During a wide-ranging interview with The Epoch Times, the leadership of Nano Nuclear Energy Inc. predicted they would win the race to commercialize a reactor small enough to fit in a shipping container.
"By 2030, we're pretty convinced we'll be the first company to sell microreactors," said Nano Nuclear CEO James Walker, a nuclear physicist who previously led the development of the Rolls-Royce Nuclear Chemical Plant.
Nuclear microreactors are meant to be nimble, mobile sources of heat or up to 20 megawatts of electricity.
Microreactors are utterly dwarfed by big, conventional nuclear reactors, which can generate up to a thousand times as much power as a microreactor. They're also smaller than the small modular reactors (SMRs) now also being developed.
Unlike their heftier cousins, microreactors can be trucked to people and places far from the grid or in need of emergency energy.
"The microreactor is really aimed at remote habitation, mining projects, disaster relief areas, charging stations, and data centers," Mr. Walker said.
Mr. Walker isn't the only one picturing more nuclear power in data centers. A recent job listing by Microsoft seeks someone to help the company run its data centers on microreactors and SMRs.
"Maybe we could power a Bitcoin mining operation," said Nano's founder and president, Jay Jiang Yu. He said multiple Bitcoin companies have contacted them about using a microreactor to power their energy-intensive activities.
"Think about keeping it in Alaska because always overheating is an issue," he added.
Nano's researchers are developing two microreactor models, the solid-core battery reactor Zeus and Odin, which have a more standard design based on low-pressure coolant and enriched uranium dioxide fuel.
"We're pretty confident now that we're pretty much neck and neck with anybody else in the microreactor space," Mr. Walker said.
Their competitors include the nuclear industry heavyweight Westinghouse, at work on its eVinci microreactor design, and Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, among others.
Mr. Walker told The Epoch Times that the microreactor market is less developed than the SMR market.
"To actually get into this space and pull ahead is far easier," he said.
Interest and Skepticism
Interest in microreactors and other advanced nuclear technology has increased partly because of concerns about climate change. While various processes associated with nuclear power can produce greenhouse gasses–for example, mining uranium for fuel–nuclear fission doesn't directly generate them. For governments and corporations that have committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, nuclear energy can look rather enticing.
Yet, some experts and activists contend that the world can radically scale back hydrocarbons without using more nuclear power.
In early June of this year, for example, former Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) chair Gregory Jaczko held a briefing in which he and others argued that nuclear power is too expensive and risky to help the U.S. decarbonize.
"There are now better ways to generate carbon-free electricity. We have renewable energy. We have geothermal, hydro, solar, wind," Mr. Jaczko told the CBC in a 2019 interview.
According to Mr. Walker, however, solar and wind may have reached their technological limits.
"Over the last 30 years, they've got more and more efficient, and those costs have really come down. Where they're currently sitting, you're not going to really see a vast improvement in the efficiencies of these technologies anymore," he said.
"For a microreactor—for the new technologies—you always will expect efficiencies to come into a new technology. And so that's where the blue sky potential is in terms of cost reductions and technology maturation," he added.
He argued that a previous push to power mining operations with wind and solar "didn't work."
"They went back to diesel," he said, arguing that microreactors could do the trick while simultaneously eliminating the logistical burden of constantly supplying diesel to remote locations.
Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker has also sounded somewhat skeptical of advanced reactors.
In August of this year, he vetoed a bill that would have lifted the state's moratorium on building new nuclear plants.
In a statement on the veto, his office said that "the vague definitions in the bill, including the overly broad definition of advanced reactors, will open the door to the proliferation of large-scale nuclear reactors that are so costly to build that they will cause exorbitant ratepayer-funded bailouts."
Yet, the governor spoke more positively about advanced SMR technologies when the bill was first passed earlier this year. He described such platforms as "smaller, less prone to an accident, more likely for us to be able to maintain them for a long period of time—that’s something that’s worthy of consideration."
Mr. Walker said the veto statement from Gov. Pritzker's office "kind of conflates two different things."
