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CATF Goes to Wilmington

December 7, 2018 Work Area: Advanced Nuclear

Staff of the Clean Air Task Force and our sister organization, the Energy Options Network (EON), recently paid a visit to the GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) Headquarters in Wilmington, NC.  GEH is a global nuclear alliance between GE and Hitachi and was established in 2007.  However, the Wilmington site’s history goes back much further when it was first established as fuel manufacturing and nuclear innovation and design site in 1967.  Through the production of nuclear fuel for the domestic fleet of GEH supported Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs), the GEH facility in Wilmington has been supporting carbon-free energy production for over 50 years.  I began my career at the GEH site in Wilmington, NC as an intern in 2007 and Armond Cohen, CATF Executive Director, and Eric Ingersoll, founder of EON, and I, as CATF Nuclear Team Manager, formed the CATF delegation that spent all-day on-site meeting and collaborating with GEH Staff.

CATF was invited to the site to present on our recent policy engagements, discuss the need for nuclear in a decarbonized future and present the results of the recently released Energy Technologies Institute Cost Drivers Project Summary Report, authored by Eric.  However, while the CATF loves to present and educate, the trip was also intended to better inform us on what could be one of the most pivotal future nuclear products, small modular reactors (SMRs).  

For several decades, GEH has been developing a small modular sodium-cooled fast reactor known as PRISM, which offers the benefit of running on the stockpiles of used nuclear fuel (UNF), also known as nuclear waste, spread all around this country.  However, CATF and EON were also interested in GEH’s newest proposed offering, a 300 MW BWR buried in a vertical shaft and based on the already licensed GEH ESBWR, known as BWRX-300. BWRs differ from the more common form of Light Water Reactors (LWRs), Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs), in that steam can be produced within the pressure vessel rather than require a steam generator and/or secondary loop.  However, increased care must be taken with BWRs due to radioactive steam in the turbine.

Armond, Eric, and I spent the morning having an in-depth conversation on first the topic of BWRX-300 and learning what innovations GEH hopes to utilize in order to create a market competitive SMR product.  We were all encouraged by the team’s focus on cost reduction and non-nuclear related construction challenges, which have been found by our recent analysis, as well as the research of many others, to be the main problem actor cost drivers when considering nuclear construction.  BWRX-300 utilizes the licensing basis of ESBWR and reduces concrete and construction materials by 90% while still achieving 300 MW of electric power. Buried in a vertical shaft and through the elimination of the possibility of loss of coolant accident through incorporation of advanced welding and manufacturing techniques, BWRX-300 vastly reduces the safety systems needed by its predecessor, ESBWR, while not introducing increased risk.  While much work remains to be done and questions remain to be answered on deployment, BWRX-300 was fascinating to our team in that it could be a light water reactor technology that could help bridge the gap to advanced reactors and provide economical, clean energy before 2030.

After our presentations at lunch, we were treated to a tour of the nuclear fuel fabrication and conversion facility located at the site.  Having seen the tour during my time as an employee, I was eager to have Armond and Eric observe the manufacturing practices standard to the nuclear industry and how much accuracy and precision is required and maintained.  However, the most fascinating aspect of the GEH facility is always the size and how much of that space is currently underutilized due to the high cost of removing and disposing of manufacturing equipment that handled radioactive material, such as Uranium.  Over two decades ago, GEH made the change from a wet to a dry conversion process (conversion is a step in the uranium fuel cycle), due to the reduced waste produced and reduced space needed for a dry process. Leading us to observe wet conversion lines held almost in museum-like conditions in an operating manufacturing facility.  However, the more prominent insight that can be made when observing these inactive and dormant lines, is that GEH currently has significant available space in an already licensed fuel fabrication facility that could be quickly repurposed for new and advanced reactor fuel manufacturing in support of what is currently a nascent advanced reactor industry with no supply chain.  

After our tour, GEH provided us with a further briefing on PRISM, an advanced reactor concept that GEH was advancing before I even began as an intern in 2007.  PRISM offers many unique benefits and is based on previous built and operated experimental reactors (such as the EBR-I, EBR-II, and the 1955 Seawolf Submarine prototype), but one of its most exhilarating attributes to me is the use of a fast spectrum, or utilizing nuclear reactions that produce very energetic (fast) neutrons.  Fast neutrons increase fuel utilization substantially, creating more fission events per mass of fuel than in conventional reactors, while also having the ability to react with heavier elements in UNF, such as plutonium.  PRISM would resolve the UNF storage and disposal issue in some part by recycling UNF to produce electricity which is a very interesting concept, if it can be done economically.

As a part of this blog article, I had hoped to show the insight and prescience of CATF and discuss and recommend PRISM as a prime candidate for the Virtual Test Reactor (VTR; a test reactor to be built at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) as a provision of the recently passed Nuclear Energy Innovation and Capabilities Act, NEICA); however, I am pleased to announce that the INL has awarded a subcontract to GEH to advance PRISM as the VTR technology.  The CATF and EON applaud this selection and thinks that PRISM offers an experience base and technology choice that will be viable as the VTR by 2026.

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