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Atomic energy technology, politics, and perceptions from a nuclear energy insider who served as a US nuclear submarine engineer officer

Nucleating our carbon-managed future

Fri, 04/23/2021 - 02:00

If you’ve studied chemistry, you’ll know that the nucleation point describes the start of a change in physical state, such as from a solid to a liquid, or liquid to gas. Water starting to crystallize into ice nucleates where the first H2O molecules reorganize as a solid.

We’re seeing a similar transformation of human society—forced by the heat of planetary warming, costly extreme weather and the recognition that more catastrophic shifts are underway—compelling nations, provinces, states, cities and even remote villages to re-think their use of energy to reduce emissions.

This Earth Day, the level of concern and the degree of activity being directed towards slowing the additions of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere has never been greater.  This would be encouraging except that decades of study, thousands of scientific reports and billions invested has yielded little progress. Prior to the economic slow-down caused by Covid-19, even the rate of growth of emissions had not been meaningfully reduced. Now, with economies starting to recover, global emissions are rising again, when what is needed is for these emissions to be dramatically declining.

We only have nine years left to achieve the goal of a 50% decrease in the level of global emissions by 2030, as set out by the IPCC back in 2018 as what is needed to keep global temperature rise to 1.5°C (which though the aspirational goal, will still mean the loss of 90% of all coral reefs). Whether or not you agree that this is the right goal for us to achieve, we’ve still failed to make even remotely appropriate progress. This despite a growing parade of nations, states, and entities announcing emissions reduction goals. What’s the basis for this failure? 

Lack of agreement on effective solutions. The Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) that became widespread has not worked. Instead, the RPS let us take our eye off the goal of emissions reductions to focus on increasing the penetration of renewables. Solar and wind, as intermittent energy sources, require backup generation for the majority of their nameplate capacity. Somehow, use of natural gas was back-doored, allowing gas generation to expand like a weed beneath the thin veneer of renewables, despite its huge emissions and ecologic footprint. What little emissions decline we got, was due to the offsetting decline in the emissions from even dirtier coal plants retired by increasingly cheap gas.

The world, to do better, needs an effective solution—not a politically popular one. Fortunately, legislatures in a few states are beginning to replace the RPS with the Clean Energy Standard (CES). These policies call for requiring set amounts of emissions reductions by certain dates—not prioritizing a particular technology solution. This is very promising for achieving real reductions and provides an opportunity for nuclear power to be utilized. Indeed, many utilities already knew they could not achieve ambitious reduction goals without nuclear, and now some utilities are even beginning to admit publicly that they will need nuclear in order to deliver on their emission reduction commitments.

Unfortunately, over the last decade, nuclear power, the only true source of carbon-free firm generation that is independent of weather or geography, has suffered declines. Nuclear energy has been excluded from the RPS standards passed in 30 states, hobbling the profitability of established businesses. Furthermore, nuclear’s wealth of grid reliability benefits, including long-term fuel availiability and storage, extreme weather resilience and transmission line voltage regulation, have all been devalued through a complex set of market functions within the deregulated energy markets, aimed apparently at serving the political goals of those in charge.

How so? Take the case of New York State.  In upstate New York where Republican voters dominate, Governor Cuomo passed Zero-Emissions Credit (ZEC) climate legislation to protect the region’s three nuclear power plants, which were quite popular with the voters there. The legislation reflects the evironmental value of the nuclear plants’ reduced carbon emissions and pays the plants “zero emission credits” in a fashion that protects the nuclear generation from the vagarities of low gas prices. 

Yet, Governor Cuomo, shrewdly excluded Indian Point, in downstate New York, where his political support consists largely of Democrats with well-conditioned antipathy for nuclear. Coincidentally, it also happened to be where natural gas lobbyists were desperately seeking to increase their market share and managed to get Cuomo to approve permits to build three new gas plants. In depriving Indian Point of the benefit of the Zero-Emission Credits, Cuomo was able to force this nuclear power plant to close—despite the passage of New York’s CES.  

The irony is that upstate Republicans, with much less articulated concern about climate, have almost 90% clean energy powering their grid, thanks to Canadian hydro and three nuclear power plants that Cuomo worked hard to preserve. Downstate Democrats, ostensibly more motivated to see Cuomo address climate, will see 94% dirty energy in a few weeks, once Indian Point’s last reactor closes on April 30th, eliminating all but a trickle of hydro, since there is scarse open space for wind or solar and lots of NIMBY. (See NYISO’s Power Trends Report, p. 29 for these charts.) Cuomo, in a masterful stroke, did good for the gas industry, pleased the Riverkeepers worried about fish fry, and will still earn political popularity points despite eliminating the single largest source of clean energy for Manhattan, adding to the region’s already poor air quality, and completing its dependence on fracked gas.

The situation in California, with the forced closures of its two nuclear power plants—San Onofre in 2012 and Diablo Canyon in 2024 and 2025—being the result of direct action by a politically-shrewd Governor—is frighteningly similar in how it impacts state emissions for the worse. Which is why there is a growing chorus of voices appealing to President Biden to protect the nation’s nuclear fleet—which provides 55% of all of the U.S.’s clean energy—from being the political football that it is wherever environmentalists and/or fossil fuel lobbyists have sway. 

Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to President Biden earlier this week specifically requesting action to protect America’s nuclear power, stating that “preventing the closure of existing nuclear power plants is critical to achieving emissions reduction goals while ensuring a reliable grid.” 

Similarly, the Climate Coalition, a non-profit group working to build a coalition of both nuclear and renewables supporters focused on emissions reductions, launched a campaign called Protect Nuclear Now which issued an appeal to Jennifer Granholm, the new Secretary of Energy, urging the use by President Biden of his emergency declaration power to prevent the premature closure of at-risk nuclear power plants. Biden could intervene to save Indian Point, the most imminently at-risk plant, and preserve these high-value clean energy assets so that Congress has time to resolve the problems of discriminatory state energy policies, lack of carbon pricing, and political patronage which together prevent nuclear from being properly valued and put at risk so competitors can benefit at the cost of rate payers.

President Biden hasn’t responded to these appeals on behalf of the nation’s existing fleet but he has shown that he is guided by science and seeks real solutions. Biden’s bold support of innovations in advanced nuclear generation has been widely hailed by climate scientists and energy experts. After all, the pressurized water reactor may be one of the few 1970s-era technologies that is still in active use today but there is a growing cadre of entrepreneurs and engineers who have been working hard to bring nuclear energy into the 21st century—making it safer, more efficient, more scalable, more flexible and better suited for tomorrow’s distributed clean energy grids. Biden has expressed his support for pursuing advanced nuclear innovation and development.

