March 20, 2023

Ep 386: Stefano Buono - Founder and CEO, newcleo

Founder and CEO
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Show notes

Bret Kugelmass [00:02:50] I'm here with Stefano Buono, who is the founder and CEO of an exciting new nuclear startup called newcleo. Stefano, welcome to the Titans of Nuclear.

Stefano Buono [00:03:00] Thank you.

Bret Kugelmass [00:03:02] Yes. So, we'd love to hear about you as an individual before we get to the company. So why don't you start us off with where you're from?

Stefano Buono [00:03:11] I'm from Italy. I've been studying physics in my life. But then I moved immediately to the European Central Nuclear Research. And it's '94 that I started my activity in nuclear energy.

Bret Kugelmass [00:03:26] Great. And what was that? What did you do for the research center?

Stefano Buono [00:03:29] Well, at the time, the Director General that is also a Nobel laureate, Carlo Rubbia, he had the idea to make new devices, let's call it, subcritical reactors driven by a particle accelerator. The team at the time was energy amplifier. Very nice; but later they called it accelerator driven systems. Meaning that you have a subcritical reactor that is driven by a particle accelerator. So, by a different kind of nuclear reaction. And that makes a very, very safe machine.

Stefano Buono [00:04:10] And in the '90s, it was very interesting to make safe nuclear reactors because Chernobyl just happened and the world was a little bit shocked. So, I was attracted to work on something that could change the world. And we started to work on that. It was in that period that I understood how nice it could be to use lead, liquid lead, as a coolant for a nuclear reactor. It was necessary because we needed lead to hit the lead with a particle beam and create neutrons to make the the reaction possible. But then I realized that lead was a very nice coolant for a reactor in general.

Bret Kugelmass [00:05:00] And why? What makes lead a nice coolant?

Stefano Buono [00:05:04] Because actually, you can make a faster reactor in a very safe way. Remember, those years, in the '90s, Superphenix closed in France. There was always concern about the operation of sodium-cooled reactors, and indeed there were not many problems. But the sodium is reactive, chemically reactive, with water and air, and gets fire. So, to control the safety of this reactor, you have to spend a lot of money, essentially. So, lead opened the possibility to use a liquid metal as a coolant, but you don't have all the safety, and so the burden, of the cost of a big sodium reactor.

Stefano Buono [00:05:55] So our Chief Scientific Officer, Luciano Cinotti, in Italian as well, he participated to the building and operation of Superphenix. And also, he tried to design cheaper sodium reactors like Superphenix 2. That was never built, of course. And then the European First Reactor was another European project that tried to make the cost of a sodium reactor lower. But all of these engineers that had a lot of experience with sodium managed to make a reactor that was 60% more expensive of the PWRs of that time in France. So essentially, sodium was closed because of the economy of those reactors.

Stefano Buono [00:06:48] But Luciano started to work on lead with me. And it was a very interesting time because in Russia, Russian scientists started to have interactions with European scientists and we discovered that they built 10 nuclear reactors using lead-bismuth, a eutectic of lead, and they powered submarines with these reactors. So, there were 10 led-bismuth reactors in the '60s and '70s running in the waters everywhere that were powered by lead reactors. So, there was a lot of experience.

Bret Kugelmass [00:07:25] And all of this starts off with the assumption that if you want to build a fast reactor, you're saying lead is a good coolant.

Stefano Buono [00:07:33] Yeah. And you know, it's very important, especially in Europe, to have fast reactors.

Bret Kugelmass [00:07:39] Why? Yeah, tell me.

Stefano Buono [00:07:40] Especially in France, because France, and in general Europe, wanted to close the fuel cycle. They wanted to outlaw multi-recycling of the fuel. You know that France today is the only country left where recycling of nuclear fuel, used fuel, is still done. And plutonium is extracted to make new fuel; that is MOX. But the idea was to recycle multiple times the MOX. Even when you use the MOX, you can recycle in some.

