X-energy will demonstrate its four-unit 320-MWe Xe-100 advanced nuclear reactor facility under the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) at a Dow site in the U.S. Gulf Coast region by the end of the decade—not in Washington State as originally planned.
The shakeup stems from a joint development agreement (JDA) the nuclear reactor and fuel technology firm signed with Dow on March 1, as well as a change by the DOE to make Dow “a sub-awardee” under X-energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program Cooperative Agreement.
The change, which officially makes Dow X-energy’s “customer/partner” under the ARDP award, positions the high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) demonstration to become the first grid-scale advanced reactor at an industrial site in North America, Robert McEntyre, an X-energy spokesperson, told POWER.
An ARDP Shakeup
Under the ARDP cooperative agreement, which X-energy signed with the DOE’s Clean Energy Demonstrations Office in March 2021, the Maryland-based company had originally set out to develop a 320-MWe Xe-100 reactor facility with Energy Northwest in Washington state that was expected to be operational by 2028. It later also considered a potential Grant Public Utility District (PUD) site in Grant County, Washington. The agreement also supported the deployment of a commercial-scale fuel fabrication facility for X-energy’s proprietary TRISO-X TRi-structural ISOtropic particle fuel (TRISO) fuel, technology, which the company developed under the 2015 DOE Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR) Fuel Qualification Program.
While X-energy was awarded $80 million in initial ARDP funding to demonstrate an Xe-100 plant—which consists of four 80-MWe/200-MWth reactors—and a fuel fabrication facility within seven years (by 2028), the DOE indicated it would invest about $1.23 billion in funding from the November 2021–enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) over the seven-year demonstration period.
“Since that award, X-energy has completed the engineering and basic design of the nuclear reactor, advanced development of a fuel fabrication facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and is preparing to submit an application for licensure to the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission],” X-energy noted on Wednesday.
Final Site Selection Planned This Year
The JDA with Dow and designation as a sub-awardee of ARDP “will make Dow our ARDP customer/partner” but not otherwise substantially alter the ARDP cooperative agreement, X-energy’s McEntyre said. “Our goal is to deliver the project on the ARDP timeline. Over the next several months as we initiate site planning and characterization, we’ll announce a specific timeline for the project and site,” he said.
The DOE in a statement sent to POWER on Wednesday confirmed these details. It noted: “The fundamental terms of DOE’s cooperative agreement with X-energy remain the same: to demonstrate the Xe-100 technology.” The agency also indicated that it will continue to “closely monitor and evaluate whether the project is meeting the award objectives and will review X-energy’s updated cost and schedule when available this spring.”
For now, the DOE said it plans to continue to work closely with X-energy and its partners “on efforts to demonstrate the promising technology.” However, it will also maintain “optionality” by retaining Energy Northwest on the cooperative agreement as a sub-awardee, the agency told POWER.
X-energy, meanwhile, remains committed to working with Energy Northwest and Grant Public Utility District “to enable them to become ‘fast followers’ of the first deployment,” McEntyre noted. “We are committed to deploying Xe-100 reactors in the state of Washington to meet the state’s clean energy goals with both Energy Northwest and Grant PUD as early as 2030. We believe this is consistent with the dual goals of ARDP: 1) help American advanced nuclear reactors make the transition from concept to demonstration, and 2) develop a strong commercial market of future customers.”
X-energy and Dow noted their JDA includes up to $50 million in engineering work, “up to half of which is eligible to be funded through ARDP, and the other half by Dow.” The JDA work scope also “includes the preparation and submission of a Construction Permit application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
Dow and X-energy’s next steps, for now, entail finalizing site selection for the Gulf Coast demonstration by year-end 2023, though that will be subject to the DOE’s review and approval, the companies noted. “The parties intend to perform further ARDP-related work under the JDA as the project progresses,” they said.
Nuclear’s Appeal to the Industrial Sector
When completed, the demonstration could open up a much-watched frontier for advanced nuclear applications in the industrial sector. Under the JDA, X-energy and Dow will notably also work to develop a framework “to jointly license and utilize the technology and learnings from the project, which would enable other industrial customers to effectively utilize Xe-100 industrial low-carbon energy technology.”
X-energy first announced it was working with Dow to deploy a Xe-100 HTGR at a Dow site on the Gulf Coast in August 2022. Dow has said it is considering small modular nuclear (SMR) technology as an effective pathway to help its energy-intensive industries to decarbonize. Its partnership with X-energy marks a crucial step in Dow’s efforts “to deliver a 30% reduction in scope 1 and 2 carbon emissions since 2005 by 2030, on its path to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050,” it said.
The chemical giant is so convinced nuclear will play an integral role in helping it achieve carbon neutrality over the next three decades, it has hired a nuclear team. As Mark Feltner, Dow senior technology manager for Nuclear Power, last week told attendees at the ASME Conference for Advanced Reactor Deployment in College Station, Texas, Dow’s key challenge is that it produces millions of barrels a day of feedstocks that come from “gas or oil or some type of mineral,” using energy—steam or power—produced by gas boilers and combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs).
The most important energy supply attribute for the chemical industry is availability, Feltner underscored. “A nuclear light water reactor runs at 92% to 95% power, which is great compared to what we ran in the 1970s and 1980s,” he said. “Chemical plants run 12 years without shutting down. That’s what we need, so when you come in to build a [power plant], you have to build two or three in case of outages.” However, that reliability must come without increased emissions, he said. “We at Dow know right now the science isn’t there for us to be carbon neutral by 2050. But we believe the advancements that are being made will take us there.”
Energy costs are also a major concern, Feltner said. He suggested, citing a Dow analysis of energy source availability and costs, that nuclear and CCGTs fueled by blue hydrogen (produced from gas captured from ethylene crackers) so far present the best alternatives for clean, reliable power. Meanwhile, power produced with green hydrogen is “cost prohibitive,” he said, and while renewable power is less expensive, it “cannot provide the reliability necessary for manufacturing.” At the same time, “precious metals required for renewable are geographically constrained, and costs are rising,” he said.
“Advanced nuclear is key,” Feltner said. “For Dow, I wouldn’t say we’re going to operate, but we are going to provide nuclear resources to our sites to make sure we can meet those goals in 2030 and 2050.”
On Wednesday, Dow said the demonstration would provide its Gulf Coast site with “safe, reliable, low-carbon power and steam within this decade.” Jim Fitterling, Dow chairman and CEO also noted that Dow’s collaboration with X-energy would “serve as a leading example of how the industrial sector can safely, effectively and affordably decarbonize.”
X-energy CEO Clay Sell, meanwhile, highlighted the project’s potential to “illustrate the broad, highly flexible applications of X-energy’s proprietary nuclear energy technology.”
—Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).
Editor’s note: This story has been updated. Last update: March 1, 2023, 8:47 p.m. CT