This is a really good thing. As we celebrate Earth Day in the midst of global crisis of carbon emissions, there are growing signs that nuclear’s time is finally coming. Congress has already laid the foundation, quietly passing the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Capabilities Act (NEICA) and the Nuclear Energy Innovation & Modernization Act (NEIMA) two pieces of legislation vital to modernizing nuclear power in the 21st century. The Energy Act of 2020 provides further support for US investments in advanced nuclear technologies. Clearly, the president and the Congress understand what too many environmentalists and investors do not: that deploying advanced nuclear will be critical to our ability to transition fully away from fossil fuels within the remaining carbon budge, while preserving grid reliability.

Seeing advanced nuclear roll out in a time frame that can make a difference for climate is a goal near and dear to Rod and me. We’ve been working since 2018 to develop an investment vehicle that can invest in the ventures developing advanced nuclear reactors, grid optimization and a wide range of compatible decarbonization technologies. Climate change may be the most serious environmental threat ever faced by humanity but it is also one of the biggest, foreseeable economic opportunities.  If we must transition away from fossil fuels, investing in the best alternative sources of clean generation just makes good sense.

With a few key milestones behind us—namely the certification of the NuScale modular design by the NRC and the submission of the first non-light water design for combined license by Oklo—those who follow trends can see that nuclear’s prospects are glowingly green. We are excited to place some early investments, follow the progress and participate in the exciting growth of this nascent sector.

Why exciting? It is the scale of the transition that needs to happen.  If we just needed to supplant the fossil fuel generation that is used around the world, we would be shifting some 70% of total grid generation to a few source. That’s a huge market in itself but that’s not all we need to do. Decarbonizing the electric grid is just the first step. We also need to decarbonize transportation, industry and the built environment. This will involve the electrification of nearly all of the energy uses involved which shifts energy demand from oil, coal and gas over to electric grids—estimated to easily double or triple the amount of grid power needed today. Now combine that incremental grid growoth with increased grid demand for video conferencing—think how much Zooming you’ve done this year—online shopping, tele-medicine, online banking, Netflix, videogames, online education and cryptocurriencies, and you can really begin to imagine that our grids are going to have to bear the load of being the primary power source in the 21st century—and this doesn’t jive with any vision for a all-renewables solution.

But there is even more. We have yet to come to terms with the energy demand of decarbonization. If we want to restore our climate, we need to reduce the amount of free CO2 by capturing, processing or sequestering CO2 out of the atmosphere (CCUS). Experts estimate that we need an industry of the size as the fossil fuel industry devoted entirely to reversing the direction of CO2. This requires yet another massive increment of clean energy to power. But, without investing in CCUS, all of our efforts to transition to clean energy will only stop things from getting worse. It will not stop the baked in heating of our atmosphere, which scientists predict will continue to cause forced heating of the planet for decades to come, making things much worse than they even are now.

Can solar and wind power keep up? At present, despite seeing their costs decline due to Chinese mass production, solar and wind installation are not even keeping up with global energy growth. It is hard to imagine that they could ever succeed in replacing a large capacity coal or gas power plants entirely—but nuclear has a long history of doing just that—and cleaning up polluted American skies in the process. Clearly, if we are to replace all fossil fuel power and double or triple the size of our grids to fully decarbonize and draw down carbon, all clean energy sources—solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, wave and all future technologies such as fusion—will be needed. The faster these players learn to work together, the more efficient and cost-effective our transition will be.

It can be disheartening to hear renewable advocates arguing that nuclear power is not needed, because it is not “dispatchable” will result in excess power when renewables are generating. When taken in light of the array of ventures working to develop CCUS solutions, all of which need reliable sources of clean energy, this argument makes no sense. In fact, we need an entire industry’s worth of decarbonization to get busy, so if and when the grid doesn’t require power from nuclear, advanced plants operators will be able to route their power to revenue-generating climate services such as hydrogen or synthetic fuel production, water desalination or other industrial heat applications. Utilities are already beginning to test these applications and explore the prospect of alternative revenue streams.

Clearly, solving climate will cause enormous shifts in how we generate and use energy. There will be major winners and losers as new clean technologies are deployed and old technologies are wound down.  Energy is so central to our modern-day existence and the elimination of emission is so critical to our long-term survival, it is no wonder these are extraordinarily controversial and high-stakes issues. The only certainty is that this transition must happen. No one can predict the future but those who know and appreciate the power of nuclear technology have an opportunity to invest in the innovations happening today, ahead of those who choose to ignore nuclear power.

Back about a decade ago, I went through the exercise—as a partner in an investment management firm—of trying to figure out where our clean energy would come from. As easy as it was to know what stocks to divest, as an indexing investment manager, the hard part was seeing what would replace fossil fuels.  So I took a hard look at our overall energy sector to see where our clean energy came from. The answer surprised me: about 65%  of our clean energy a decade ago was nuclear power.

I’ve now spent much of the last decade exploring nuclear energy and the nuclear industry as an investor. This appears to be where my investment process diverged from that of many other investors. Others bought the hype about solar and wind: I preferred to look realistically at the data. But delving into the nuclear industry has been both a fascinating and a dismaying process. There is a strong, passionate and articulate pronuclear community but a very weakened and cowed industry that is largely unable to stand up for itself.

This has contributed to nuclear’s bumpy ride. Despite generating about 20% of U.S. electricity and 55% of clean energy, nuclear remains subect to ongoing campaigns to vilify it.  One must look beyond the propaganda coming from both fossil and renewable competitors know seek the truth. We’ve seen what nuclear has done in the past: but we don’t know where it is going. Still, extrapolating from the available technology and manufacturing learning curves, if advanced nuclear can benefit from mass-production, digitization, AI, automation, advanced materials and other well-understood 20th century technologies, from an energy density and material-efficiency basis, it is hard to see any other energy technology performing better than nuclear for human society over the long term.

In 2018, when I finally reached out to Rod about my interest in investing in advanced nuclear, we agreed that it seemed like the right time. It has taken time to figure out how best to structure a fund but, in the interim, support for both addressing climate and including advanced nuclear has only grown stronger. Thanks to the introduction in 2020 of the AngelList Rolling Fund, Rod and I now have our answer:  Nucleation Capital, a subscription-based venture fund that uses technology to enable individual investors to participate at lower, more affordable capital levels. We plan to invest broadly, to participate in the overall growth of the sector, and we plan to go deep with those particular ventures that are crushing their development milestones. If this interests you and you’d like to learn more, please let us know through the form on our website and we will be happy to follow up with you.

With a new, science-respecting president in the White House and with growing global support for effective climate action, evidence is emerging that we are seeing the nucleation of our carbon-managed economy. Under Biden, America has its best and possibly last chance to coordinate a global response to the climate crisis. Advanced nuclear entrepreneurs now have an opportunity to show the world how the next generation of nuclear power can not only end our reliance on fossil energy but also begin to restore our climate without causing massive ecosystem impacts. Against this backdrop, investing in these technological innovations and providing some of the capital that is needed to get to commercialization, even with all of the uncertainty and risks that these ventures face, seems like not just the right thing to do but a darn good investment in the future as well.