Bret Kugelmass [00:08:18] I see. You're starting with the assumption that the desired outcome is to close the fuel cycle. Which I personally disagree with, as that being a desired outcome, but I can see why other people like it. Then you're saying, "Okay, the best way to have a closed fuel cycle, given the recycling requirements of fuel, is to have a fast reactor. If you're going to have a fast reactor, then the coolant of choice is lead." That's the logic there. Okay, got it.

Stefano Buono [00:08:45] And we've learned that you can do completely passive safety systems as well. And that's also very important. And we will show that you can do very cheap reactors. I'll give you an example. Our 200 megawatt electric design is a vessel of six meters in diameter and six meters in height. This is very compact. This is four times more compact than the original Superphenix design and half of the size of a PWR.

Bret Kugelmass [00:09:22] Six meters in diameter, you said?

Stefano Buono [00:09:24] Yes. And this is 200 megawatt electric.

Bret Kugelmass [00:09:27] But normal PWRs are only... They aren't six meters in diameter. They're like four meters in diameter or something, right?

Stefano Buono [00:09:37] Very tall. If you put all of the steel that you need because of the pressurized vessel, then you have actually more or less of the double of the steel that you have in our reactor when you have the same power produced. In these are comparing with the bigger European reactors like the EPR or the pressurized water reactor of France. The old one, but still the one being operated in France.

Bret Kugelmass [00:10:15] Yeah. But not to push back too much because I do want to hear the whole story, but it's like, steel is cheap. Steel for any nuclear system, compared to the amount of steel that goes setting up solar panels or something, you're already a thousand fold less. It seems odd to me for that to be the the primary design parameter.

Stefano Buono [00:10:36] It's an example. We took out the first 10 systems from Superphenix.

Bret Kugelmass [00:10:41] Now that's special, taking out systems.

Stefano Buono [00:10:46] I was making an example with the...

Bret Kugelmass [00:10:49] Okay, fair enough. Fair enough. Okay. It sounds like you come from a highly-technical background with a lot of experience, other team members as well. What's the origin story of newcleo? How did you decide to create this company?

Stefano Buono [00:11:06] In the '90s, with Luciano in the southern Italian company, we made a first design of a lead reactor. But was not the right time to develop, especially in Europe, new reactors, but I think all over the world because of Chernobyl. But also because the price of the oil was $12 per barrel at the time. Nuclear was not competitive. Nobody cared about CO2. So, I took a patent that we had on lead that had an application in nuclear medicine. And I said, "I'm going to do a nuclear medicine company first and bring it to success, and then I will move into energy." And that is what I did. Actually, I founded a company that in 2018 was sold on from NASDAQ, so it was a public offering, to Novartis for $4 billion. And that was indeed the the biggest nuclear medicine company ever sold at that time. So, it was a great success.

Stefano Buono [00:12:19] So, that gave me some credibility as an entrepreneur. And I wanted to do the energy and actually the time changed very much because now the world wanted much more nuclear energy because of the decarbonization. And remember, of course, last year in Europe, the war struck Europe and people realized also that many European countries were depending on Russian gas and were dependant on outside resources. So, people in Europe want energy independence very much now. So two big boosters, and indeed I managed to raise $400 million in the first year of operation of the company and have more than 200 people already working for newcleo.

Bret Kugelmass [00:13:13] That's pretty incredible. Where did that $400 million come from?

Stefano Buono [00:13:17] Essentially, so far it's more or less family and friends in the sense that...

Bret Kugelmass [00:13:24] Right, because you're already very successful, already made billions of dollars, and so people trust you with a lot of money and know that you're going to...

Stefano Buono [00:13:33] Yeah, I made some other investments, I had investment partners, things went well. Just from this word, I got a lot of support. Of course, somebody already invested with... You know, there was a small pension fund. There were some VCs, but essentially all people that I knew.

Bret Kugelmass [00:13:57] Excellent. I mean, this is like the perfect story for a new nuclear entrepreneur. Someone who has domain expertise, business credibility and is willing to convince others to put their money on the line in a big way. It's the perfect story.

