Ep 164: Marc Nichol - Director, New Reactor Deployment, Nuclear Energy Institute
1 - 00:50 - Introduction to Used Fuel Management
Naomi Senehi: Where did you grow up and how did you get into the nuclear space?
Marc Nichol: Marc Nichol was born in Michigan and moved around while growing up, landing in Reston, Virginia outside of D.C. for a majority of his adolescence. Nichol pursued his undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering at Purdue University and his graduate degree, also in nuclear engineering, at University of California at Berkeley. Later, Nichol received his MBA at UNC. As part of a high school science project, Nichol studied propulsion, which led him to discover nuclear propulsion. Purdue has a research reactor on-campus, which allows students to use the facility and learn about the physics of nuclear reactions. One project Nichol completed as an undergraduate looked at challenges with storing used fuel in pools for Exelon. This led Nichol to a co-op with TRW, the contractor to the Department of Energy for the Yucca Mountain project. Initially, Nichol was drawn toward fusion, but transitioned his focus to fission machines due to their prevalence in the industry and near term opportunities. Fusion does not generate as much radioactive material and has some safety benefits, but obtaining the net energy out of fusion is not quite developed yet. Nichol’s master’s thesis project was optimizing the storage of used fuels within the pools at a Duke Energy facility. After completing his master’s program, Nichol began his career at Duke Energy in used fuel management, responsible for managing storage in the pools and transferring spent fuel into dry storage. Dry storage is a large, air-cooled metal container backfilled with helium that can hold 24 assemblies.
2 - 10:04 - Current Status and Potential of Yucca Mountain
Naomi Senehi: Is nuclear waste something that we should be worried about?
Marc Nichol: Marc Nichol believes the final, long-term solution for nuclear waste still needs improvement. U.S. law stipulates that nuclear waste goes to the Yucca Mountain facility and the industry funds the disposal of used fuel through an operations tax. The Government is responsible for this disposal by contract. Nichol is supportive of the Yucca Mountain site and sees it as both a viable and a safe facility, even though there are some non-supporters on the political front. In the 1987, the U.S. Government designated Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, as the site for the repository, where used fuel is placed permanently. A large tunnel was mined into the mountain, with multiple alcoves for testing in different geology. Sometime during Obama’s administration, the Government stopped funding the project. Yucca Mountain is far along in development and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had reviewed a lot of the safety bases for the site, however there is still work to be done to make a final license determination on the site. No nuclear waste has been transferred to the site at this time. Industry is looking at sites in New Mexico and Texas to create other options to centralize the spent fuel and take it away from reactor sites, where it is currently being stored. The utilities sued the U.S. Government for breach of contract and is required to pay out the utilities for the cost of dry storage on-site.
3 - 22:22 - Cost Comparison and Market Analysis of Advanced Reactors
Naomi Senehi: Where did you go after Duke Energy?
Marc Nichol: After his time at Duke Energy, Marc Nichol pursued his MBA at the University of North Carolina. From there, Nichol joined Toshiba, who was currently working on the South Texas project new power plant Units 3 and 4. This was about the time of the nuclear renaissance, but due to the low prices of natural gas, the nuclear industry began to unfold. Nichol transitioned to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) addressing generic used fuel issues, later moving into quality control and small modular reactors (SMR’s), units that are less than 300 MW. The regulations the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) put in place were developed for large, 1,000 MW reactors and are often very prescriptive on systems and components. As the plant is scaled down, some of those features are not needed and the requirements may not be applicable. The NRC requires off-site power, but SMR’s are able to infinitely maintain a cool core even without power, eliminating the need for off-site power. Some companies are developing microreactors, usually less than 10 MW, to service remote areas that may not have the load to sustain SMR’s. The NEI published a report analyzing the cost and economic viability of microreactors. Microreactors do reflect an economy of scale, bringing more expensive power than SMR’s, but do compete with diesel generators which typically service the same areas microreactors are targeting and brings energy security. Microreactors also have the ability to operate 24/7/365 with enough fuel for ten years, eliminating the need for frequent refueling.
4 - 31:58 - Economic Benefits of Microreactor Deployment in Alaska
Naomi Senehi: Did you look at how much the cost of diesel varies compared the availability and cost of nuclear fuel for microreactors?
