The POWER Interview: European Group Building Next Generation of Nuclear Reactors

Advancements in nuclear power technology have brought several new companies into the sector, many of them working on innovative reactor designs and fuels to move the industry forward.

One of those groups is newcleo, a company based in the UK with additional operations in Italy and France. The company began operating in 2021, and in March of this year announced the launch of a €1 billion ($1.06 billion) capital increase after having already raised nearly €400 million ($427 million).

The company on May 15, at a summit in Versailles, France, announced it would invest €3 billion ($3.2 billion) into small modular reactors (SMRs) in that country by 2030.

newcleo was founded by Stefano Buono, a physicist from Turin, Italy. Buono’s group has taken up the technology of the Superphénix fast-breeder reactor, which the French government abandoned more than 25 years ago due to several issues—including its cost, and opposition from environmentalists in the government of then-prime minister Lionel Jospin.

Stefano Buono

The company boasts several veterans of the nuclear power industry, including Luciano Cinotti, newcleo’s scientific director, who is an expert in fast neutron reactors and worked on the Superphénix. The company’s idea is is to reduce complexity by designing small reactors, while replacing the transfer fluid with molten lead instead of sodium. The earlier French reactor had problems related to its use of sodium, which can ignite when it comes in contact with air or water.

newcleo earlier this year signed an agreement with Enel Group, with the companies joining to work on Generation-IV, or Gen-IV, nuclear technology projects. Enel as part of the deal will provide newcleo with the expertise of its personnel.  newcleo, for its part, will secure an option for Enel as first investor in its initial nuclear power plant.

That first effort is the design and construction of a small 30-MWe lead-cooled fast reactor (LFR), with a goal to be deployed in France by 2030. That reactor would be followed by a 200-MWe commercial unit in the UK.

The company also has said it will directly invest in a mixed uranium/plutonium oxide (MOX) plant to fuel its reactors from existing nuclear waste.

Buono, who also is CEO of newcleo, recently provided POWER with insight into his company’s technology and its plans to build Gen-IV reactors and manufacture MOX fuel.

POWER: What sets lead-cooled fast reactors apart from other nuclear reactors?

Buono: One of the main differences with conventional nuclear reactors is that LFRs work in a fast neutron spectrum. This allows for higher efficiency in extracting the energetic content from natural uranium, a reduced need for mining, and an improvement in the process of waste management.

This image of the newcleo TL-30 reactor shows the coolant transferring heat to water. Courtesy: newcleo

Lead also offers many other intrinsic properties. It is relatively abundant and low cost, has a high boiling temperature, is chemically inert—meaning it doesn’t interact with fuel, air, or water—and offers some radiation shielding. This positively impacts the safety and economics of the design.

Want to learn more about nuclear power, including the design of small modular reactors and the market for new fuels? Register today for POWER’s Experience POWER Week, set for Aug. 14-17 in Savannah, Georgia.

POWER: Other groups have touted recycling of radioactive waste to use as fuel – how will your group make this work?

Buono: Our strategy will deliver a comprehensive solution to leverage nuclear waste, consequently maximizing the full lifecycle of uranium.

This image provides a comparison of the size of the TL-30 reactor (more than 5 meters tall) to a person of average height, who stands about 6 feet or 1.8 meters tall. Source: newcleo.

In fact, we aim to design, build and operate our Generation IV reactors and also invest in MOX fuel manufacturing. MOX consists of plutonium recovered from used reactor fuel and mixed with reprocessed or depleted uranium, and it has the ability to fuel our reactors. This approach, combined with reprocessing, minimizes high-level waste volume that would otherwise be headed to a geological repository, simultaneously allowing for existing waste material to provide power for hundreds of years in key markets.

POWER: How would your technology support energy independence?

Buono: Nuclear has already proven its validity among clean energy sources. It has a small impact and uses minimal resources, produces no CO2 or emissions of pollutants, and boasts a high-capacity factor, making it one of the most reliable options among the various electricity sources.

In addition, we plan to fuel our reactors with material that is already available in countries with a mature nuclear infrastructure. This will limit fuel importing, while also supporting energy independence.

Our mission is to continue to develop a new, sustainable, and safe way of generating nuclear energy, which will therefore help to decarbonize global energy. Through our next-generation nuclear reactor technology, we will be able to generate electricity by recycling the fuel from radioactive waste produced from traditional power plants.

POWER: Many companies are working on small modular reactors. Your group has a more ambitious timeline–2026 for a precursor–than some others. How confident are you that newcleo will meet that goal?

Buono: While we are certainly not the only nuclear energy company on the scene, we have the expertise and funding to be a leader in the industry, as well as the ambitions to bring our technology to the market as soon as possible. We have a team of more than 200 employees, with a scientific team that boasts decades of experience in the field and engineers with an innovative approach and endless knowledge.

Our current timeline to market is 2026 for the precursor, a non-nuclear prototype that will be built in Italy. This will be followed by the MINI Lead-cooled Fast Reactor (30MWe) in 2030 in France, which will be a test reactor and a demonstrator. And by 2032, we will introduce the SMALL Lead-cooled Fast Reactor (200 MWe) in the UK, our first commercial unit.

POWER: Do you see your SMR being deployed at sites with existing power transmission infrastructure, or as more of a decentralized energy solution for remote locations?

Buono: We believe that going forward we’ll need both, and we are designing our plants to be as flexible as possible to allow both types of application. Our SMRs will be deployable in a multi-module plant, as well as a single module for industrial uses.

In particular, our AS (Amphora Shaped) design will be deployable as a single or multi-module plant, capitalizing on the specificities of the selected site and available infrastructure in that area.

At the same time, we are also working on our TL (Transportable Long-life) design. This is thought to be a ‘nuclear battery.’ With very long refueling and maintenance periods, amounting to 10 years, it could also be employed for maritime propulsion.

POWER: There are always detractors for nuclear power, in many cases those concerned about disposal of radioactive waste. What would you say to those people about how your technology solves that problem?

Buono: The nuclear industry is one of the few that is fully accountable for its own byproducts. The fission reaction is so dense that it results in very small volumes of used natural resources, and therefore waste produced, in exchange for a large amount of electricity produced.

Nevertheless, to those who are concerned about the disposal of nuclear waste, our technology provides a solution. Unlike conventional (thermal) reactor technology, which produces nuclear waste that then needs to be safely stored, our approach, and specifically our fast reactor, turns already available plutonium and uranium into clean energy without needing to mine or extract new resources.

Our vision is to be able to create energy while also eliminating the global build-up of nuclear waste which would otherwise be stored in geological repositories, bring additional costs to producers, and require the ongoing extraction of uranium.

The next generation of nuclear energy will be even safer and cleaner than before. Nuclear energy’s potential to drive global decarbonization, combined with our innovative approach to waste management, is endless and inspiring and we are excited by the prospect of a zero-carbon future.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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