Stefano Buono [00:14:14] And to complete the perfect story, my previous partner, the person who was responsible for the project at the time, Luciano, became the Chief Scientific Officer. But Luciano never stopped working on lead reactors. He was the coordinator of the Generation for Innovation Forum on lead for many, many years. So, he saw all of the lead projects from all over the world, from Japan, from the U.S., from Europe, Belgium, Sweden, all of the these projects. And he thought about a very innovative design. And in the second part of the dance, he started to collaborate with an American investor actually, and that funded the research in Europe.

Stefano Buono [00:15:07] So this person, this wealthy American, founded the company in Europe and supported the work of this team. So, newcleo essentially was born also from buying this company because there were a number of patents that were taken in order to be able to publish the design on the International Atomic Energy Agency generation for books. So, we have two of these projects that generation is considered for. And to be able to publish those, we had to take some patents. Well, we didn't take all of them, but we are just now reproducing and enlarging the number of patents. But we started essentially from there.

Bret Kugelmass [00:16:01] Amazing, amazing. Okay, so tell me about the characteristics of your system a little bit more. All we know right now is that it's lead. What's the power output? What's the fuel type and enrichment? What else can you tell us about the system?

Stefano Buono [00:16:14] So, let's start from the fuel. Well, first you have to understand that it's a faster reactor and we do want to build a prototype as fast as possible. Our current plan is for 2030 in France to finish our first prototype. So, we had to make a decision that would allow us to have, let's say, more or less everything validated already. So, the fuel is essentially the same fuel that was used on Superphenix. We just use a different spacing but the same material for the rods, even the same dimension, even the same pellets. Because we want to actually burn even the fuel from the old Superphenix machine.

Bret Kugelmass [00:17:08] And what are the materials? What is the cladding made? Is it a UO2 ceramic? What are the pellets made of?

Stefano Buono [00:17:16] This is a MOX. And it MOX that is used with a 15% titanium steel that has been used in Superphenix for many years. So, it is essentially validated as a fuel with a fast neutron spectrum.

Bret Kugelmass [00:17:36] Sorry, just one quick question. They don't use stainless steel in normal PWRs anymore because the capture cross-section is too high. In a fast reactor, is that not the case? It just goes right through the stainless steel? Or, you're willing to accept a penalty because of the overall system performance?

Stefano Buono [00:17:55] Yeah, the overall system performances are very good with a fast reactor, so we don't have the same problem. Today, the MOX is made with a zirconium alloy like in every PWR.

Bret Kugelmass [00:18:08] And is there any reason not to use zirconium?

Stefano Buono [00:18:11] Yes, because it has been validated with steel. So, we are using the Superphenix design.

Bret Kugelmass [00:18:17] Smart, yeah. Fair enough.

Stefano Buono [00:18:20] And also, the corrosion of lead. We have tested the steel. Stainless steel is better resistant versus the corrosion of lead. So, we couldn't possibly use those zircon because of the corrosion.

Bret Kugelmass [00:18:35] You're worried about the corrosion of lead in contact with zircaloy.

Stefano Buono [00:18:42] Exactly.

Bret Kugelmass [00:18:43] And what is the corrosion mechanism or type of degradation that occurs? Is it a chemical bonding?

Stefano Buono [00:18:57] It's essentially erosion.

Bret Kugelmass [00:18:58] But a mechanical erosion?

Stefano Buono [00:18:58] Yes, mechanical... At high temperature it's probably the most important effect.

Bret Kugelmass [00:19:02] Fair enough.

Stefano Buono [00:19:03] To avoid corrosion, actually, we allow the creation of an oxide layer on the steel and we will put an oxide layer on the steel. So, the erosion corrosion is not important until more or less 480 degrees Celsius. And this is the operating temperature, actually, the maximum operating temperature of the hot spot in our reactor. Because it has been validated not to have corrosion, then we want to go higher. So, we would put on pin a layer of oxide, aluminum oxide, which is very stable on in contact with lead.

