Ep 12: Jeff Harper - Vice President of Strategy, X-Energy
2:01 - Transition from Oil & Gas to Nuclear
Bret Kugelmass: How did you get involved in the nuclear field?
Jeff Harper: Jeff Harper started as an oil and gas engineer with British Petroleum in Cleveland, Ohio. Harper attended a job fair for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and took a job in the vendor inspection branch as an inspector. This group went out to look at companies like Westinghouse and Babcock & Wilcox to ensure that they complied with their quality programs and supplied the nuclear plants with quality components and services. The NRC has resident inspectors that have offices at the nuclear facilities and are into the day-to-day operations of the nuclear plants. Other inspectors worked out of the headquarters to look at the programmatic side and complete site inspections throughout the supply chain. The U.S. nuclear industry has a superb record for safety and the NRC has been considered all over the world as the gold standard for regulating nuclear activities. The NRC has been classically focused on public safety and health, without much concern to cost and schedule. The agency represents the public’s interest and is both technically and politically oriented. There is a new wave of commercial deployment innovation within nuclear, however, the uncertainty of whether you can or when you will get a license impacts the financing.
8:28 - Global Pebble Bed Technology Development
Bret Kugelmass: How did you move from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the private sector?
Jeff Harper: Jeff Harper joined Westinghouse to work with their AP-1000 as a licensing manager in South Africa. Westinghouse was bidding for 9600 MW of Nuclear One against Areva, but the South African government eventually cancelled the procurement due to lack of funding. Harper got deployed into the strategy group inside Westinghouse where he was put in charge of the advanced reactor program. At this same time, Westinghouse was working with the South Africans on the pebble bed reactor. South Africa took the German design and improved upon it in partnership with Westinghouse. This group went forward to develop the pebble bed modular reactor from the improvements the South Africans made to the German technology. The Department of Energy (DOE) has a cooperative agreement program, a public private partnership to help develop the design; X-energy has a similar cooperative agreement now. Because the South African government abandoned the project, the project caved and Harper stayed in South Africa for five years working in the manufacturing business in the oil & gas industry. For Westinghouse, the AP-1000 is bread and butter and they have been on the forefront of engineering and innovation. The pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) was South Africa’s answer to looking into the future in terms of innovation.
14:49 - Pebble Bed Reactors
Bret Kugelmass: Is the funding for large nuclear plants a problem with historical plant designs?
Jeff Harper: The traditional thinking in nuclear is economy of scale, so the bigger you build, the cheaper it is from a MW/hr standpoint. On the small modular reactor (SMR) side, the industry is looking at economies of volume. The more SMR’s that can be deployed, the cost will come down in terms of component and pressure vessel cost. There is also less concrete and steel and less construction time, which reduces the overall cost of deployment and the operation costs of the facility. Jeff Harper and X-energy are trying to eliminate pumps and valves that aren’t necessarily needed because their design is meltdown-proof. The reactor consists of 220,000 pebbles the size of a billiard ball. Each one goes through the reactor six times in order to get the maximum amount of heat and efficiency. The pebbles have triso fuel which is surrounded by several layers of carbon graphite and silicon carbide; the silicon carbide acts as a pressure vessel within each pebble, so the reactor doesn’t need a containment building. The fission takes place at the triso particle; there are about 18,000 particles within each pebble. The fuel temperatures are never beyond 1100 degrees centigrade. If there was a loss of power and the coolant was shut off, the pebbles would just cool off through natural forces, conduction and convection.
24:12 - Challenges of Licensing Pebble Bed Reactors
Bret Kugelmass: What are the challenges to getting regulatory approval for commercialization of pebble bed reactors?
Jeff Harper: Pebble bed reactors have never been licensed in the U.S., but instead has been light water centric. Because it is meltdown-proof, there are no secondary safety systems, which reduces the complexity of the design. With these changes, the technology must be proved to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), but Germany did have pebble bed reactors in the 1960’s. There are some people in the NRC that were trained under some of the original German technology, such as X-energy’s Chief Nuclear Officer, who spent formative years working on the THTR and the AVR German reactors. X-energy has tried to take the best people in the world that were available from the South Africa experience who looked at taking the German technology forward. Dr. Kam Ghaffarian came to the U.S. from Iran, starting with SGT, and engineering services company that became the second largest NASA contractor. Kam has a keen approach for innovation and as he became successful with SGT, began looking at how he can give back to the U.S., leading him to the nuclear side. Advanced reactors have applications that are different than traditional nuclear reactors, such as process heat for water purification and desalination. During Jeff Harper’s time in South African in manufacturing, Harper first learned about Day Zero in Cape Town, which was the day Cape Town would run out of water, currently projected for July 2018 due to a doubling in population and extreme drought.
33:32 - Nuclear Energy’s Impact on Water Purification
Bret Kugelmass: How do you manage the high energy consumption of water purification?
Jeff Harper: X-energy’s reactor design has the ability of co-generation, producing electricity and process heat, due to the operating temperatures. The reactor can produce electricity and provide waste heat from the process to drive the water desalination. The reactor could also be set up to use the steam directly for water processing. Traditional reactors are very large, but X-energy’s reactor only takes up 13 acres of land, allowing them to deploy the technology in areas where it would be very advantageous to do water desal and produce electricity. The plant is physically smaller, approximately 200 MW compared to traditional 1,000 MW plants. These 200 MW plants can also be teamed together in a module to increase capability. Due to inherent safety features, the plant does not need a huge exclusion zone and the emergency planning zone is at the fence of the facility since it doesn’t have source term release. Source term release is the probability of the release of radioactive material.
38:04 - X-energy’s Collaboration with the DOE
Bret Kugelmass: How did X-energy win a $40 million grant?
Jeff Harper: About two years ago, X-energy was successful at a Financial Opportunity Announcement (FOA). This private-public partnership was for a total of $53 million total, with the Department of Energy (DOE) providing $40 million and X-energy providing $13 million. Under this cooperative agreement, the mission was to deploy manufacturing capabilities in the United States for this pebble. X-energy has the reactor design activities, but is also producing the triso fuel for the industry, which will come in different fuel forms. If X-energy didn’t pursue this, China would be the only other source of triso fuel. The fuel business is a near-term company that can be launched within 3-5 years, as opposed to the reactor side, which will take more than five years to deploy. X-energy looks at deployment in three different baskets: technology, licensing, and economics. All three things have to work together to move the company forward. Companies must continue to work with the U.S. government in early days of development and bring in strategic partners that also share the vision and will help finance the project. It is also very important to have a customer in order to get investors. On the licensing side, X-energy must look towards the industry to help with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in regulatory reform. X-energy is preparing themselves to produce a high quality application. It is important to engage with the NRC as early and often as possible. X-energy’s goal is bringing a product to market that is as simple as possible and has a supply chain to market by 2030. Nuclear is complicated, but it’s not all engineering. Nuclear companies need commercial people, financial people, and government relations people. X-energy is confident that their product will make a difference in the world.