TVA, Kairos Partner to Deploy Molten Salt Nuclear Reactor Demonstration

In a notable, dedicated effort by a major U.S. utility to boost the development of an advanced reactor technology, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Kairos Power, developer of a novel fluoride salt-cooled, high-temperature nuclear reactor, on May 6 said they will team to demonstrate Kairos’ Hermes test reactor at the East Tennessee Technology Park (ETTP) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

As part of their agreement, TVA will provide engineering, operations, and licensing support to help California-based Kairos Power deploy its “low-power” demonstration reactor. According to Kairos, Hermes is a 50-MWth test reactor that will integrate the Kairos Power Fluoride Salt-Cooled High-Temperature Reactor (KP-FHR) as part of a cost- and risk-reduction–focused development pathway that ultimately envisions commercial deployment of a 140-MWe “KP-X” plant.

Kairos Power’s singular objective for deploying the Hermes Reactor is to demonstrate the capability to deliver an advanced reactor at the costs necessary to make nuclear power the most affordable source of dispatchable electricity in the United States,” it said on Thursday.

The KP-FHR concept, which bagged a $303 million federal award under the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) risk reduction pathway last December, essentially uses molten fluoride salt as a low-pressure coolant (rather than water, which is used in conventional nuclear reactors). The design also uses fully ceramic tri-structural ISOtropic (TRISO) particle fuel in pebble form, and a high-temperature superheated steam cycle to “convert heat from fission into electricity and to complement renewable energy sources,” the company says.

The Kairos Power FHR (KP-FHR) is a novel advanced reactor technology that leverages TRISO fuel in pebble form combined with a low-pressure fluoride salt coolant. Courtesy: Kairos

Kairos first announced it would deploy a test reactor at the ETTP in Oak Ridge last December, pending completion of due diligence and the results of discussions with state and local officials. The 2,200-acre ETTP site hosted a complex of federally owned facilities that enriched uranium for 40 years before the DOE terminated its uranium enrichment operations. The area has now begun a major environmental site cleanup and it seeks to convert the ETTP into a private industrial park called Heritage Center Industrial Park.

As Michael Laufer, co-founder and CEO of Kairos Power, noted in December, the site is attractive owing to its infrastructure and proximity to “key collaborators” at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The company also noted it has executed a memorandum of understanding with Heritage Center LLC, to acquire the former K-33 gaseous diffusion plant site at ETTP.

The Tennessee Valley Authority and Kairos Power on May 6 announced plans to collaborate on deploying a low-power demonstration reactor at the East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. This image shows an aerial view of the site. Courtesy: TVA

TVA, which is a self-funded federal corporate agency—and the largest public power utility in the U.S.—already holds the nation’s only early site permit (ESP) from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a small modular reactor (SMR). The ESP is for its 935-acre Clinch River site in Roane County, near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The site, which previously hosted the former Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project, is about 6 miles away from the ETTP. 

TVA President and CEO Jeffrey Lyash last week suggested SMRs could help further slash TVA’s carbon emissions, though he noted rolling out first-of-a-kind technologies would require government support. “First-of-a-kind risks and costs are substantial, but the investment in that will generate the solution to the low-carbon future and create an export [base] for the U.S,” he said. “TVA is ready to lead in this area if the nation needs it to lead,” he added.

TVA spokesman Jim Hopson told POWER on May 5 that while TVA’s 2016 ESP application to the NRC detailed two or more SMR modules of up to 800 MW at the Clinch River site, the company had not made a firm decision to pursue deploying a reactor at the site.

“Ultimately, we will have to make a decision based upon what we believe is the best interest of those we serve. But we want to have that option open to us, which is why we believe that continued development and interest in SMRs is something TVA is definitely going to continue to be involved in as we move forward,” Hopson said.

In a statement on Thursday, Lyash said: “Teamwork is the hallmark of the nuclear industry, and through this partnership with Kairos Power we can share TVA’s safety and innovation insights to advance nuclear technology while gaining experience with licensing for advanced reactors.”

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

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