The Enel Group and nuclear technology company newcleo signed an agreement under which they will work together on Generation-IV (Gen-IV) nuclear technology projects.
Under the deal, Enel will collaborate with newcleo by providing “specialized expertise” through the sharing of “a number of the company’s qualified personnel.” newcleo, for its part, will secure an option for Enel as first investor in its first nuclear power plant. newcleo has said the first step of its “delivery roadmap” will be the design and construction of a first-of-a-kind Mini 30-MWe lead-cooled fast reactor (LFR) to be deployed in France by 2030, rapidly followed by a 200-MWe commercial unit in the UK. At the same time, newcleo said it will directly invest in a mixed uranium/plutonium oxide (MOX) plant to fuel its reactors from existing nuclear waste.
According to newcleo, LFRs have the ability to be fueled by some of the most long-lived and dangerous waste produced by commercial reactors today. This could reduce the amount of waste that needs to be stored in geological repositories. The company says LFRs (Figure 1) are also capable of extracting up to 100 times the energetic content from natural uranium compared to conventional thermal reactors, resulting in a reduced need for mining and further enhancing waste management.
“Innovation is crucial to the development of technologies that can secure clean, reliable, affordable energy that is as independent as possible from geopolitical factors. For this reason, we continue to explore any area of the energy spectrum,” Francesco Starace, CEO of Enel, said in a statement announcing the partnership. “This collaboration with newcleo is the latest example of our tireless search for the best companies to join us on our journey towards a clean future and we look forward to supporting newcleo in its challenging but promising roadmap to provide zero-emission electricity in a safe, affordable and sustainable way.”
Gen-IV reactors are the newest and most advanced nuclear technology in the world. Gen-I reactors were developed in the 1950s and 1960s, and culminated in the construction of the first series of civil nuclear power reactors. All of these units have since been decommissioned. Gen-II reactors started being produced at the beginning of the 1970s, and include most of the pressurized water reactors (PWRs) and boiling water reactors (BWRs) currently in operation worldwide. Reactors constructed in the 1980s and early 1990s are essentially of the same Gen-II stock. Gen-III and Gen-III+ designs integrate significant evolutionary improvements to PWRs and BWRs, especially in regard to design lifetime and safety issues, such as behavior under severe accident scenarios. Gen-IV reactors take safety a step further, following a variety of common development goals that include enhancing economics, sustainability, proliferation resistance, and physical protection. Six types of Gen-IV reactors are commonly recognized, which, in addition to the LFR, are the gas-cooled fast reactor, molten salt reactor, supercritical water reactor, sodium-cooled fast reactor, and very-high-temperature reactor. The first Gen-IV unit was successfully connected to the grid on Dec. 20. It is a high-temperature gas-cooled modular pebble bed (HTR-PM) demonstration project in China.
The Enel Group has nuclear power experience, with more than 3.3 GW of nuclear capacity currently operating in Spain. Enel also holds a 33% stake in Slovenské elektrárne, the largest electricity producer in Slovakia and one of the largest in Central Europe. Slovenské elektrárne is currently building two new 471-MWe VVER 440/V-213 PWR units at the Mochovce Nuclear Power Plant in southern Slovakia, between Nitra and Levice. Unit 3 was connected to the grid in January. Meanwhile, Unit 4 is reportedly more than 88% complete, according to Slovenské elektrárne.
One significant difference between newcleo’s design and a standard PWR is that it uses lead as the coolant instead of water. The company says, “Lead shows excellent properties for the nuclear application and is abundant, relatively low cost, shows high boiling temperature, does not interact with water, air or fuel—unlike sodium—and offers some radiation shielding. These characteristics allow achieving high efficiencies while working at atmospheric pressure, greatly simplify the reactor design and enhance passive safety in an accident scenario.” newcleo acknowledges that there are “well-known challenges” associated with the use of lead as a coolant, but it appears confident the difficulties can be overcome.
newcleo is privately funded and headquartered in London. The company was launched in 2021 with a mission “to generate safe, clean, economic and practically inexhaustible energy for the world, through a radically innovative combination of existing, accessible technologies.” It says the fast reactor design “has been optimised over the last 20 years leading to the concept of an ultra-compact and transportable 200-MWe module with improvements in energy density compared to other technologies.” Costs are expected to be “kept low by means of simplicity, compactness, modularity, atmospheric pressure operation and elevated output temperature.”
Stefano Buono, CEO of newcleo, said he was delighted that Enel has chosen to partner with his company. “They are showing great foresight in being one of the first energy companies to appreciate and support our sustainable strategy and its impact on our collective future,” Buono said.
newcleo claims to have worked in partnership with top level research institutions, including ENEA (Italy’s national agency for new technologies, energy, and sustainable economic development), Politecnico di Milano, and Politecnico di Torino, and said it is holding constructive conversations with high-ranking government representatives in the UK and France to explore the best options and locations to develop its projects. newcleo was recognized by Deloitte-London as the firm’s “Rising Star” in the 2022 UK Technology Fast 50 awards. Duncan Down, a transaction services partner with Deloitte, said, “Winning the Rising Star award in the Deloitte UK Technology Fast 50 reflects hard work and innovation in the world of technology. The success of newcleo is rooted in its relentless drive to grow in competitive conditions.”
The company envisions its two SMRs filling different roles in the power system. The 30-MWe model “can swiftly meet the commercial demand for small electric generating units, such as for islands, remote communities, or to power large vessels (shipping propulsion).” Meanwhile, the 200-MWe unit “can be an economically competitive solution for central station power plants,” it says.
“newcleo’s fast reactor technology is the necessary step in the nuclear industry to enable multiple recycling of already extracted uranium and a massive reduction in nuclear waste. In addition, the use of lead opens the possibility to safer and cheaper reactor operating,” Buono said.
—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).