Stefano Buono [00:19:52] When we start operating the reactor, we want to have a program to qualify higher temperature. Some of the pins, we leaden this coating. It's a special coating; there are patents that are taken on this kind of coating. It's very thin, but very resistant. We have tested in every possible matter, also with ions. Unfortunately, we cannot do fast reactor irradiation in the Western world anymore because there is no fast reactor. The only operated reactors are in Russia today. So, we cannot do any test anymore in this kind of reactor. We hope that in Japan...

Bret Kugelmass [00:20:32] Even the ATR in Idaho? They don't have part of the core that operates in the fast spectrum?

Stefano Buono [00:20:38] Maybe. There are some reactors that have part of the core that operates in a faster mode. But of course, ideally you could use a sodium reactor. So, the Japanese are restarting the Joyo reactor, a research reactor. So, we are planning also some irradiation in 2025 to be done in this reactor. But at the end, our reactor will be the faster reactor that we will use to improve the temperature.

Stefano Buono [00:21:15] At the same time, we are also... This is a small reactor, 30 megawatt electric, but there will be a turbine, et cetera. And at the same moment, we are initiating in U.K. a licensing partner for the 200 megawatt electric first commercial unit. And we have the plans; we started the regulatory path and the plans are to start this machine in 2032. So, we will go in parallel in building, essentially, two machines.

Bret Kugelmass [00:21:54] Great. If I could just come back to the technical characteristics of the core for a moment, what is the enrichment level of your MOX?

Stefano Buono [00:22:03] The enrichment level is very important because at the moment there is a lot of free plutonium in U.K. and in France. That's also why we put our reactor there at the beginning. They need to be burned, eliminated. So, the current strategy of U.K. is putting this material underground, which is very expensive and it's a long-term strategy. We would like to burn it. So, to allow burning of MOX, we have to have a 30% and reach the MOX. So, 30% plutonium and 70% is uranium.

Bret Kugelmass [00:22:47] And out of the uranium, what is the ratio between U-235 and U-238? And out of the plutonium, what is the ratio of plutonium-240 and plutonium-239?

Stefano Buono [00:23:01] There is no difference for us to have the pairs of plutonium, the 40 and the 42. So, it doesn't matter very much. But at the beginning, we will use plutonium coming from the gas reactor. For example, from U.K., that has a high level of content of 239. All of the plutonium coming from the reprocessing of the French reactors, they also have a quite a high level of 239. So at the moment, we will not reprocess the MOX, which is rich into 40 and 42. But it burns the same.

Stefano Buono [00:23:39] So, we have a fast reactor. No difference. That's why we can do the multi-recycling because we don't degrade the plutonium. Even the minor actinide burns. So, we can burn everything. That's why multi-recycling is only possible if you use a fast reactor. So at the beginning, we want to burn a lot of plutonium. We can work at 30% enriched. But when we have burned a lot of free plutonium, we can work on an equilibrium level that is around 17% or 18%. So that's the idea, we will lower the amount of plutonium.

Stefano Buono [00:24:22] We are lucky because in the process, actually, the starting point in the process is a richer plutonium than 30%. The mix is even higher. So, there is already the technique to produce this kind of plutonium. And then the dilution will be lower, so we will stop the mix of the 30%.

Bret Kugelmass [00:24:44] And who's doing the fabrication of both the mixing, the pelletization and the fabrication of the assemblies for you?

Stefano Buono [00:24:53] We have started to work with Orano at the moment on the basis of a contract to build a new manufacturing line for us in France. But we also have our own people who have a lot of experience on MOX. So, it's an integrated team of Orano and internal resources.

Bret Kugelmass [00:25:14] Great. And then how do you plan on circulating the coolant? Is this going to be natural convection with some sort of wicking process like a heat pipe, or are you going to have to invent lead pumps of some sort?

Stefano Buono [00:25:26] Yeah, we don't invent lead pumps, we buy them, because these have been done for 25 years, at least, only in Italy.

Bret Kugelmass [00:25:35] Lead pumps. What are they used for in industry right now?

Stefano Buono [00:25:40] For the research on lead.