Five Myths about the Lone Star Blackout

Wed, 03/10/2021 - 11:11

By Meredith Angwin

Meredith Angwin, Author and Energy Analyst

When we hear something terrible has happened to someone we know, we are concerned for them. We are worried.  We want to help. 

And let’s face it, we are also concerned that something like that might happen to US.  

Our self-concern often takes the form of a list: “All the reasons this won’t happen to me.” 

  • I don’t smoke.  
  • I’m not overweight.  
  • I have a very new car with safety sensors.

While this self-talk is not a huge deal, the same thing becomes a huge deal when people begin explaining that the Texas blackout was because…well, Texas is Unique.  Something like that would never happen to us!   And then…. here comes the list.

Five Ways Texas is Supposedly Unique

The usual list of “why it won’t happen here” is because Texas is Unique, and here are the ways it is unique and how it brought about it’s own problems.  
The thesis is simple: Texas is not a warning to us. Texas can merely serve as a bad example of bad choices. 

(This section is abstracted from an assortment of pundits in other states.)

These are supposedly the problems unique to Texas.

  1. Texas isn’t attached strongly to other grids, so the neighbors couldn’t help it.
  2. Texas didn’t want to be ruled by FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission), so it had all sorts of problems that obeying FERC would have solved.
  3. Texas doesn’t have a capacity market: such a market would have saved it from blackouts
  4. Texas didn’t bother to winterize anything on its grid.
  5. Texas built its market around total freedom for prices to rise.  Other markets are more orderly.

As in everything, there is SOME truth in many of these statements, but overall….sorry.  I wish Texas was unique.  The fundamental problem is the way RTOs (Regional Transmission Organizations) are designed and managed.  Two-thirds of the country is in an RTO area.  The way things happened in Texas can be the way they happen…in any place that has restructured its electricity markets.

Five Ways Texas is Just Like the Rest of the RTOS

Let’s go through these myths, one by one

1) Texas goes it alone.  Indeed, the ERCOT (Electricity Reliability Council of Texas) area of Texas did choose not to be strongly connected to neighboring grids.  However, connection to neighboring grids would not have helped. As I have pointed out in my book, the neighbors are having the same weather you are having.  In the case of Texas, several nearby states were also having rollling blackouts due to cold weather.  None was as extreme as Texas (where the whole grid almost collapsed) but none would have “shed load” to their own people to ship help to Texas, even if they were completely connected.

2) No FERC oversight. Nobody ever tells me what FERC ruling would have solved Texas’s problems.  FERC does not require large reserve margins. FERC does not care whether plants have fuel stored on site.  FERC does not require winterization.  I am willing to be corrected on this, but if someone would send me a link to  me the FERC order or FERC ruling that would have saved the Texas grid, that would be great.  I also think it would be a miracle, since the order or ruling does not exist.

3) Capacity market!  Capacity market!  ISO-NE (Independent System Operator – New England) has a capacity market, the total size of which is annually almost as large as the realtime energy market. On page 100 of Shorting the Grid, I show an ISO-NE chart which shows that the energy market in 2018 was 6 billion dollars, and the capacity market was 3.6 billion. Yes, we have a capacity market in New England. 

And quite a few chapters in Shorting the Grid are stories of watching ISO-NE try to get plants to live up to their capacity obligations in bad weather.  The Winter Reliability chapter, the Jump Ball chapters, the chapter on “harder than it has to be—planning for winter.”  

A capacity market would not have helped Texas.

4) Winterize the grid.  This was a failure of Texas planning. Sort of.  I mean, if they had spent some money on winterization, people would not have died, the grid would have been in much better shape without multi-day power outages, and so forth.  I think they should have winterized the grid.

However, this is not a situation unique to Texas. Right here in New England, with our own RTO system, we have lots of drama on the grid in winter.  We can look backwards (bridges being raised at rush hour to let oil tankers through) or forward (to many ISO-NE scenarios that include rolling blackouts in the winter of 2025-26. 

In short, everyone should winterize their grids.  But each grid will encounter winter conditions that are extreme compared to the usual winters.  For that, what you need is a robust grid with (for example) some nuclear plants with fuel stored on site, so the problems of winter do not become grid-wide catastrophes.  Just-in-time renewables plus Just-in-Time natural gas is a recipe for the kind of disaster Texas had, and the kind that is embedded in many of ISO-NE’s future scenarios. (As well as California’s oft-repeated summer experiences of rollling blackouts). Texas is not unique

5) Total freedom on the Texas market. Okay, I am not an economist.  I think that one advantage of energy-only markets is that the markets basically pay for what the customers pay for (kWh) without the complex MOPR, CASPR, Pay for Performance rules that capacity markets grow. That said, once you have an RTO system, putting caps on how much customers have to pay (California did that in 2001) or not putting much of a cap on what customers have to pay ($9 per kWh in Texas) leads to the same results.

The RTO leads to high prices and rolling blackouts.

As Professor William Hogan of Harvard, one of the architects of the Texas system, said in a recent interview with the Harvard Crimson, the state’s electricity market had “worked as designed.” 

Others were upset that rolling blackouts still happened when the auction price was below $9 per kWh.  I am not an economist, it is clear to me that market caps or not, RTOs lead to expensive, fragile grids. It’s not about those crazy people in the Lone State.  It’s about the RTO structure.

We defend ourselves

We defend ourselves from the fear that harm can come to us by describing all the ways that we are different from the people (or states) to whom harm has come.  This is very human, but not always very useful.

To protect ourselves from future harm, we would be better off looking at how we are similar to people (or states) to whom harm has come, and trying to understand what brought the harm, whether it was a similarity or a difference with our own way of doing things.

Texas didn’t have blackouts because it was unique.  It had blackouts because its grid was built on the RTO system.  The sooner people understand that fact, the sooner we can do something about the growing fragility of our grids.

Meredith Angwin has invested much of the past ten years developing expertise in grid oversight and governance. For four years, she served on the Coordinating Committee for the Consumer Liaison Group associated with ISO-NE, her local grid operator. She teaches courses and presents workshops on the electric grid.

She is the author of Shorting the Grid: The Hidden Fragility of Our Electric Grid.

Atomic Show #291 – Kalev Kallemets, Fermi Energia

Wed, 02/24/2021 - 11:46

Fermi Energia is an Estonian company whose mission is to provide its home country with an independent, clean, safe and affordable electricity production system by 2035. That system will be anchored by base supply from small modular nuclear reactors.

