Going in Big On Tiny Reactors

Going in Big On Tiny Reactors
(Office of Nuclear Energy and NANO Nuclear Energy Inc.)

Imagine trying to get electricity to a remote mining outpost, or a town separated from its power source by an earthquake or a storm. Now think of a nuclear power plant small enough to haul by an 18-wheeler or heavy helicopter, capable of arriving ready to deliver power.

That’s the vision of Wall Street veteran Jay Jiang Yu and James Walker, founder and CEO, respectively, of NANO Nuclear Energy Inc. of New York. They are leading a well-financed effort to develop micro-reactors, tinier versions of the small modular reactors Arkansas is looking into powering with recycled nuclear fuel. NANO also plans to start fabricating nuclear fuel soon at the Idaho National Laboratory, the same lab that tested Arkansas’ favored fuel rod recycling process.

Yu decided to venture into green energy two years ago and kept hearing the acronym SMR, for small modular reactors, he told Arkansas Business in an interview last week. “But I looked into this landscape and saw there were already established companies that had raised billions of dollars and been doing it for a while.”

So he turned to “rock star” experts like Walker, a nuclear physicist and engineer with experience at Rolls Royce and the U.K. Ministry of Defence. He was also once a British infantry soldier, but that’s another story.

Walker’s first reaction was to dissuade Yu. “I said, ‘You know nuclear is a very established industry, and I would not recommend trying to get into it now.’”

But with open minds and a taste for disruption, they scrutinized the market.

“We realized quickly that there is an enormous market for very, very small reactors.”

The SMRs being developed by major players like TerraPower and X-energy are “still quite large, several city blocks” when the modules are connected, Walker said. “But if you had a portable modular reactor that could be shipped like a diesel generator anywhere in the world, then there would be a potential for hundreds or thousands of these things at remote industrial projects or mining sites or disaster sites or charging stations for [electric vehicles] in the middle of nowhere.”

Ships that carry containers around the world now run on diesel, he noted, while U.S. Navy ships and submarines have harnessed nuclear power for decades. “We realized essentially that you could use these [micro-reactors] to run these big shipping vessels.”

With little competition in that realm, Yu and Walker established technical teams to develop two prototypes of small, safe reactors taking advantage of advances in technology and material science. The first prospect, Zeus, is being developed by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley. The second, Odin, “is principally being worked on by professors and postdocs at the University of Cambridge,” Walker said.

“By the end of the year, both reactors will have finished their detailed design phase. After that, all of the modeling will be done, patterns will be updated and we’ll be ready to move into a test phase. The physical test work will last about a year and a half. Then there will be a licensing period.”

“It could be three and a half to six years” before the micro-reactors are marketed, Yu said. “We don’t know. The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] is employing a lot more people these days,” encouraging a faster path for nuclear innovation. “I think now the regulatory aspect is to push the country forward, and that will be huge for us.”

Both the Zeus and the Odin reactors are meltdown-proof, Walker said. Zeus uses no coolant, because, at its small scale, the heat it produces doesn’t require it. Odin surrounds nuclear fuel rods with molten salts that naturally circulate the heat. “It’s very basic technology. You could build it in your garden if you wanted to,” Walker added. 

“You could throw a grenade at it as well if you really wanted to. You would just have a pickup operation, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world.”