Start-Ups Gain Helping Hand in Advanced Nuclear Energy Program

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By Rebecca Kern

Not long ago, a company wanting decades-old national laboratory data on using sodium—instead of water—to cool a nuclear reactor could not have gotten access to such proprietary information.

But a novel Energy Department cost-share program is helping small firms partner with labs to use such data, as well as the labs’ facilities and expertise, as a way to bolster research into advanced reactor technologies.

The Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) Initiative, launched in November 2015, has awarded up to $2 million in small business vouchers to eight start-up companies to partner with nine participating national labs for one year to overcome specific research and development hurdles for advanced-reactor technologies.

GAIN opened a second small-businesses voucher round March 13 aimed at providing research funding that covers of 80 percent of the firm’s projects.

Rita Baranwal, director of the GAIN program at Idaho National Laboratory, hopes to double the funding this year, depending on overall congressional funding for the Energy Department. The nuclear industry and its advocates have repeatedly said the U.S. must overhaul how nuclear reactors are designed, financed and built in order to be competitive with other energy sources in the future.

“One of the main initiatives is to close the gap to commercialize their technology and to try to get these companies closer to the finish line,” Baranwal, who was formerly director of technology development at Westinghouse Electric Co., told Bloomberg BNA.

“We do that by providing them access to DOE facilities, providing them some financial assistance, and providing them some guidance through the regulatory process as well.”

Technologies Under Debate

Advanced reactor technologies, however, remain a subject of considerable debate, just as the overall risks and benefits of nuclear power are also being debated.

The technologies involve different materials, such as liquid sodium or high-temperature gases, to cool the nuclear fuel instead of water. Those materials reportedly have a stronger safety profile and lower costs than the 99 light-water reactors now on the market.

Skeptics say the safety case of these new reactors is still uncertain and question whether they will become a reality since they are still years away from the U.S. market, with estimates that they won’t be commercialized until the mid- to late-2020s.

“Liquid metal-cooled fast reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, and molten salt reactors all introduce new safety and or/security issues relative to light-water reactors that may ultimately outweigh any improvements they may provide for uranium utilization or waste management,” Edwin Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent scientific nonprofit, told a Senate panel on advanced reactor legislation earlier this month.

Utilizing National Lab Resources

GAIN voucher recipients interviewed by Bloomberg BNA say they can make these technologies a reality, but programs such as GAIN are essential to getting there.

Simon Irish, CEO of Terrestrial Energy USA Ltd., an affiliate of Terrestrial Energy Inc., said his company was a recipient of a GAIN voucher to study properties of molten salt at high temperatures to help with testing of the company’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor in preparation for a U.S. application. He said the GAIN program has helped open doors and leverage labs’ resources.

“There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge, expertise, experience and equipment that sits at the national lab level,” Irish told Bloomberg BNA. “Making those resources available through a program like the GAIN program is very helpful. It makes sense for national labs, it makes sense for the private sector.”

Jacob DeWitte, co-founder and CEO of Oklo Inc., which received a GAIN voucher for the firm’s small fast reactor cooled by liquid metals, said he saw opportunities in the program to study the national labs’ old data on the fuel the company wanted to use in its reactor.

He said advanced-reactor companies’ biggest challenges are analyzing reactor fuel and determining its qualifications. “So we looked at this as an opportunity to work with the labs and start to basically transition all of these legacy data, start to filter through it to find what’s relevant to us and then use it to start to transition to support licensing,” DeWitte told Bloomberg BNA.

DeWitte also said GAIN allowed his company to develop relationships at national labs they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

The Energy Department and national labs have a lot of tools, but the industry does not always necessarily know about them, Everett Redmond, senior technical adviser for new reactor and advanced technology at the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade group, told Bloomberg BNA.

“GAIN is illustrative of the beginning of a change in mentality to be more responsive to industry in a timely manner. We’re very happy about it, but there’s a lot more work to be done,” Redmond told Bloomberg BNA.

GAIN Expanding Program

DeWitte said GAIN is “critical to realizing the advanced reactor industry in the U.S. and realizing U.S. leadership in this technology.” The U.S. nuclear industry says China’s and Russia’s advanced-reactor development programs are threatening U.S. leadership.

In next year’s funding round, Baranwal said she wants to expand the program to cover large companies, which she said do not devote significant amounts to advanced-reactor development even if their overall research and development budgets are larger than those of smaller companies.

“By that token, it puts them on the same playing field as a smaller business,” she said.

She said also larger companies’ research on these technologies could have a broader impact on the advanced-reactor industry.

To contact the reporter on this story: Rebecca Kern in Washington at rKern@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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