It is a lofty mission for a small company in a country whose land mass and population is roughly the size of the state of Maine and whose current electricity supply system is dependent on oil oil shale burning power plants with a small, rapidly varying portion of energy from wind turbines.

On the web page where Fermi Energia explains why it believes Estonia needs nuclear, there is a graph of its wind power generation as measured each hour during 2018 and an explanation for the mismatch between this pattern and electricity consumption.

Kalev Kallemets, born and raised in the Estonian countryside during its days as a Soviet satellite, has a keen understanding of his country’s history and its people. He has significant experience as a political leader and broad education in engineering and business.

He joined me for lively, informative and entertaining Atomic Show.

Kallemets has gathered a compact group of like-minded people; there are about a dozen members of the team. They working with numerous partners to create an fertile environment for new nuclear plant development, including a regulatory system and strong public interest and acceptance of nuclear energy.

They are leading with the benefits, but also helping people to understand the responsibilities that come with becoming a country whose power comes from atomic fission.

Fermi Energia is led by people who have a keen understanding of the value of nuclear energy and a realization that there are a wide range of technological capabilities under development. The four currently leading the evaluation process are GE-Hitachi’s BWRX-300, NuScale’s NuScale Power Module, Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR, and a high temperature gas reactor being developed by Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC).

The company knows that no matter which technological choice is made, the key to success will be the planning and development effort that must be invested to create effective projects with the kind of social license needed to support superior cost and schedule performance.

One measure of Fermi Energia’s early success is its recent social media-enabled fund raising round to provide the seed capital needed for the important planning stage. Kalev describes how the early goal for its Funderbeam campaign was doubled to €1 million after they obtained an early indication of interest in their development effort.

When that campaign was officially opened, it was completely subscribed in less than an hour. That indication of real, committed interest led the company to double its goal again before closing the finance round with what it considers to be an adequately strong balance sheet.

The successful financial raise has not changed the company’s frugal spending habits; the founders have a keen sense of corporate responsibility and personal ownership. They know they still have a long way to go before they are producing revenue from the products of the nuclear power systems they are planning to build.

During Atomic Show 291, Kalev talks about the Estonian energy supply situation, its relationships with its Baltic neighbors, the importance of Lithuanian and Poland, the still fresh memory of Soviet occupation, and the vision of a clean, safe, affordable, secure, and reliable power system anchored by modern atomic power stations.

As always, I encourage you to comment, ask questions, and engage in productive discussion. I think you will enjoy hearing Kalev talk about his company’s exciting efforts to produce a bright future for his country.

Preliminary lessons available to be learned from Feb 2021 extended cold spell

Mon, 02/22/2021 - 21:23

A large number of “hot takes” are appearing now that the cold wave that began arriving on Feb 11, 2021 has moved into areas where sub-freezing temperatures in Feb are normal.

If the politically charged nature of the takes could be harnessed, the energy released would be able to keep quite a few homes supplied with power. But, no one has found a way to capture and convert words and hot air into electricity – at least not yet.

That doesn’t stop writers from writing. I plead guilty to the charge of adding to the pile of non-electricity producing words.

It’s a necessary endeavor because so many of the hot takes have been produced by people whose agendas are different from mine.

Though no power source worked perfectly throughout the five day period when the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) declared the grid condition to be at Emergency Energy Alert 3 (EEA 3), some power sources worked better than others.

While almost every generating source in the system has room for improvement, some have limitations that cap their performance no matter how perfectly they live up to their maximum potential.

The storm revealed severe weaknesses in the current grid resource management model that are worth discussing in an informed, responsible way. Lessons learned discussions are just entering into the early stages, but with an open minded, questioning attitude, it’s not too early to produce some recommended short term actions.

Aside: The title of this piece is intended to indicate recognition that performing “lessons learned” analysis and creating action plans is no guarantee of better future performance if responsible people choose not to take recommended actions. End Aside.

Why did the grid get so stressed?

About a week before the cold weather arrived, it was evident to those who pay close attention to electricity grid supply and management issues that the ERCOT service territory was going to experience an extremely challenging period. Wholesale prices were going to increase by many multiples and would challenge the existing cap of $9,000/MWh (300 times the usual price of $30/MWh).

Every generator in the system would be motivated – incentivized by high prices – to produce as much electricity as it could possibly produce and even then, there probably would not be enough power available to serve every customer as much as they wanted or needed to buy.

Despite the very high prices, almost no help would be supplied from outside the ERCOT system. In order to maintain its fiercely protected independence from the Federal Energy Regulator Commission, ERCOT has kept connections to other US grids at a bare minimum. That ensures that its electricity falls outside of the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause used to justify federal regulation. There are some significant cross-border connections into Mexico.

Few commercial or retail customers would know how much their power was costing at the time they decided to use it, so the system would not receive much help customers making informed choices about timing or limiting their use.

Most of those customers would not even receive a sharply higher bill at the end of the month, because their rates would be adjusted over time to repay the costs of a sustained period of high spot market prices.

That is how the system in place is designed to respond to severe weather or other stressed on the power system. ERCOT has chosen an “energy-only” resource management model where competing generators bid their capability into wholesale electricity markets that are settled and priced every 5 minutes. There is no other source of revenue.

Why choose an “energy-only” resource planning model?

An “energy-only” model keeps wholesale prices low during fair weather. Low prices encourage customers to add devices and equipment. On a larger, longer term scale, it encourages businesses and even residents to migrate to take advantage of having low cost electricity available.

But it doesn’t provide sufficient predictable revenue to encourage investment in durable generating sources or long term, guaranteed delivery fuel supply contracts.

Because all energy sources have different cost structures and different bidding strategies, wholesale prices have wide and rapid swings. By design, the system provides massive returns during periods where demand exceeds supply. This characteristic is supposed to provide all of the necessary incentives for generators to be ready at all times to provide their full capability.

But even with almost a week’s notice that an historic weather event was on its way, there were limited actions available for most generators to prepare to maximize their returns from the coming period of scarcity. If they did not already own reserve fuel tanks or winterized generator packages, it was too late to make arrangements for installation.

Some generators might have been able to get a rush liquid fuel shipment to top off any existing tanks – at an ever increasing price – or they might have been able to make careful inspections and fix obvious system weaknesses. If they discovered some missing insulation or a non functioning heat trace system, they might have had enough time to make repairs.

But most would have had to simply hope for the best and do whatever they could to keep producing power.

Most customers were blissfully unaware of the decisions that had created a system where participants depend on scarcity pricing to make a profit in the business of supplying electricity to the ERCOT market. They didn’t know that many of the generators in the market knew they would only be able to produce limited amounts of power, even with sustained prices at or near the cap of 300 times the usual grid price.