Bret Kugelmass [00:25:42] Oh, they're research-level...

Stefano Buono [00:25:47] In Italy, we have operated like seven or eight lead loops, and there is a lot of know-how. The Italian research center ENEA, which is the equivalent of DOE for nuclear in the U.S. has accumulated a lot of experience because they participated in the '90s in this research. They interacted with the Russians and they started to do a lot of research. And Italy became the reference worldwide of lead loops. ENEA and some Italian companies built the lead loops for Westinghouse in U.K. and China. In China, there is a lot of research as well on lead loops.

Stefano Buono [00:26:37] The pump is one of the devices and we don't anticipate any problem in having a lead pump because there is 20-plus years of experience on that. And the exchange will be done with a vapor generator directly into the lead. So, that's the advantage of having the possibility of having a lead.

Bret Kugelmass [00:27:09] Would you explain that last part too? What is that vapor process that you were articulating? What is that?

Stefano Buono [00:27:15] Essentially, you have a heat exchanger producing high-temperature vapor that goes directly into the turbine. So you inject...

Bret Kugelmass [00:27:23] Oh, I see. You have a heat exchanger with lead on your tube side and water on your shell side, just like a standard steam generator?

Stefano Buono [00:27:31] Yeah. It will be water on the tube side.

Bret Kugelmass [00:27:36] Water on the tube side. Okay, that's fine, because you're going to a higher velocity.

Stefano Buono [00:27:39] And lead on the shell side.

Bret Kugelmass [00:27:41] Okay, that makes perfect sense.

Stefano Buono [00:27:44] And this is our design. This is one of our patents, because we have sort of a heat exchanger, but the way it is designed is particular. It has very long tubes that are shattered by valves.

Bret Kugelmass [00:28:06] Yeah, no need to give yourself extra problems. If it's a power plant and it's not a submarine, you're not space constrained, so you might as well just do a more standard heat exchanger manufacturing process.

Stefano Buono [00:28:18] And we have tested the breaking of the vapor tube into lead and it's not generating significant pressure waves into the system. It's a pool. There is no pressure into the lead.

Bret Kugelmass [00:28:35] Yeah, what happens if you lose your primary coolant? What if there's a rupture? Then, what happens?

Stefano Buono [00:28:43] The primary coolant is very difficult to lose because it's a huge pool of lead. And there is double containment and the lead freezes.

Bret Kugelmass [00:28:57] Right, but is there any concern about your fuel being uncovered? I know there's not a pressure boundary, but there's a vessel boundary. If that were to break, what would happen?

Stefano Buono [00:29:12] The way it has been designed, there would be not enough loss of coolant to have the fuel not covered by lead, let's say.

Bret Kugelmass [00:29:28] I see. Your secondary layer around it, you're saying, is sufficiently strong and sized that it'll catch the lead and make sure that not enough comes out to uncover your core.

Stefano Buono [00:29:40] Ideally, we have to make reactors that are also resistant to terrorist attack, war, et cetera. So ideally, we put the lead container directly into the ground.

Bret Kugelmass [00:29:54] Yeah, I think that's smart...

Stefano Buono [00:29:56] ...Very much the amount of lead. And since the vessel is continually cooled by natural convection, the temperature of the second vessel is very cold. Lead freezes at 350 degrees. So, you have a self-filling of any incredible rupture that you might have.

Bret Kugelmass [00:30:18] It'll self-patch as it leaks, totally understood. And then what about control? Do you have control rods, or how do you control the rate of reactivity?

Stefano Buono [00:30:29] Yes, we have control rods. There are also external control rods because lead is a very fast spectrum because the moderation is the lowest. It's very, very low, the moderation of neutrons, because of the weight of a molecule of lead. And it's the element that absorbs less neutrons in all of the chemical table. So essentially, you have a very, very long path of neutrons.

Stefano Buono [00:31:07] And that's why we keep a very big layer of lead outside of the core as well, because neutrons come back and forth. So, we can control from outside, lead, if it's not too big, the reactor. So, we have control rods, shutdown rods going inside the vessel. But we have control rods outside, just in the periphery of the core. The periphery is free because lead has a very good self-shielding property. So essentially, and this is another patent, we have a kind of a...

