An informal group of Arkansas political, utility and academic leaders is peering into the future of green energy, and it may well be nuclear.
The group’s leader, state Rep. Jack Ladyman of Jonesboro, sponsored a law in the recent legislative session, Act 259, requiring the state to investigate the technical and economic potential for recycling spent nuclear fuel rods.
Those rods would come from the nation’s conventional nuclear reactors, including Arkansas Nuclear One on Lake Dardanelle. The recycling, if it stands up to inquiry, would employ a tested but little-used process and create fuel for small nuclear reactors whose zero-emissions power could help rescue the warming planet.
Ladyman’s group includes Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Corp. CEO Buddy Hasten, University of Arkansas System President Donald R. Bobbitt, and John Warmack of Texarkana, principal at Warmack and Co. LLC., his family’s longtime real estate development company.
Warmack, a trained engineer, has focused for years on nudging the nation’s energy policy to embrace the recycling of spent nuclear rods. He told Arkansas Business on Tuesday that an age of liquid sodium fast reactors providing electricity to homes and businesses could be on the horizon, but only if the economics prove out.
“This Arkansas study will model what we intend to do and issue an economic report to prove up or disprove the economics of recycling moving forward,” Warmack said. “One of its primary objectives is to say here are the real economics for recycling.”
But don’t expect any recycled fuel to be powering mini-nuclear reactors in Arkansas anytime soon. Testing and development will take years, but the technology has real potential.
Nucor Corp., which has steel mills in Mississippi County and across the nation, just last month signed a memorandum of understanding with NuScale Power Corp. of Portland, Oregon, to explore employing small modular nuclear reactors to provide baseload electricity to the steel company’s electric arc furnace mills. One of those happens to be in Arkansas.
Another company, NANO Nuclear Energy Inc. of New York, is working on micro-nuclear power plants small enough to fit in a tractor-trailer rig. The company is also set to begin fabricating nuclear fuel at the Idaho National Laboratory, where the science behind the Arkansas recycling project has been tested and judged worthy.
“Obviously, we need a baseload energy source to replace coal,” Ladyman said in a recent telephone interview. “With nuclear, there are no emissions, and nobody’s really doing what we’re trying to do. The science is there, but we don’t know if it’s economically viable. But if Arkansas can do this, we’ll be the leader in this.
“The University of Arkansas would have experts and graduates who have monitored the process, and we’ll have companies like GE or Siemens or Pratt & Whitney coming in to build generators if they see this is a viable business to get into. These modular plants can be built in a factory, not on site. They’re much smaller, and they’re not multibillion-dollar plants like the old nuclear,” said Ladyman, also a trained engineer.
“This is going to be the future of nuclear power.”
Already Storing Rods
Warmack said inflated construction expenses and cost overruns doomed almost all new planning for massive traditional nuclear plants years ago, but technology and economics have shifted in favor of miniature reactors each capable of powering, say, 20,000 homes.
Other states like Nevada and New Mexico have vigorously fought plans for storing spent nuclear fuel rods, but recycling with the process Ladyman proposes would be far different than just importing and warehousing nuclear fuel from out of state.
For one thing, the two reactor units at Arkansas Nuclear One already produce spent fuel rods that are stored onsite. The last refueling at the plant was in April, and the spent rods removed in that process — true to company practice for nearly 50 years — were initially put into a storage pool to cool down. “The concrete and steel pool and the water shield workers from radioactivity,” said Mara M. Hartmann, a spokeswoman for Entergy Corp., the parent company of Entergy Arkansas, which draws about 70% of its customers’ power from ANO and the Grand Gulf nuclear plant in Mississippi.
When the spent rods are cool enough to emerge from the water, they are transferred and stored in dry casts, “large steel-reinforced concrete containers,” Hartmann said in an email to Arkansas Business. “These casks are designed for long-term storage until a site is available for permanent disposal.” The casks, she said, are fortified to withstand earthquakes, storms and fires. “We currently have about 100 dry fuel storage casks at ANO, and they’re safe enough to walk up to and touch.”
Spent rods retain much of their energy, since traditional reactors devour only about 5% of reactive material. The rods remain radioactive for thousands of years, and since a plan for a nationwide disposal facility deep under Yucca Mountain in Nevada hit immovable political resistance, the United States has lacked a permanent disposal site.
If Ladyman’s approach proves viable, the recycling plant could accept spent rods from ANO and any of about 50 other nuclear plants across the nation.
Warmack said Manhattan Project veterans devoted to pursuing postwar peaceful nuclear development laid the groundwork for today’s plans in Arkansas. But, he added, President Bill Clinton slammed the door for further development of the promising technology for political reasons.
“In [circa] 1947-48 brainstorming sessions, Enrico Fermi, the daddy of the neutron process, proposed the liquid sodium fast reactor and recycling, and the government funded extensive research on pyroprocessing,” Warmack said in describing the electrochemical recycling process proposed in Arkansas. “It was thoroughly tested, the process was debugged and it was ready for commercial deployment.” But in the 1990s, a low point of political popularity for nuclear energy, the Clinton administration killed it, Warmack said.
Recycling through pyroprocessing never rebounded, though it has distinct advantages over the currently used “PUREX” recycling method, Warmack emphasized. PUREX uses acid to extract uranium and plutonium and uses a solvent to separate them. Pyroprocessing converts the solid pellets stacked in spent nuclear rods and changes their oxide components into metal. The metal is immersed in a molten salt and subjected to electric current, converting the uranium into fuel for the “fast reactors” now under development.
Ladyman said no location has been selected for any nuclear recycling site, and building infrastructure and navigating federal regulation would take years even if the science proves economical. Act 259 directs the Arkansas Department of Energy & Environment to search for federal funding for the recycling project, pointing to a $45 billion trove that began building up in the 1970s, the Congressional Nuclear Waste Fund.
Once recycling begins, if it comes to pass, a small nuclear reactor would be sited next to a vast recycling facility, Ladyman said.
Utility Veterans Speak
Arkansas Commerce Secretary Hugh McDonald told Arkansas Business recently that he hadn’t studied the specifics of Act 259, but he said the country definitely needs more nuclear power, not less.
“It has to be part of the mix going forward in terms of providing reliable electricity around the clock,” the former Entergy Arkansas CEO said.
“I will put my old Entergy hat on here. Arkansas Nuclear One and Grand Gulf, Mississippi — we owned a portion of the output at Grand Gulf, but we owned all of ANO. And 65%-70% of the energy that Entergy’s customers consume in the state of Arkansas is from nuclear.”
Hasten, CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, staunchly supports small nuclear reactors and wants them as part of his baseload generation mix. He ran small reactors for years as a submarine officer in the nuclear Navy, sometimes deep beneath the North Pole.
AECC provides wholesale electricity to the state’s 17 distribution cooperatives, which in turn serve about 600,000 member homes and businesses.
Last year, Hasten predicted a cooperative power mix with more solar, a combined-cycle natural gas plant as a generation bridge, and a network of small nuclear reactors.
“I understand what’s going on inside that plant better than what’s going on in this office,” Hasten said.
“If America wants to be serious about net zero carbon, and we don’t want to go back to fanning each other in summer, we have to have something energy-dense. There’s coal and gas. Years ago, it was wood. But the only thing the world knows today that could do the job emissions-free is nuclear.”