They didn’t know that most generators in the market would be richly rewarded even if they were only able to produce 10, 20, or 50% of their expected capacity during the several day-long deep freeze.

Few frozen wind turbines

The 2021 cold weather event began February 11, 2021 with freezing rain, one of the most impactful kinds of winter precipitation. The nation began paying attention to the incoming cold weather as a result of news reports of icing roads in the Dallas-For Worth area that led to a massive, 130 car pile up on I-35.

That wave of the storm did not actually produce massive quantities of ice; the slick road conditions resulted from less than a tenth of an inch of ice on a road where drivers didn’t exercise sufficient speed restraint.

While freezing rain can accumulate on almost any surface exposed to the weather, including aircraft wings and wind turbine blades, there is no available evidence suggesting that a major portion of Texas’s installed base of >30,000 MW of wind turbine generators experienced icing sufficient to have much impact on their generating ability.

There were some reports that claimed iced or frozen turbines were a significant cause of lost wind power generation, but the real culprit was a relatively common, and predicted winter storm weather pattern that included long periods where high pressure covered a huge land mass. When atmospheric pressure is the same over a large area, there is no driving force that creates wind.

Many people that strongly support the continued rapid development of wind and solar power generating systems declared that their favored power sources performed at or above their day-ahead predictions. They wrote lengthy defenses of wind generation and declared that the historical performance of turbines in areas that regularly experience colder weather than what Texas experienced in Feb 2021 proved that there was nothing inherent about wind that made it especially vulnerable to severe weather.

Midwestern utility company MidAmerican Energy Company has shown that wind energy is highly reliable, even in harsh Iowa conditions. In 2020, 80 percent of the utility’s electricity was generated by renewable energy — the majority of which comes from its 3,300 wind turbines, said Geoff Greenwood, a spokesperson for MidAmerican Energy.

“Wind turbines can handle the cold just fine. Just look at Iowa.” Vox Feb 19, 2021

From the wind and solar advocates’ point of view, better-than-expected performance means that wind and solar should bear little or no responsibility for low generation during an electricity supply shortage.

My experience with this (TX) crisis is that it is hard to explain to reporters/public that wind/solar were not *expected* to provide lots of power (hold the system up) and this is not the same as W+S didnt show up which caused the problem. It is nuanced. Its important though. https://t.co/wkYCMTjvJF

— Dr Christopher T M Clack, PhD (@DrChrisClack) February 22, 2021

Even in a supply crunch severe enough to cause an Emergency Energy Alert stage 3 (EEA-3) – the highest available response level – there is nothing that wind and solar generators can do to make their systems supply power. They must wait until the wind starts blowing or the sun comes up. Low sunlight inevitably affects areas spanning more than half of the planet all the time. Wind is more localized, but there are times when entire continents can be still for many hours several days at a time.

Vast majority of wind and solar advocates are observant enough to know these facts. They even take offense when they are introduced into energy discussions. If challenged about the value of continued strong support and mandates for increasing wind and solar penetration, one of their arguments is that using the wind and the sun to supply energy when it is available allows fossil fuel generating sources to burn less fuel.

In a "normal" winter, those "operational resources" would have been enough to supply peak demand, even if there was zero wind and solar. Wind and solar operating at other times reduce emissions and costs and conserve fuels like gas and coal for when we'll need them most. pic.twitter.com/BCvf3fsgax

— Daniel Cohan (@cohan_ds) February 17, 2021

That would be a reasonable response if the only competitor to wind and solar was fossil fuel. It’s even a reasonable response in systems where large hydroelectric dams are part of the generating mix because it allows the water to remain behind the dam, ready to be used when wind and solar generation falls off.

But opportunistically displacing other sources of power can lead to unproductive consequences like eliminating enough revenue from nuclear plants to make them struggle financially. Right now, there are firm plans in place to close five operating nuclear plants in the US during 2021.

Though some industry leaders have vociferously denied that wind and solar power can be blamed for those closure decisions, the financial evidence is clear. Low grid prices and grid congestion fees in regions where there is abundant wind or solar power available create a “missing money” situation that stresses large steady-running generators that serve base load very well.

There is a correlation and a causation between the location of Exelon’s Byron and Dresden power plants in high wind areas and their financial performance. The same holds true for Diablo Canyon, but the culprit in California is a massive quantity of solar power generation that can create negative pricing during the middle of the day.

Large numbers of gas-fired generators could not produce power

One of the design features of the “energy-only” market model in Texas is that it rewards low capital cost equipment that can burn natural gas. For the past 13 years, natural gas has been abundantly available in many parts of the US, especially in Texas.

The Permian Basin, much of which is under Texas soil, is one of the world’s most prolific oil and gas reservoirs, but it isn’t the only major source of gas in the state. There are other shale formations and there are large gas reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico off of the Texas shore.

Natural gas, which is more accurately called methane, burns cleanly enough so that a stream of its combustion byproducts can be directly used to spin turbines in a Brayton cycle. Those machines are simple and cheap compared to the huge Rankine (steam) cycle plants that are needed to burn dirtier fuels like coal or lignite. Brayton cycles work well in combination with simple, relatively small steam plants to produce highly efficient Combined Cycle Gas Turbines (CCGT) power plants.

The “energy-only” market structure has helped gas to push most coal and lignite off of the Texas grid, producing significant air pollution reduction and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Using more natural gas in power production has been beneficial to the Texas economy as well, since most of the gas burned in the state is extracted in the state.

But a known challenge related to natural gas is that it is more difficult to store materials that are vapors (gaseous) than it is to store solids or liquids. Gas can be compressed and it can be liquified by cooling it to extremely low temperatures, but both of those processes add costs and consume power.

Without any source of revenues for power generations other than selling electricity, there are no reasons why any generator would spend money to store fuel on site to use in the rare case where there are interruptions in the fuel supply.

Even in fair weather, only a portion of the methane that is extracted gets burned to produce electricity. Some of it gets used as a raw material for petrochemicals and plastics. Another portion gets used in cooking – both residential and commercial – while another is used in industrial process heat and to heat water in both homes and large buildings.

During cold weather events, heating buildings quickly grows and can become larger than all of the other uses combined. But natural gas production rarely increases when the weather gets cold. During the event that lasted from Feb 11-Feb 18 2021, daily gas extraction fell by nearly 20% due to various issues in the system.

The predictable, though not often publicly predicted, effect of a high dependence on natural gas to supply its usual amounts of electricity, to expand its production to make up for low wind and solar production, and to supply building heating systems is a system where some needs are not met.

Under the low cost, just-in-time, fuel supply model that is an inherent result of an “energy-only” market scheme, there is simply not enough fuel in the system to supply all demands all of the time. When the fuel that supplies the majority of the power generators in a system is stressed, all generators that burn that fuel can be affected.