Bret Kugelmass [00:31:43] Self-shielding from gammas, but not from neutrons.

Stefano Buono [00:31:45] Yeah, exactly. Not from neutrons because they travel a lot, but you still have a reduction. So, if you keep one meter of lead, you don't need to put the fake fuel bars to protect from that, for example, from the radiation damage, also from neutrons, that was present, for example, in Superphenix. In Superphenix, there were more fake bars to protect the structure from the radiation than actual fuel bars. It was incredible. And this is one of the systems that we have eliminated, all of these fake nuclear bars to absorb the neutrons and to protect the structures.

Bret Kugelmass [00:32:34] We could go on forever about the technical qualities of the system. But actually, maybe I want to switch gears for a second just to get a more holistic perspective from you. One question that I have, given that you're Italian, and I've met some incredibly brilliant nuclear engineers and scientists in Italy... It's like, everyone I talk to there, I know it's going to be a great conversation. There's something about you guys... Very smart scientists and also great heavy industry engineering too. Like, heat exchangers, pumps, everything.

Bret Kugelmass [00:33:08] Why not build in Italy? What is going on with Italy as a country, their perspective of nuclear? And Why can't you, as somebody who is a clear authority and successful, why can't you... Have you tried to influence the political culture there?

Stefano Buono [00:33:26] Well, Italy is influencing by itself, at the moment, in the sense that the opinion is changing. We have been an incredible country because we were... At a certain moment, we were like the second or third countries in the world to build a nuclear reactor. We built in the '50s four nuclear reactors with four different technologies because we wanted to test the best one. But in '87, after the Chernobyl accident, we made the referendum and we closed the reactors.

Bret Kugelmass [00:34:05] Why? But why Italy and not so many other countries? Like, Spain isn't the most excited about nuclear, but they didn't close their plants, you know? There are so many countries that didn't. Why Italy?

Stefano Buono [00:34:18] I don't have any idea. But for sure, there was a lot of support from other energies at the time, politically, and was not a very nice period for Italy that I'm proud of. There really has not been support. The scientists and engineers, they couldn't think that the referendum led to close the reactors. It was just the reaction of some political person. Because the referendum actually didn't ask to close the reactor, but those reactors were closed. It's incredible. Anyway, we kept a lot of know-how, because we were working for all of the nuclear reactors that are around Italy, in France...

Bret Kugelmass [00:35:14] I know. And you still have an engineering services sector.

Stefano Buono [00:35:19] ...Everywhere. So, we kept this know-how very strong. And now the know-how can actually work again. Because the new government wants nuclear.

Bret Kugelmass [00:35:29] Okay, good. I wanted you to tell me that because I didn't know that.

Stefano Buono [00:35:32] They came into power only a few months ago, in November of last year. We have a program to come back into nuclear. Now, they didn't initiate this program because, you know, a new government in the first two months has a lot of urgencies, but I think they will come back soon with a program on nuclear anyway. It seems that they are very open. You know, all the community seems very open versus new generation of nuclear reactors.

Stefano Buono [00:36:08] Again, it doesn't make sense because also the current generational character is very safe. And you could start building one machine that has already been tested. But, okay. I think there are proposals like ours that are more sustainable for a country because, actually, what we want to avoid is to have a geological repository, period. Why that? Because if it allows the multi-recycling, you can always have the plutonium in the minor actinides inside a fuel of a reactor, never, and recycling many times. And this is possible only with a hard spectrum. You cannot do it with water reactors. We have to have a component of fast reactors, because otherwise it doesn't work.

