This story was last updated at 5:30 a.m. Sept. 7.
Two companies that have operations or employees in Oak Ridge are exploring a collaboration for the possible production of fuel for advanced nuclear reactors.
The two companies, X Energy LLC and Centrus Energy Corporation, announced Wednesday that they have signed a memorandum of understanding for the potential collaboration.
They are expected to put together a business plan for the fuel fabrication business. It’s not clear how long that might take, said Jeremy Derryberry, Centrus Energy senior communications manager.
But the companies are working toward the development of a fuel fabrication facility that could possibly be in Oak Ridge, where Centrus, formerly known as USEC, has had operations for about 15 years.
“We really think that Oak Ridge can be a nexus for the advanced reactor industry in the U.S. going forward,” Derryberry said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The collaboration is expected to start almost immediately, company executives said after an announcement made at a Nuclear Suppliers Workshop at Pollard Technology Conference Center in Oak Ridge at lunchtime Wednesday. The announcement was made by Pete Pappano, vice president of fuel production for X Energy LLC, and Larry Cutlip, vice president of field operations for Centrus Energy.
An advanced reactor would be much smaller than a typical reactor. It would produce power in the range of 100 to 200 megawatts, and its primary components would be built in a factory and shipped to a reactor site. It would take less time to build and deploy an advanced reactor, compared to a typical reactor now, and there would be a large reduction in carrying costs, the costs accumulated before a reactor starts generating power, Derryberry said.
A typical reactor now is about 1,000 megawatts, and it is built on site.
If built, the fuel fabrication facility would be based on a type of fuel known as the uranium oxycarbide (UCO) tristructural isotropic (TRISO) fuel form. The fuel fabrication facility would provide fuel to X-energy reactors and advanced nuclear reactor companies around the world, a press release said.
“We’re looking at doing it right here in Oak Ridge,” Cutlip said.
Centrus Energy has its American Centrifuge Technology Manufacturing Center in south Oak Ridge, at the former Boeing plant, and a test facility at Building K-1600 at the East Tennessee Technology Park, the former K-25 site. Current enrichment operations are at K-1600, Cutlip said.
X Energy has employees at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in order to develop expertise in TRISO fuel for their gas-cooled Xe-100 advanced modular reactor.
The companies would have to complete licensing and criticality safety evaluations for their fuel fabrication facility. Adverse risks would not affect local risks, executives said. The fuel is inherently safe because it is encased in graphite, Pappano said.
Executives said the fuel industry could potentially be a multi-billion-dollar industry.
“X-energy is focused on both our high temperature gas-cooled reactor development and the fuel needed to power our reactors,” Kam Ghaffarian, X-energy chief executive officer, said in a press release. “The Department of Energy has spent close to $400 million in developing and qualifying the UCO TRISO particle in preparation for advanced reactor commercialization. X-energy, in partnership with Centrus and taking advantage of its domestic enrichment experience and engineering know-how, is anxious to evaluate how we can together move UCO TRISO into final fuel form production, benefitting many in the industry.”
There isn’t currently a modular reactor licensed or certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and it could be the mid-2020s before one starts operating. Besides helping with the multi-step fuel fabrication process, Centrus Energy is also expected to help X Energy with the NRC licensing process. A potential reactor site hasn’t been selected yet.
“X-energy’s innovative reactor design is a potential game-changer for America’s nuclear industry,” said Daniel Poneman, Centrus Energy president and chief executive officer. “Our technical and engineering teams are eager to help X-energy develop TRISO fuel for their reactor. We agree that American leadership in the global nuclear market requires that we develop an end-to-end domestic capability, from high-assay low-enriched uranium enrichment through fuel production, for next-generation reactors.”
Poneman is a former deputy energy secretary who served under President Barack Obama.
Under the MOU announced Wednesday, the companies will jointly prepare a deployment plan for X-energy’s TRISO fuel technology; design a cost-effective, highly automated fuel manufacturing process line; and seek funding for a future commercial fuel production facility, the press release said.
It’s not clear yet how large the fuel fabrication facility would be or what the total investment might be.
Oak Ridge has a history in the nuclear industry, including the nuclear fuel cycle, and the city is home to ORNL. A Wednesday morning presentation by ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia that was titled “Enabling the Second Nuclear Era” included information on how ORNL can help revolutionize nuclear energy deployment. Oak Ridge has a rich history related to all things nuclear, Zacharia said at the Nuclear Suppliers Workshop.
Like X Energy, Centrus has also worked with ORNL before. The company has had a contract with UT-Battelle LLC, which manages ORNL for the U.S. Department of Energy, for engineering and testing work on the American Centrifuge project.
Separately but related to small modular reactors, the Tennessee Valley Authority is studying the possibility of building them at the Clinch River Site in west Oak Ridge.
Like X Energy, a company called NuScale Power is also working on a modular reactor.
Here is more information about X-energy and Centrus Energy from the press release:
X-energy is an advanced nuclear reactor design and TRISO-based fuel fabrication company. X-energy is developing an innovative nuclear power plant design solution. The Xe-100 is a 200MWt (76MWe) high temperature gas-cooled pebble bed modular reactor that requires less time to construct, uses factory-produced components, cannot melt down, and is “walk-away” safe without operator intervention.
In concert with Xe-100 design, X-energy is actively producing TRISO-based fuel forms and will implement pilot scale manufacturing capacities starting in 2018. Reactor and fuel activities are supported by $34 million in private investment and a five-year $53 million U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Reactor Concept Cooperative Agreement award.
X-energy was founded in 2009 by Ghaffarian. It has headquarters in Greenbelt, Maryland.
About Centrus Energy
Centrus Energy is a supplier of enriched uranium fuel for commercial nuclear power plants in the United States and around the world. With world-class technical and engineering capabilities, Centrus is advancing the next generation of centrifuge technologies so that America can restore its domestic uranium enrichment capability in the future, the company said.
Since 1998, the company has provided utility customers with more than 1,750 reactor years of fuel, which is equivalent to seven billion tons of coal. Centrus said it provide value to utility customers through reliable and diverse supply sources—helping them meet the growing need for clean, affordable, carbon-free electricity.
Centrus is based in Bethesda, Maryland.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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