Allrighty time to give my journalism muscles another attempted flex with the second installment in our Spotlight series about nuclear production companies, This time focused on Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation.
Science and Entrepreneurship
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of chatting with Mark Mitchell, a very pleasant South African man who is the President of the Power Division of Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC). Among the dozens of groups in the small nuclear reactor (SMR) field these days, they are the commercialization branch of a research group that started out in Los Alamos and Oak Ridge National Laboratories working on Deep Burn and Accident Tolerant Fuels (ATF) research.
Unlike some companies that are pursuing liquid fuels as a differentiating point to set themselves apart from previous generations of reactors, the people who would become USNC believed that to the best option was to focus on commercializing known quantities as the fastest, and safest, path they could take towards the market. Using their experience with highly robust fuel research and manufacturing, they formed USNC with the goal of making an equally robust and practical gas cooled reactor to take advantage of the fuel designs that they had been so integral in producing.
When asked about the safety aspects of the specific fuel used in the proposed reactors, Mark very confidently stated that “the fuel is capable of preventing any leakage of fission products into the environment” and that it will remain stable “up to 1600-2000 degrees Celsius”. While he agreed that liquid fuels have benefits as far as fuel utilization and reprocessing, he noted that “We are not idealistic about reactors, and it is our belief that [the fastest way to commercialization] is by taking the smallest step from known technologies that yields the largest benefit”.
Markets and Commercialization Goals
Commercialization is something that USNC is pursuing no less fervently than other more public reactor companies. However, they are not aiming for large grid integration. Instead, they are focused on supporting our smaller and more vulnerable communities and operations such as off-grid communities in the north, or mine sites at the end of seasonal connections such as Ice roads. They appeal to these potential customers with a combination of their design and the operating methods of the reactor.
The USNC reactor is more accurately described as a “Micro Modular Reactor” in stead of a Small Modular Reactor as the designed power output is only 5 MW, or approximately the same power rating as two 80 meter tall wind turbines. It makes sense to aim for this size of capacity since the desired target markets are likely too small to need (or even be able to utilize) something on the order of hundreds of megawatts. If were could, they would likely already be connected to the grid. Plus, with USNC’s focus on simplicity of operation and long lifespan for these reactors (20 years without refueling according to Mark), these communities will be able to focus their efforts on doing more than just keeping the lights on.
Waste and radiation during operation.
With the reactors designed to operate for so long without refuelling, I had to ask the obvious question about what to do with the decommissioning and waste management after the end of life. Mark was confident in his response that there are several options available for the equipment.
“It is possible to replace the fuel cartridge to continue operations in place, but when talking on 20 year time scales it is not impossible that it would be more economical to replace the entire reactor with a newer generation design. One that will be more economical to produce and operate.” When questioned specifically on the plans for the waste material, Mark responded that the fuel is fully able to be transitioned into an acceptable form for internment in the currently proposed NWMO storage facility that is being planned for construction in one of two locations in Ontario “should no other more local alternatives nearer to the points of operation be constructed in the meantime”.
Licensing and public perception
So with the option to maintain system control over the end of life operations, and the confidence in their choice of target markets, is USNC encountering any unexpected delays with public perception or governmental procedures involved with licensing?
“The CNSC is doing a remarkable job with the licensing system” he stated. “Instead of pursuing a licensing system around individual constructions, our experience has been one of the CNSC looking to achieve full understanding of the designs and potentials as a policy statement. [The CNSC] is leading the way with the understanding that the nuclear industry is changing from the old system of rule based licensing and must keep up with a shift into objective based licensing if they do not wish to stifle the industry.
“We see no barriers to the licensing process for [the USNC MMR reactor design] and are working closely with the CNSC, Ontario Power Generation and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.”
Opportunities for Alberta
Finally, we ended our conversation on a very important topic. Does USNC have any plans to bring their company to Alberta beyond simply selling reactors to our remote communities or remote industrial sites that would benefit from them?
Mark was very optimistic about the potential. He made a few good points about why he was hopeful, such as the large number of skilled tradespeople in Alberta that are able to do the kind of work required. The reactor is meant to be built from parts that “80% can be taken off the shelf.”
When asked directly if he thought that USNC would be able to find partners to do business with in Alberta, Mark responded that he was “Hopeful.”
I for one am also hopeful that we can make Alberta a welcoming place for this new style of industry. Maybe our Premier will agree and sign on with those other provinces to recognize the role that nuclear has to play in diversifying our economies while also being better stewards for our environment. Plus, giving remote communities more, cheaper, less environmentally harmful energy sources is only a good thing in my books and I’m sure they would agree with me, and USNC.