Bret Kugelmass [00:36:56] I know, it's just the waste issue though. Listen, I love what you're doing and I think there's a lot of stuff that you said that I think is extremely impressive and makes a lot of sense. And I'm very excited, the journey that you're on. But I do want to like correct people's assumptions about waste. Like, I also agree we don't want a deep geological repository, but that's because waste isn't a problem to begin with, so we don't need to bury it deep, we could bury it shallow or we could just put it somewhere. Like, waste is not a big deal to deal with. And the social license will not be cured by recycling because the populace, the people don't understand. If there is even the tiniest little fission product left, they're going to still accuse you of just as much waste as every other reactor, even if they're wrong. So it's like, it's not going to solve a social problem.

Stefano Buono [00:37:48] Yeah, but you live in the U.S., in which it's much more accepted. We live in Europe and what we promise is that one gigawatt electric of nuclear power for one year will produce only 900 kilograms of...

Bret Kugelmass [00:38:05] I know, but what I'm saying is nobody cares. Nobody cares. Like, the people don't care, the politicians don't care. You could swap out that number with any other number and they would not be able to tell the difference. The minute you put math in their heads, they don't care.

Stefano Buono [00:38:20] Yeah, it's a challenge. I'm trying to explain to people. It's a big challenge. But I have the science from my side, so I hope that it will work sooner or later. Nobody can argue at the end. And slowly, we will be able to make people understand that.

Bret Kugelmass [00:38:42] I would leave that to marketing people. That's what I always try to tell the nuclear entrepreneurs. It's like, you are going to do such a good job on your reactor. Focus on that, make it awesome, make it economical. But don't think that you're going to cure anyone's public opinion. Like, you do not have that power. Like, it's just never going to happen. Other forces will do that, yeah.

Stefano Buono [00:39:06] But there is an objective of things. Imagine a new country, like Italy, that wants to come back to nuclear. If I deliver fuel to our reactor and then I bring the fuel back, I reprocess, and I give back to Italy, this is a reality.

Bret Kugelmass [00:39:25] Yeah, but the only people that care about what you're saying are nuclear industry professionals. The general public does not understand nuclear waste, how it moves...

Stefano Buono [00:39:34] You don't have to put it underground. For 900 kilograms per year.

Bret Kugelmass [00:39:40] We already don't have to put it underground. That's like a self-imposed constraint. We can leave it wherever we want. It's not dangerous. Yeah, okay. Well, maybe we'll have a talk about that over a beer sometime, too. Because it's more philosophical than analytical. But I do want to ask another question. I think you have the ability to do this not by 2030. Everything that I know about you, I think if you wanted to, you could get this done in three years, you could have your first plant online. What's stopping you from doing it in three years?

Stefano Buono [00:40:17] No, it is really the licensing. It is the time you need to interact with the authorities. You have timings that are really like that.

Bret Kugelmass [00:40:33] And why not find a regulator that can move faster? Actually, I was a little surprised by your priorities in terms of the U.K. versus France. I kind of assumed the U.K. could move faster. You know, they did the Chinese reactor. That was a gigawatt scale PWR in just four years. I assume you could make a pretty good case why yours could be licensed in three years.

Stefano Buono [00:40:56] But four years is the GDA, the Generic Design Authorization. If you really built it, there are a number of things and a number of authorizations that you have to get that brings you, probably, to seven years.

Bret Kugelmass [00:41:14] But you could do that in parallel. Most people don't realize that.

Stefano Buono [00:41:20] Yes, but for example, at the moment in the U.K., we are fighting to have land that is authorized. There are, you know, in the end there is 500 hectares of land.

Bret Kugelmass [00:41:37] I know, but that's what I'm saying.

Stefano Buono [00:41:40] But because of the fact that there have been changes in the government three times, we don't find somebody who says, "Okay, you can buy this land and build a reactor." There are other things that are very strange that you will find only in the U.K. that prolongs very much your... But I hope that...

Bret Kugelmass [00:42:07] Okay, but that's a good point. You made a really good point there, so I want to acknowledge that. But then I want to ask you then why not... You're in Europe. You're obviously willing to look across the countries in Europe. Why not find a country that can move faster? Like, why not go to Bulgaria. You know, they have nuclear plants there and it's easier to get a hold of the Prime Minister, probably, of Bulgaria than it is of the U.K. Like, why not do it just wherever you can do it the fastest? Because I know you can build it faster, so why not license it faster?

