Startup Nano Nuclear is betting on naval nuclear technology for portable microreactors as the key to decarbonising sectors such as shipping, mining, remote industries and isolated communities.

The company’s first two reactors, Odin, under development with scientists derived from Cambridge University, and Zeus, with scientists from University of California at Berkeley, are based on units that have operated in US and Nato naval fleets for decades.

Microreactors “can fit on the back of a truck so existing transportation infrastructure, like trucks, trains, shipping vessels can ship these things anywhere in the world,” said Nano CEO and head of reactor development James Walker, a nuclear physicist formerly with UK Ministry of Defence in its nuclear programme.

Portability and costs of microreactors after mass production would make it highly sought after to meet both energy and decarbonisation needs, Walker asserted.

“If you look at just island communities and rural communities, already that's thousands of these things,” said Walker. “When we get up to selling 1,000 microreactors on a yearly basis, you're looking at a trillion-dollar industry.”

Nuclear America

Nuclear currently supplies some 18% of US power needs off 95GW of installed capacity, according to the Energy Information Agency (EIA).

The Department of Energy (DoE) forecasts the country will need around 200GW of new nuclear capacity to reach net-zero by 2050, but the domestic sector has been in decline for decades following the near-meltdown at Three-Mile Island power station in Pennsylvania in 1979.

Only a handful of nuclear power plants have been built in the US in recent decades, most of them plagued by massive cost overruns and years’-long delays.

Construction began on Georgia’s newly commissioned 1.115GW Unit 3 at the Vogtle Nuclear Power Station in 2009 with an expected 2016 commissioning that was pushed back six years. Combined costs for the reactor and its Unit 4 sibling which was grid connected 1 March this year started around $14bn but have since ballooned to more than $30bn, according to EIA.

Several factors contribute to nuclear’s skyrocketing costs, not least the high Capex for massive power plants.

Delayed SMR renaissance

The sector’s long-awaited renaissance is expected to be in small modular reactors (SMRs) and microreactors.

“If you shrink down the reactor the capital cost becomes smaller, with the financing costs also going down,” Walker told Recharge. “The whole price of nuclear power becomes orders of magnitude cheaper.”

So far, the SMR-led nuclear revival remains elusive though following the crash and burn of poster child NuScale’s first project.

The SMR pioneer, the first to receive a design certificate from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for its 77MW Power Module SMR, abandoned its long-awaited Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP) with a Utah-based utility consortium after customers were unwilling to pay the higher price of $89/MWh, up from its previous estimate of $58/MWh.

NuScale’s high price tag was due in large measure to the lack of US nuclear supply chain, according to Walker.

“Everything they did was first of a kind, with no supporting supply chain no supporting infrastructure,” he said. “Imagine if the infrastructure have been built up already, the supply chain was actually there and they could just buy the material like we used to be able to do in the States, they never would have had these issues.”

A key gap is the global scarcity of advanced fuels to feed next-generation reactors.

Haleu fuel

SMRs and microreactors typically use high-assay low-enriched uranium (Haleu) that contains 5-20% fissile uranium-235, compared to lower amounts for conventional nuclear power plants.

This allows reactors to operate more efficiently, consume less fuel and have longer lifespans.

But it it’s not yet commercially available in the US and will require billions of investments led by the government to reach anything like the scale of manufacturing needed to jump start the sector.

“The problem, of course, that the country has is that the facilities aren't in place to do it,” said Walker.

“There's a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built first off for the purposes of allowing the whole new supply chain to be in place so that reactors can source this stuff.”

Nano is jumping into Haleu production as well, which is already ramping as the Biden administration funds R&D into its production.

Federal support

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) as well as several other federal laws offer incentives for new nuclear capacity, which is considered “clean energy” by the Biden administration.

Under the IRA new nuclear power plants enjoy the same production and investment tax credits as renewables, subject to the same wage and apprenticeship requirements.

They are likewise eligible for added investment tax credits (ITC) in “energy communities” – brownfield sites that have been negatively impacted by fossil fuel production.

Walker noted that Nano’s undisclosed site for future production of Haleu fuel is likewise in a brownfield site but said this is more due to permitting considerations than tax credits.

Safety fears

Public opposition is another factor that could crimp expectations of the nuclear sector.

Disasters at Chernobyl in the 1980s and Fukushima in 2014 highlighted the risks posed by the sector, while permanent storage of waste, especially highly irradiated spent fuel, remains another thorny problem for the industry.

Walker downplays the risks, noting that SMRs and microreactors have passive cooling systems and few moving parts to break, likening them to a battery more than a power plant while pointing to revived efforts to deal with spent fuel.

“As long as we can just communicate and relay the facts to people, a lot of the public resistance to it will just go away, because they're largely misconceptions based on bad PR,” he said.