Ep. 289, GAIN-NRIC Miniseries: Nicholas Smith
From the Football Field to Electrical Engineering (1:54-17:05)
How Nick Smith’s early professional career on the football field led him to the energy industry in an unconventional way
Q: Tell me about yourself and how you got started in the nuclear industry.
A: Nick Smith started out as an economics major at San Diego State where he played college football. He ended up getting signed as a free agent to the New York Jets. During the first drill on the first day of Rookie Mini Camp, Nick pulled his hamstring. The injury led to his release from the team and Nick had hopes to play arena football to get back into the game. The Jets called him back for an opportunity to try for a linebacker position. After a grueling tryout in the New York summer, Nick got the position and played in games against the Falcons, Giants, and Vikings. He eventually got cut from the team and in 2008, Nick sustained another injury playing arena football, leading him to seek out other work. He started out working as a bouncer at a night club, but decided that wasn’t sustainable and returned to school to study electrical engineering at the University of Alabama - Birmingham. Nick has always been interested in technology, science, and physics and recognized that he wouldn’t get a deeper understanding of the field without an engineering or math/science degree. During his second undergraduate study, Nick got picked up as an intern at Southern Company, leading him to hire on full-time as a specialist in the company’s research and development group. This led Nick to get involved in the Power Quality group which focuses on maintaining voltage stability and grid reliability. Southern Company services many large industrial facilities that require this level of customer service. It was in this role that Nick became interested in how society can meet carbon goals with renewables, which everyone assumes is the answer, and realized that the grid could not be dependent on these variable energy sources.
Nuclear’s Role in Grid Stability (17:05-24:52)
Nick reflects on his personal discovery of nuclear power and how it led to a major career shift to advanced nuclear R&D
Q: Were you already seeing grid instability issues in an area that doesn’t have many renewable sources yet?
A: Nick Smith got interested in grid reliability and started researching all the possible options to meet carbon goals. He read Vaclav Smil’s “Energy at the Crossroads” and found old Thorium Remix videos. Nick learned that there is more than one way to make a nuclear reactor, assuming all along there was only one solution and suddenly excited about all the options. Nick took a new job in the Wholesale Energy portion of Southern Company designing financial software. He built models of the units in the system which input weather data to correlate with market prices for energy. During this time, Nick enrolled at North Carolina State to pursue his Master’s of nuclear engineering online. He realized he was passionate about nuclear and wanted to know everything he could about how it works, what could be done differently, and what’s been tried. Most people he had conversations about nuclear with were somewhat dismissive, referencing Vogtle and the lack of attention and investment in nuclear. At the time, Southern Company didn’t have an advanced nuclear R&D division, instead focusing on fossil fuels, water usage, electric vehicles, and transmission and distribution. Nick’s colleague, Nick Irvin, established a new group focused on nuclear and Nick Smith was the first hire. They went on a roadshow to meet everyone in nuclear they could and learn as much as they could about different technologies. After meeting the folks from Terrapower, they teamed up to work on a proposal for a molten chloride fast reactor. The Department of Energy (DOE) ultimately selected this design for the proposal. This was Nick’s first big project in nuclear. Since the technology was leading edge, there was no background data and any information needed had to be measured to build the first model. The first experiment was supposed to run for 1,000 hours, but failed after only 11 hours due to corrosion. Another iteration of the experiment incorporated a sealed loop to keep out oxygen, which was ultimately a successful experiment.
National Reactor Innovation Center Projects (24:52-35:33)
An overview of the current projects underway at the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) to enable advanced reactor demonstrations
Q: Why can’t we test reactor components to failure?
A: Components can be tested to fail safely. Failure doesn’t have to mean someone got injured or the environment got messed up. Barriers and filters can be put in place to prevent impacts of testing. In October 2019, Nick Smith started working at the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) alongside Ashley Finan, the director. This center is a brand new idea and new program authorized by the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017. The Act states the Department of Energy (DOE) shall have a program to enable testing and demonstration of advanced reactor concepts that are funded by private industry. When Nick and Ashley arrived in Idaho, the program was not well defined yet. They had to establish the program as needed to get to demonstrations and rapid prototyping. The private sector doesn’t always understand what the problem is to get demonstrations, they just know it is too expensive. NRIC conducted surveys with developers to talk about what they were planning and what would be useful. Nick is currently in contact with 35 different advanced reactor developers. Of those, 20 of them have engaged with NRIC in some capacity, whether to develop proposals or build a reactor. Instead of designing for a decade and building a multimillion dollar project at once, this provides a way to stair step into scale. A 500 kW plant could be built instead of building a 1 GW plant first. To build a 500 kW plant, highly enriched uranium or plutonium is used to make the core smaller. This shrinks everything down and the plant becomes cheaper. There is an existing facility called the Zero Power Physics Reactor (ZPPR) that historically had Safeguards Category I Special Nuclear Material. The facility is active, but it’s not set up to be a reactor test bed. NRIC has recently been working on the preconceptual design of the modifications to turn the ZPPR Cell into an easily accessed reactor test bed to facilitate a different demonstration each year. NRIC is also working with the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) dome at Idaho National Laboratory’s Materials & Fuels Complex (MFC). The dome was scheduled to be demolished, but the MFC leadership stepped in to protect the blast plate protected structure. Both facilities will have closed loop cooling systems and air conditioning in the cell. The ZPPR Cell already has radiation monitoring, fire suppression, and criticality monitors. The EBR-II dome does not have those features so they will be installed as part of the modifications. Backup diesel generation for power and a safety grade battery backup for instrumentation and controls will also be added.
ZPPR and EBR-II Modifications (35:33-47:19)
The role of the Zero Power Physics Reactor (ZPPR) and the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) dome in the future of advanced nuclear
Q: How do you get the 20+ advanced reactor developers access to use the facilities?
A: The Zero Power Physics Reactor (ZPPR) is a 500 kW maximum facility and the Experimental Breeder Reactor-II (EBR-II) is a 10 MW maximum facility. If the developer’s plan doesn’t align with the limitations of one of those facilities, it will not be a fit for them. For the companies Nick Smith is talking to, the developers are designing the reactor, just the nuclear core and the control reactors. When the reactor skid arrives on-site, it must be able to flange up to the existing cooling system in place at the facility. They can use whatever coolant they want, but heat exchangers will be used to transfer to the permanent cooling infrastructure. Configuration management processes are currently being set up for the developers. If everything goes right, 2023 is a credible date to have a test bed ready to go. With all the designs, a few key people are architecting it in their mind, which ends up being the limiting factor or point of diminished returns in accelerating preparations. The general requirements for the test beds were established up front and a concept of operations was written to provide a narrative about the steps required to get a demonstration going at the test bed. NRIC just released an expression of interest for engineering services to do the preliminary design phase to go from 1% design to 60% design. The final design phase will take it to a set of construction drawings that can be put out into a Request for Proposal for modification construction to be complete. The ZPPR cell has a cable catenary roof with suspended sand and gravel above the cell. The original design planned the cables to break in the event of an explosion, which would cause the sand and gravel to fall on top of the reactor. NRIC is now facing the challenge of removing 2,000 tons of raw material suspended above the reactor to make the modifications. The EBR-11 dome has a 8-½’ wide hatch, but the primary customers interested in this facility are microreactors that will be mounted in a connex box, so the hatch would have to be closer to 14’ wide. These challenges are both engineering and construction related. Physical demonstrations must be completed to make progress. The Department of Energy (DOE) has supported the idea of giving the nuclear industry all the tools to be successful instead of trying to do it all in a lab.