"One of the reasons SMRs were actually developed was to avoid the large capital costs that you would associate with [big] civil power plants. And so to say SMR would promote big civil nuclear, perhaps that's true, but essentially it's trying to sit as its own entity to avoid actually those big capital costs," he said.
NRC 'Adapting to Change': Yu
Some nuclear proponents take issue with the NRC.
Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy has gone so far as to call for its dissolution..
During a July speech in New Hampshire, he described it as "the single wet blanket, the damper on the revival of nuclear energy in the United States of America."
A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded that the NRC could do better on advanced reactor licensing and development.
The federal push to overhaul the NRC includes provisions in the ADVANCE Act, a nuclear energy bill passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act in July. The ADVANCE Act mandates that the NRC prepare guidelines for licensing advanced reactors on brownfields, among other measures aimed at boosting the deployment of advanced nuclear technologies in the U.S.
"I think there's a lot of pressure, and I believe, in my opinion, the NRC is adapting to change," Mr. Yu told The Epoch Times. He added that the agency has been "very proactive" with Nano.
Mr. Yu defended Mr. Ramaswamy's comments on the NRC.
"He wants to dissolve the NRC because he wants to advance nuclear tech faster, right? So that's a good thing. That means there's a bipartisan support for nuclear energy," he said.
Mr. Walker, the nuclear physicist, pointed out that eliminating the NRC wouldn't be the end of the story.
"You would still need to replace it with something else. And you would probably encounter a lot of the same issues that you would have encountered before," he said.
"Nuclear regulatory bodies are stringent wherever [you] operate. I know the NRC does get a bad rep, principally because of the timelines that can be involved and the costs, which often are actually more than the development costs of the reactor to get the licensing done," Mr. Walker added.
Need for Non-Russian Fuel Another Challenge in Advanced Nuclear
The ADVANCE Act also directs the NRC to report to Congress on its ability to lessen its dependence on Russia for fuel.
Indeed, Russia's dominance of the high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) used in most small advanced reactors has already delayed the launch of TerraPower's Natrium reactor.
The Department of Energy in 2020 launched a HALEU consortium as part of its efforts to develop domestic sources.
Nano, a founding participant in the consortium, touts a subsidiary focused on HALEU production, HALEU Energy Fuel Inc.
The HALEU problem raises a basic question: even if Nano's reactors are ready to roll by 2030, will they be able to operate?
"You can have a Ferrari, but if you don't have fuel, it's not going to run," Mr. Yu said.
"One of the areas we wanted to focus on is having our own supply of fuel and making sure we're proactive and we're not stuck down the line having reactors ready but having no fuel available," he added.
"The fuel fabrication facility was obviously pursued for the purpose of not just supplying us but for supplying other customers and other SMR companies and other micreactor companies," Mr. Walker said. He described it as another revenue stream for Nano.
Chuckling at Fusion, Still Bearish on Thorium
In late 2022, the achievement of ignition in a fusion reaction at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory got a lot of media attention.
At the time, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm suggested the result supports the Biden administration's goal of a commercial fusion reactor in the next decade, saying the work "shows that it can be done."
Yet, when the subject of fusion came up, both Mr. Yu and Mr. Walker started chuckling.
"Well, the reason why we're laughing a bit is because we've got some scientists on board, and they get asked this quite a lot, and they lose their temper about this," Mr. Walker explained.
"You do get very hyped-up articles," he added.
He pointed out that the fusion breakthrough celebrated last year required massive energy input, far more than the reaction itself generated.
"It would be wonderful for mankind if fusion works eventually, and we do have this resource that we can utilize as a species to help humanity. But we're not there yet, and it might be much more distant than people would like to believe," he continued.
Mr. Walker voiced a few concerns about thorium reactors, saying some of Nano's technical staff "were very bearish on it" and stressing that he lacks significant expertise on thorium.
"The advantage with uranium fission is that there's enormous databases that can be utilized for the quick deployment of a reactor in comparison to thorium where all of those databases and operating histories don't exist and would have to be built up to make the safety case," he said.
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