In the lingo I learned as an operating power plant engineer and as a participant in a power plant design project, insufficient gas during a cold weather event is a predictable “common cause failure” for an electricity supply system.

As designed, the market uses pricing signals to balance demands with supply. But those price signals have to be dramatic to change behavior because both supply and demand have a large amount of inertia and cannot be easily changed.

When price signals aren’t sufficient to change behavior fast enough, the only option the grid operator has left is to balance demand with available supply by turning off the power to some customers.

What about the nuclear plants?

At 0537 on Monday, February 15 South Texas Project unit 1 tripped off line. (That link includes far more details about the event than can be fit into this post.) Other than that single event, all 93 of the 96 nuclear plants in the US that were operating before the cold weather event began continued producing as much power as they were asked to produce.

The only nuclear power station that did not produce as much power throughout the event as it possibly could have produced was Arkansas Nuclear One. For part of the week, the regional transmission operator asked the plant operators to supply less than their plant’s design power in order to keep the system in balance.

Here is a quote from an Entergy Arkansas spokesman explaining that period of less than 100% power.

Arkansas Nuclear One’s dual units continue to operate safely and securely throughout the weather event, with essential functions staffed by Entergy’s team members. Both units currently are operating at reduced power at the request of the independent grid operator.

The Midcontinent Independent System Operator is an not-for-profit organization that works to ensure reliable power supplies in part of Canada and 15 U.S. states, including Entergy’s service territory in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and portions of Texas.

In doing so, MISO often asks generation facilities to change power levels during times of potential grid instability. Entergy’s regional generation facilities are coordinating closely with the grid operator, and power levels at our plants may continue to rise or fall as the dispatcher works to keep transmission functions stable.

Direct message from Entergy Arkansas (@EnteryArk)

Approximately 60 hours later, STP 1 returned to service and increased its output to its maximum capacity. That lengthy shut down exposes one of the reasons why there have been few new nuclear plants built in the US during the past 30 years.

The large, light water nuclear power plants that were selected to be built commercially in the 1960s-1990s work best if run steadily. If they are taken off line for any reason, power restoration can take many hours to several days. While it might be possible to improve that situation for existing reactors, it is best done via a meticulous, methodical, time consuming path.

Under our current construct as refined by many decades of continuous operational improvements, nuclear plant shutdowns and start ups are rare events. They happen less than once per year at each unit.

If the population size for nuclear reactors is restricted to the four units physically located in Texas, the operational score for nuclear during the 5 days of rotating outages turns out to be about 86%, which should be a solid B in most grading systems. (That is calculated on power produced compared to the power that could have been produced if all four units operated perfectly throughout the event.)

But given the widespread nature of cold fronts and the impacts of stresses in the nationwide natural gas delivery system, it might be fair to include the performance of a larger population of nuclear plants. 92 out of 96 operating at or near 100% produces an A in almost every known grading system.

On the scale of producing as much power as expected by grid planners, nuclear did about as well as it was expected to do. It’s not a perfect power source; there are numerous ways for systems to fail to produce at 100% of rated output 100% of the time. But nuclear met or exceeded some pretty high expectations.

It is important for systems planners or people who influence system planning actions to recognize that nuclear plants offer several important features. Among its strengths is its independence from the common cause failures of fuel supply constraints and direct dependence on wind and sun availability.

It is also a clean power source, with life cycle CO2 emissions that rival onshore wind and beat both offshore wind and most solar systems. It produces virtually zero air or water pollution. It’s ‘waste’ heat could become a valuable resource if systems were properly designed to use it beneficially.

Were lessons available from the Texas cold weather event of 2011 (Super Freeze) actually learned?

It’s not accurate for people to claim that the freeze of 2021 was a complete surprise or had no precedent in history. Galveston Bay has frozen solid several times in the past 50 years. In 2011, there was a cold weather event that brought temperatures just as cold and just as widespread as those experienced this year, though that event was shorter.

Many of the recommendations from 2011 post event reports were not implemented. The state persisted in pursuing its fierce grid independence. A substantial increase in wind power generation was accompanied by a growing boom in solar energy and major new transmission lines to move their power. Natural gas dependence has increased by double digit portions.

As much as it pains me to admit this, if the nuclear plant construction plans that were announced in 2007-2009 had been pursued, they would not have helped avoid the issues that appeared.

It’s difficult to prove a counterfactual historical point, but it’s easy to point to the only US nuclear project that survived from that brief period of excitement about new nuclear power plant construction. Vogtle units 3 & 4 will not enter service until sometime in the next two years. They were the leader projects from the Nuclear Renaissance and they are still not complete.

The next time we revive the nuclear plant construction industry, we must do a better job. We must achieve better cost and schedule performance and we must make design choices that recognize the importance of flexibility and responsiveness. That might include implementing some of the speedy recovery capabilities that have long been a part of military nuclear power plant design and operations.

If society determines that it is unacceptable to have a power grid that cuts off customers for many hours at a time during a period when being without power can be deadly, it must accept the fact that markets cannot be the decision makers.

Cheapness on a short duration scale – like 5-minute settlement markets – cannot be the sole criteria for selecting power sources.

South Texas Project Unit 1 tripped at 0537 on Feb 15, 2021

Tue, 02/16/2021 - 02:48

A series of winter storms and a blast of Arctic air has put most of the United States into a short term energy supply challenge.

Texas has been the epicenter of the winter event. Its electric power grid has been under an Emergency Energy Alert Stage 3 since the early morning hours of February 15. At that stage, reserve margins are so tight that the grid operator has issued orders to transmission companies to reduce loads on the system.

The transmission companies have few remaining tools available to keep the grid in balance and prevent widespread collapse. They have reached the response stage where they need to implement rotating outages. In some cases, the margin between reserve generating capacity and demand has been so tight that the rotating outages have been substantially longer than the typical planned duration of 15-45 minutes.

There are numerous contributing factors, including fuel-related outages at natural gas fired power stations, a lack of wind as the cold air settles in, freezing at some wind turbine generators, and challenges at coal plants.

Approximately 35 GWe of installed thermal generating capacity was not producing electricity for a significant portion of the day on Feb 15. As of this moment, 8:15 PM central time, there is no solar electricity being provided in Texas and its 30 GWe of installed wind turbines is generating just 800 MWe.

Note: The link to Ercot’s wind generation graph leads to a dynamically updated page, so the image here is for a specific moment in time.

In addition to those other electricity supply system issues, at 0537 central time, there was an unscheduled trip at South Texas Project Unit 1. That nuclear generating plant usually produces 1350 MW of electricity.

Vicki Rowland, the lead for Internal Communications at the STP Nuclear Operating Company provided the following narrative about the unit’s operating status.

On Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, at 0537, an automatic reactor trip occurred at South Texas Project in Unit 1. The trip resulted from a loss of feedwater attributed to a cold weather-related failure of a pressure sensing lines to the feedwater pumps, causing a false signal, which in turn, caused the feedwater pump to trip. This event occurred in the secondary side of the plant (non-nuclear part of the unit). The reactor trip was a result of the feedwater pump trips. The primary side of the plant (nuclear side) is safe and secured.  

STP values safety over production, so our first priority is the safety of our teammates, especially regarding the freezing weather and road conditions. 

Secondarily our priority is the operating unit. Unit 2 is operating at 100 percent power. We evaluated Unit 2 and have confirmed that we do not have the same issues that caused the feedwater pump trips in Unit 1. 

STP crew members are safely working to promptly return Unit 1 to the grid. We are validating the issues that caused the feedwater pumps to trip and will take the necessary actions to prevent reoccurrence.

STP has operated very reliably with only two reactor trips in the past several years. On May 1, 2016, the South Texas Project Unit 1 automatic reactor trip due to a main generator lock. Prior to that on Jan. 8, 2013, Unit 2 experienced an automatic reactor trip from full power caused by a main transformer fire.

If you have any questions, please contact me directly.

I respect nuclear plant operators and believe in the importance of the industry’s safety culture.

But, I hope that this event becomes a topic of discussion about the balance between operating – or not operating – nuclear plants with the utmost caution and the occasional need to recognize the life-sustaining nature of reliable electricity.

The submarine force has protocols in place that recognize the need to balance safety of the nuclear propulsion plant with the safety of the ship that it propels. During my tour as Engineer Officer I ensured that my crew knew that a perfectly safe reactor at the bottom of the ocean in a sunk ship is not perfectly safe.

Though the Texas grid is not going to sink into the ocean, there is a point at which an over abundance of caution can turn into a harmful course of action.

Atomic Show #290 – Myrto Tripathi, Voices of Nuclear

Tue, 02/09/2021 - 18:13

Nuclear energy professionals are credible sources of information about a powerful technology that can help address climate change and contribute to humanity’s development.

Voices of Nuclear is an international non-profit group that seeks to empower nuclear supporters, both professionals in the industry and allies outside of the industry, with tools, organization and effective messages.

Myrto Tripathi, the founder and chair of Voices of Nuclear, visited the Atomic Show to tell us more about her group and its efforts to tell the nuclear energy story.

She describes the current situation in Europe, where there are a handful of new reactors under construction, there are numerous reactors being closed and there is a solid front of opposition from several prominent EU member states – particularly Austria and Germany.

She explains how the European reaction to the Fukushima event – now almost ten years ago – helped to convince her to leave a successful career in the nuclear industry to play a bigger part in the civil society discussion about its role, especially in light of the growing threat of climate change.

She talks about the role of young people, primarily under the age of 35, in bringing their vibrant, optimistic energy to the Voices and she discusses the challenges that her group faces in obtaining necessary and useful financial support from the established industry.

She also mentioned the importance of retired people in sharing their stories about pride in their life’s work in developing and operating clean nuclear generation facilities.

We spoke at length about the successful, well-funded and carefully planned efforts by nuclear energy opponents to spread misinformation and fake news about nuclear and how those efforts have helped to silence nuclear energy supporters.

We spoke about the disappointing state of public misunderstanding as illustrated by a recent poll taken in France in which 86% of the respondents between 18-34 years old said they believed that nuclear energy contributed to the problem of climate change.

With their diligent efforts over a number of decades, nuclear opponents effectively created a “taboo” around nuclear. They made it politically and economically costly for ambitious leaders in both government and in commercial enterprises outside of nuclear to publicly take a supportive position.

One reason I invited Myrto to be a guest on the Atomic Show was that I sense there are many in the US who believe that the nuclear grass is greener on the other side of the Atlantic. At the moment, the situation in Europe is tenuous and could use a strong public engagement effort.

Voices of Nuclear is working hard to be a positive part of that effort. They have a base of talented volunteers, but they could use all the additional support anyone wants to offer. It would be especially useful, if your time is more constrained than your resources, to support their efforts financially.

Myrto did not ask me to say that and might even be a little mad at me for making the statement, but changing people’s minds isn’t easy or cheap.

Please join in the conversation.

Change is in the wind: Commencing a new phase as a Venture Capitalist

Wed, 02/03/2021 - 08:01

Atomic energy is a tool that is capable of helping address some of humanity’s most wicked challenges. Clean, abundant, reliable and affordable power makes everything we do a little easier and is becoming increasing urgent in the era of climate change.

Unfortunately, atomic energy is a long way from reaching its potential or even achieving the impact envisioned by its pioneers.

We’ve had numerous discussions here about reasons for the slow progress. (See, for example, here, here and here.) I have long believed that the next generation of nuclear reactor designs can address many of the existing concerns about nuclear energy. Therefore, some of the longstanding obstacles to greater deployment can be overcome through the successful commercialization of next-gen designs.  In particular, I have blogged about the need to increase investment in the development of this next generation of nuclear technologies.

In early 2018, I was contacted by a reader to discuss ways to increase funding to advanced nuclear in response to a request I posted for anyone thinking about this to be in touch. In the course of several long conversations, I  learned that this reader, Valerie Gardner, a former hightech entrepreneur who had co-founded an investment firm back in 2002, was interested in developing a fund to invest in advanced nuclear and asked for my help. In keeping with my career-long strategy of finding ways to help others work more successfully – often motivated by my own desire to stay abreast of the latest trends – I agreed to assist.


Fast forward through almost three years and numerous stages of development, I am pleased to announce that I am joining forces with Valerie Gardner to become a managing partner at Nucleation Capital. Nucleation Capital will be investing in innovative companies enabling what we call the “carbon-managed economy” of the 21st century, with primary focus on advanced nuclear energy, advanced smart grids and deep decarbonization ventures.

By blending my expertise with hers and that of a few other extremely capable people, we expect to identify, fund and help great teams overcome barriers that limit their ability to bring clean energy products and services to market, foremost of which is access to capital.

Throughout our development process, we were advised by attorneys not to talk publicly about the fact that we were developing a fund due to certain SEC restrictions. Over the last two quarters, however, we have made some changes which shift our operating paradigm and we now can discuss the fund publicly, which is a welcome change, especially for me.  I look forward to sharing more about this fund and why and how that change happened: hint, it has to do with new technology. For the moment, I am leaving that for another post and/or podcast.

My purpose today is to alert you that there are some changes in the works both for me and Atomic Insights. I have invited Valerie to also join me in publishing related blog posts here. She has a wealth of experience in technology development, startups, financial management, investment and environmentalism. Some of you might already know her; she has been actively participating in climate, energy and investment-related groups and discussions for years. We are also moving forward with a long-delayed upgrade to the Atomic Insights website, with the goals of improving your ability to find and stay on top the material that is of interest to you.