Stefano Buono [00:42:39] Well, you know, at the end, the know-how is also a question of all the intellect we've done in our country. And we are operating in Italy, in France and the U.K. because we also need the plutonium we need to make the MOX, which is an added complication as well. Because we have to build, actually, probably two manufacturing facilities, one in France and one U.K. So, it is also for this reason. And the know-how on fast reactors is in France, for example, but also in U.K., because of the gas reactors. I think it's a good compromise. And of course we'll try to go faster. Of course, even the licensing authorities, they are trying to make their best.

[00:43:30] In France, for example, the authorization is given by ASN, an authority, independent authority, that was working with another authority, IRSN. The two had to talk on the same design. And France, the government, decided to put these two entities together. Maybe it's a good choice to go faster because there is only one path and not one depending on the other. So, there is an effort also from the licensing authorities because of the need of energy independence and the need of decarbonized electric energy. So, there are, I think, good opportunities.

Stefano Buono [00:44:22] But we also have to say that it's a new technology, so there might be some learning curve also by the authorities. We have done a lot of research and work, but the authorities themselves, they might need a little bit more time to... Especially because there are a few demands for other reactor designs with other technologies like molten salt.

Bret Kugelmass [00:44:50] Even better then, to find a regulator that's neglected to focus just on you. What I think when I see your project is I want to see this. I know you can do it, and I want to see it built so fast because I think it would be an inspiration to the entire advanced nuclear community to do it. And so, I just want to know that the $400 million, it's not just all going to technology, but maybe you spend $10 million just on regulatory strategists. Literally build up an army of documentation people and lawyers and physicists to scour all of Europe and say, "Which regulator will move the fastest?"

Stefano Buono [00:45:27] You know, we are 200. We will be, ourselves, 500 by the end of this year. And still, we are engaging a lot of companies. We are working with every French company we see. With Framatome, with Orano. So, we are really leveraging also on other people and paying those people to make work for us. So, it's really huge. It's really a huge effort what we are moving. But if you want to see a reactor, we have a clone of a reactor that will be ready in four years in Italy. It will be like a reactor, but having heating rods rather than fuel rods.

Bret Kugelmass [00:46:09] Amazing. I think it's such a god idea. What are these, like just normal immersion heaters, or is it just like bare tungsten or graphite? What are your electrodes?

Stefano Buono [00:46:16] No, no, no. It will be the most of a copy of our final reactor we can do. So of course, we cannot put a 100 megawatt thermal with it in rods, but we put a 10 megawatt thermal. So, we will produce less, of course. This pathway scaled down. But many of the components will be the same that we want to put into the final reactor. We are building this because we believe during the regulatory path we will be asked for additional components, so we have a machine that will be ready to do tests, integrated tests to be able to not get delays during the licensing process.

Stefano Buono [00:47:06] And one other reason why we are doing a machine in France and another one in the U.K. is because there is an internal competition, if you want, in our company between U.K. and France in order to be the first one.

Bret Kugelmass [00:47:23] That's great, that's great. Well, this is very exciting. We're about at the end of our time here, but I'd love to continue this conversation with you in general. I'd love to visit your facility at some point and maybe we could do a whole series and interview a bunch of your leadership and staff and really help expose your project to the world more, because if you get this up and running it's going to be amazing.

Stefano Buono [00:47:43] Yeah, I think we're going to build very soon. Our facility is already being built in Italy. We are on the site of an older reactor, so we are refurbishing all of the facility and we will be putting material very soon. So, we are waiting for you. It's a good opportunity to come to Italy and visit Italy.

Bret Kugelmass [00:48:05] I'd love to, I'd love to. Okay, well, Stefano Buono, thank you so much for your time. I know I got that last name wrong, but I'll try harder. It's great to spend time with you.

Stefano Buono [00:48:16] Thank you. Thank you. Bye bye.

Bret Kugelmass [00:48:18] Bye bye.

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