Bagging DOE Support, Westinghouse Eyes Demonstration for Nuclear Micro-reactor by 2022

The Department of Energy (DOE) is funding a project that would prepare Westinghouse’s 25-MWe eVinci micro-reactor for nuclear demonstration readiness by 2022. 

The agency on March 27 said it will provide $12.9 million of the estimated $28.6 million Westinghouse needs for a project to prepare the micro-reactor for a demonstration, including for design, analysis, licensing to manufacture, siting, and testing. eVinci is one of three small modular reactors (SMRs) and the first micro-reactor whose first-of-a-kind development the DOE is subsidizing under a December 2017–issued “U.S. Industry Opportunities for Advanced Nuclear Technology Development” funding opportunity announcement (FOA). (Details of other projects that have won funding awards under previous rounds of the FOA are at the end of this article.)

The funding announcements are part of a recent ramp up in attention and efforts by the U.S. government to boost development of advanced nuclear technologies. Also on March 27, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation to bolster innovation for advanced reactors. Lawmakers said the U.S., which once led efforts to invent and commercialize key nuclear technologies, has “slipped” in leadership, and it risks losing out to Russia and China. 

A Novel Heat Pipe Reactor

For Westinghouse, the federal funding poses a major opportunity to boost development of its novel micro-reactor technology in a highly competitive environment. (For more, see “Big Gains for Tiny Nuclear Reactors,” in POWER’s November 2018 issue.) According to Westinghouse, the eVinci reactor is an innovative combination of nuclear fission and space reactor technologies that integrates the company’s long-standing experience in commercial nuclear systems design, engineering, and innovation. The small size of the generator allows for easier transportation and rapid, on-site installation in contrast to large, centralized stations, the company says. And because the reactor core is designed to run for more than 10 years, eliminating the need for frequent refueling, Westinghouse is marketing it as an off-grid or microgrid solution.

But according to some experts, eVinci’s technological simplicity is what makes it unique. The reactor is envisioned to operate autonomously. Its reactor core is a solid-steel monolith that features channels for fuel pellets, the moderator (metal hydride), and heat pipes, which are arranged in a hexagonal pattern. The monolith will serve as the second fission product barrier (the fuel pellet is the first barrier) as well as the thermal medium between the fuel channels and heat pipes. The heat pipes will extract heat from the core using a technology based on thermal conductivity and fluid phase transition.

Westinghouse eVinci cross section

A cross-section of Westinghouse’s eVinci reactor, showing the core and surrounding structures. The photograph shows a sample for testing the monolith material performance. Courtesy: Westinghouse

However, Westinghouse admits that it is fielding a number of challenges related to the deployment of the micro-reactor. While the eVinci will use fuel enriched to 19.75 weight %, the industrial scale amount of uranium enriched to more than 5% is limited. The DOE is scrambling to resolve that issue, announcing in January that it would demonstrate—by October 2020—the production of high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) fuel at the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Kentucky. On Feb. 27, meanwhile, Maryland-based X-Energy, another DOE funding recipient (see below), dedicated its HALEU-based TRISO-X fuel fabrication pilot line at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Westinghouse also notes that while eVinci reactors will be manufactured and assembled in a factory, first reactor startup should also happen at that site, which means the factory will need to be equipped with radio protection equipment, safety and security systems, and have a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Transportation must also take into account safety and security. And because the reactor will be operated autonomously, Westinghouse will need to field first-of-their-kind challenges in licensing, instrumentation, remote reactor monitoring, and logistics.

“These challenges require careful risk management and planning, but they are not considered showstoppers and their management is part of the Westinghouse eVinci reactor development program,” the company said. 

Federal Funds Buoy Several First-of-Their-Kind Nuclear Technologies

The DOE’s December 2017–issued FOA will be open until December 2022. It essentially offers three funding pathways. 

The First-of-a-Kind (FOAK) Nuclear Demonstration Readiness Pathway. The DOE says the pathway intends to address “major advanced reactor design development projects or complex technology advancements for existing plants which have significant technical and licensing risk and have the potential to be deployed by the mid-to-late 2020s.” 

Advanced Reactor Development Projects Pathway. The DOE will allow a broad scope of proposed concepts and ideas that could improve capabilities and the potential for commercialization of advanced reactor designs and technologies. 

Regulatory Assistance Grants. The DOE will provide direct support for resolving design regulatory issues, regulatory review of licensing topical reports or papers, and other efforts focused on obtaining certification and licensing approvals for advanced reactor designs and capabilities. 

As of March 27, the DOE has designated $117 million of federal funding under the FOA in four rounds. FOAK technologies that garnered funding under the first round, which was announced in April 2018, include: 

  • Design and License Application Development for X-Energy’s TRISO-X Fuel. X-Energy is already actively producing tristructural isotropic (TRISO) coated fuel forms, which it says “are unique in their multi-layer encapsulation of uranium, leading to increased safety and proliferation resistance while employing functional containment.” The company is also developing a high-temperate gas-cooled pebble bed reactor design. The DOE award will help the company develop the design and license application for a HALEU fuel fabrication facility. “The availability of [HALEU] fuel and a U.S.-based production line for HALEU-based fuel forms are critical elements for advanced reactor deployment,” said X-energy’s CEO J. Clay Sell, as the company dedicated the pilot line at ORNL in February. The pilot line will allow X-energy to manufacture TRISO fuel forms using HALEU. The company intends to  produce fuel that will begin qualification irradiation testing by early 2020. “Our next stage is to complete the commercial TRISO-X fuel fabrication facility, which will produce fuel for these advanced reactors—serving commercial, government and U.S. Department of Defense applications,” Sell said. (DOE Funding: $4,494,444; Non-DOE: $4,494,444; Total Value: $8,988,888.)
  • Phase 1—NuScale SMR. The funding will help Oregon-based NuScale conduct design finalization activities and ensure supply chain readiness to meet a commercial operation date of 2026 for the first NuScale plant. (DOE Funding: $40,000,000; Non-DOE: $40,000,000; Total Value: $80,000,000.)

FOAK technologies selected as part of the second round in July 2018 include: 

  • Phase 2—NuScale SMR ($7 million). The funding builds on Phase 1 project activities to advance the licensing and design maturity to meet the 2026 commercial operation date. Specific project activities include completing the independent verification and validation licensing report; optimizing the reactor building design; and performing level sensor prototypic testing. “There is potential for extension of this award to complete calendar year 2019 activities associated with Phase II of the NuScale project if the 2018 activities are completed successfully,” the DOE noted. (DOE Funding: $7,000,000; Non-DOE: $7,100,000; Total Value: $14,100,000.)

FOAK technologies selected under the third round, announced in November 2018, include: 

  • Phase 1–Holtec International ($1.6 million). The funding will help Camden, New Jersey–based SMR LLC, a subsidiary of Holtec International, develop a uniquely configurable set of testing platforms to demonstrate SMR passive safety system performance and accelerate Holtec’s SMR-160 and other SMR designs to market, and help license these designs with the NRC and international regulators. According to Holtec, the 160-MWe SMR-160 is a “passive, intrinsically safe, secure, and economical” SMR that has the flexibility to be used in remote locations, in areas with limited water supplies or land, and in unique industrial applications where traditional larger reactors are not practical. In February 2018, Holtec said it would collaborate with GEH and Global Nuclear Fuel to advance the SMR-160. (DOE Funding: $1,624,729; Non-DOE: $1,624,729; Total Value: $3,249,458.)

Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).