You can be assured that we will keep writing about nuclear energy but we will also be looking at the kinds of newly commercializing “climate services” that nuclear will be ideally suited to power, including desalination, hydrogen production, and various types of carbon capture, utilization and sequestion (CCUS) activity. Of course, I will also be writing more about Nucleation Capital, the process of venture investing, the ways that venture capital differs from other components of the capital stack that support the deployment of clean energy, and our experience working to fulfill our vision to help “nucleate the carbon-managed economy.”

For those impatient to learn more about Nucleation Capital, please visit the website. One of the key ways that our fund differs from most other venture funds, is that we will be able to accept investments from accredited individuals at a fairly low level of capital commitment (i.e. in the tens of thousands, rather than in hundreds of thousands or millions). If you want to learn more about the fund as a potential investor, please use the link at the bottom of the Fund page on the Nucleation website.

I will be busier now but I promise to keep sharing my new experiences and what I learn through this process to continue to build on the base of accumulated knowledge which has been shared widely by readers.  As usual, I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

Atomic Show #289 – All Reactors Large and Small

Fri, 01/29/2021 - 12:43

Pro-nuclear advocates generally agree that there is a large and growing need for new nuclear power plants to meet energy demands with less impact on the planet and its atmosphere.

There is frequent, sometimes passionate discussion about the most appropriate reactor sizes, technologies and specific uses.

Atomic Show #289 is a lively discussion among some of the world’s most focused experts on the topic of nuclear plant costs and the relationship of costs to sizes and deployment concepts.

Guests include:

We reached several conclusions.

  • Nuclear can be expensive but it doesn’t have to be expensive
  • Series building programs can successfully reduce construction and manufacturing costs
  • Series building programs that keep crews together on the same site for unit runs of 4, 8 or even more units have an established history of success.
  • Factory manufacturing is an intriguing prospect that might best be applied to nuclear plants by using shipyards for production and delivery.
  • Seismic isolation techniques can enable systems to be more location agnostic and limit the amount of redesign required for new locations.
  • There is room for innovation and new ideas in nuclear.
  • Smaller nuclear systems can make the technology more accessible and more widely acceptable.
  • Long held beliefs about nuclear in terms of risks, public acceptance, and needs for isolation and security deserve to be challenged.
  • Some believe that the more experience you have with nuclear, the better you will appreciate its benefits and capabilities.

Your comments and reactions are welcome and add value to this publication.

Atomic Show #288 – Per Peterson, CNO, Kairos Power

Mon, 01/25/2021 - 12:30
Per Peterson in R-Lab with ETUDE, the scaled water test version of the Engineering Test Unit now in construction in Albuquerque
Image provided by Kairos Power

Kairos Power Is developing a truly new nuclear fission power technology. Their KP-FHR (Kairos Power – Fluoride Salt Cooled, High Temperature Reactor) combines the solid fuel form usually associated with gas-cooled reactors with the fluoride molten salt often associated with fluid-fuel reactors.

For Atomic Show #288, my guest was Dr. Per Peterson, Kairos Power’s chief nuclear officer (CNO). Per explained the technical logic leading his company to make its ground-breaking choices.

Before describing process of making technical choices, Per provided a brief summary of the KP-FHR technological development history. The FHR originated in a conversation with MIT’s Dr. Charles Forsberg and later became the subject of an integrated research program between MIT, University of Wisconsin, and Dr. Peterson’s academic home at University of California’s Berkeley campus.

As Per was careful to point out, the program was primarily funded with Department of Energy (DOE) academic research grants and involved a number of both graduate and undergraduate research students from each of the participating institutions.

This type of project grant program is aimed at giving students practical design experience and providing purpose for experiments, equipment design and testing. Sometimes, as in the case of the FHR, members of the research team recognize that they have a product that can be commercialized because it has characteristics that are superior to similar products in the market.

Three members of the FHR integrated research project team, Per Peterson, Ed Blandford, and Mike Laufer founded Kairos Power in 2016 as a venture-funded Silicon Valley company to refine their ideas and commercialize the technology they had helped to develop within the academic setting.

In 2018, I talked with Ed Blandford and Per about Kairos Power, this show is part of my promise to provide updates on an intermittent basis.

Brief description of the KP-FHR

The nuclear fission heart of the KP-FHR is a pebble-bed reactor with 4 cm diameter fuel elements that each contain thousands of TRISO fuel particles in a graphite matrix. Fission heat generated in the reactor is moved by a pumped flow of fluoride salts through a heat exchanger that transfers the fission heat into nitrate salts similar to those used in concentrated solar thermal power systems.

The nitrate salt is pumped through a second heat exchanger (steam generator) that functions as a water boiler to produce steam with temperature of 585 ℃ and pressure of 19 MPa. As Per explained, that combination of temperature and pressure is equal to the most modern coal fired steam plants.

In fluoride salt the fuel elements have a slight positive buoyancy. To provide long operating periods without a large amount of excess reactivity at the beginning of core life, the KP-FHR includes an online fueling system that removes pebbles at the top of the core and replaces them with fresh or slightly used pebbles at the bottom.

The pebbles move slowly and have very low frictional contact with each other in the bath of molten salt. The reactor operating temperature is approximately 1000 ℃ lower than the temperature at which the TRISO fuel particles would begin releasing even small quantities of fission products, giving the reactor a broad thermal margin. As Per described it, the pebbles are so relaxed that they are almost meditating during their residence time in the molten salt.

What happened to the gas turbine concept?

Some listeners might remember that Kairos Power initially planned to use a Brayton cycle heat conversion system with the potential for using natural gas co-firing to produce peak power. Like many academic ideas, the system that looked good on paper or on computer screens turned out to be more complex and difficult to develop than expected. The current design is the result of numerous studies done with both technical and market parameters included.

Per provides a more complete version of the story and also shares the excitement that comes from working with a large, growing team of talented and motivated technologists.

What is Kairos Power’s near term plan

One of the more exciting developments that Per shared was the fact that Kairos has been selected as a recipient for a grant under the DOE’s Advanced Demonstration Reactor Program (ADRP). Kairos will be filing a construction permit application in approximately one year to build a reduced scale version of its KP-FHR that it calls the Hermes project.

The project will be constructed on a site at the East Tennessee Technology Park near the Oak Ridge national laboratory.

DOE has promised to provide a little more than $300 million over a five year period (subject to future appropriations); Kairos will provide at least a 1:1 match of that DOE money for a project total of a about $600 million.

As might be expected, Kairos hiring and will continue to expand as it moves past laboratory scale and into a nuclear construction project.

I hope you enjoy the show. As always, comments are welcome. The conversations here often stimulate new ideas and thinking.