the data is in and there is only one form of energy that offers any way to replace fossil fuels at large scales and in any location. 

EN: What kinds of costs are associated with smaller-scale reactors? What is their service life and how safe are they?

JW: We cannot disclose our financial modeling analyses and findings as they are likely to change as we make further progress and introduce further refinements. However, we can share that our models show that the price of our reactors will come down by 70% with the introduction of mass manufacturing optimization. This would make our reactors less expensive than any alternative for remote operations.

Although “small" features in the SMR acronym (Small Modular Reactor), the most developed SMRs are still relatively large, requiring areas equivalent to many city blocks. Likewise, these SMRs will also require large-scale site preparation and long commissioning periods. Nano’s reactor will occupy under an acre of space and will not require the large-scale infrastructure that is necessary for the large reactors. 

A major benefit of Nano’s small reactor is the simple design, using very few working parts. Nano’s design prerogative was to use basic fuels, so no exotic engineering was required. The reactor was also designed to passively cool, which meant that even if all systems were to break or the reactor was damaged, the heat would naturally dissipate and be unable to melt the core, which is the most significant risk to any reactor. All the simplicity, when combined with the small size and few working parts, is expected to equate

EN: Some critics say that these small reactors will be vulnerable to terrorists who steal material for bombs or other deadly devices. I have read that this is a myth and that the small reactors do not use material that can be re-purposed like that. Can you elaborate on this?

JW: We’re not sure what a terrorist would do with a microreactor other than warm their house. In order to make any type of weapons, they would need a multi-billion dollar fuel chemical plant, then a deconversion facility, then an enrichment facility, and finally a fabrication facility. Very few countries in the world could complete this process. The fuel in a microreactor cannot blow up, the enrichment is far too low, hence why the above process would be required. Good luck to a terrorist trying to lug off a microreactor with any kind of stealth as well. 

EN: What is the current status of NANO Nuclear Energy?

JW: Nano is just closing its third round of funding, which was undertaken to fund the further development of Nano and its subsidiary businesses. We are making applications for sites to begin test work for our reactor designs, as well as scheduling reactor audits from external organizations to verify the conclusions and designs we have solidified in 2023. We have also started work on our new fuel fabrication facility, and are bringing in several big partnerships to work with us to ensure the success of this endeavor. We have also won awards which when announced, will disclose Nano’s international ambitions. 

EN: Has the U.S. then given up on a Thorium solution to the energy problem?  

JW: There are U.S. companies pursuing thorium as a solution, but none of the leaders in SMRs or microreactors, or any of the groups with the most developed new technologies, are using thorium. Thorium does theoretically work for nuclear power, and the idea receives additional support because of the abundance of thorium, but the thorium projects are not close to being as advanced as the next generation reactors currently being developed, which all use uranium.

EN: Is Thorium an untenable solution then?

JW: Nobody actually knows for sure, as no thorium reactor has been successfully developed to demonstrate positive economics that could rival uranium. There have been many attempts though, without success.

* * * 
Breaking: Jay Yu and James Walker will be speaking at POWERGEN International in New Orleans at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, January 23-25.

Related Links

Nano Nuclear Energy

NANO Nuclear Energy Chief Executive Officer James Walker to Present at the Upcoming 1st Annual Nuclear Energy Security Summit Held at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center on Nov. 9th 2023

Grid Fragility and a Book by Meredith Angwin

The Big Short and Shorting the Grid

An Honest and Sensible Conversation About Global Energy

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