Marc Nichol: Nuclear fuel is relatively cheap and fairly stable over many years, however, diesel fuel cost is very volatile. Oil prices typically spike quickly in a matter of a year or two and there is not much time to react. Marc Nichol recently visited the University of Alaska at Anchorage and held a workshop to discuss nuclear reactors with interested stakeholders. Communities, electric utilities, mining companies, and defense installations were among those in attendance. There is tremendous interest for microreactors in Alaska because the cost to the consumer may be almost $1/kW. Alaska does have a subsidization program for remote locations, which could bring down the cost to customer to $0.60/kW. This puts more money in the pockets of individuals of the community and reduce the subsidization program across the board, lowering taxes for other residents. Mining companies typically pay a lot for their electricity; microreactors would allow mines to operate longer, since lower grade ore becomes more profitable. Alaska currently does not have much value-add processes in the state, which could be driven by the cost of energy. If the cost of energy went down, these industries could thrive and bring income to the state. Alaska’s national defense program could also benefit from microreactors, which allow separation from the grid and a highly reliable, robust power source.
5 - 39:28 - Creating Energy Policy for Advanced Reactors
Naomi Senehi: What’s the status of putting microreactors in remote locations?
Marc Nichol: Marc Nichol attended a Senate hearing on microreactors during a visit to Alaska. Microreactors would bring economic benefits to the state on many levels and some Senators are very supportive of that pursuit. The technology is rapidly maturing, with 15 designs currently in development. Translating years of technical knowledge into commercial designs is the focus of these companies. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) also needs to have a regulatory pathway for microreactors and is capable of issuing licenses, but the process needs improvement. All this progress in design and regulation development is happening in parallel. Policies need to be in place to encourage the deployment of microreactors. One bill in the Senate now, called the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, have provisions that could help microreactors and other advanced reactors, such as power purchase agreement authorities. This would allow, for example, the Department of Defense could enter into a longer term agreement for microreactors; this is important because the assets have a large capital cost and operate for a long time. Other provisions could help with providing low enriched uranium up to 20% Uranium-235; the commercial industry currently enriches up to 5%. The commercial supply isn’t going to materialize until there is demand from new reactors, but the reactors can’t be built if there is not the supply of fuel.
6 - 45:01 - Momentum of Microreactors and Nuclear Energy
Naomi Senehi: What do you see for the future of microreactors and nuclear energy?
Marc Nichol: Marc Nichol anticipates an increase of interest and activity around microreactors. A demonstration reactor could be possible around 2023. This development is especially quick for the nuclear industry. Commercial microreactors could be online in 2027, with licensing and construction activities lining up to support the deployment. There is a huge momentum for nuclear energy in general, including support of existing nuclear plants that have been troubled by the market and also, advanced reactors. Nichol’s expects slow but steady progress in the next ten years, when the public will realize how nuclear is changing the world.
7 - 48:49 - Considerations for Used Fuel from Advanced Reactors
Naomi Senehi: What does used fuel look like for microreactors and SMR’s?
Marc Nichol: Since microreactors are able to operate for 10-20 years on a single fuel loading, there will be smaller amounts of used fuel per MW generated. There are microreactor and small modular reactor (SMR) designs in progress that could reduce the amount of used fuel in our inventory today, by burning the used fuel or use it as the source of fuel. Used fuel still contains about 95% of its energy available, which is not sufficient for large reactors, but could be used in some advanced reactor designs. This will not be a feature in the first deployments, but is in consideration for future designs. The economics of using used fuel does not support its use right now, but if the cost of uranium goes up, there could be an economic case to recycle. One of the concepts for the Yucca Mountain site is to monitor the used fuel for 100 years and have the ability to retrieve that fuel if needed for a safety issue, performance maintenance, or policy reasons surrounding recycling fuel. Microreactors can produce heat in addition to electricity, which becomes beneficial in mining and industrial applications. Some communities where these microreactors might be deployed, such as in the Arctic, use more heat energy than electric energy. The ability to produce both heat and electricity benefits the community as a whole and takes diesel out of the picture, with the exception of the transportation sector. Transportation with hydrogen fuels, which can produced at nuclear reactors, is currently in development.