Ep 390: Yasir Arafat - Chief Designer and Project Lead, Idaho National Laboratory
Sarah Howorth [00:00:46] Welcome back to Titans of Nuclear. My name is Sarah Howorth, and today we're here again at the MIT CANES Symposium, Nuclear Everywhere 2023. And I'm sitting here today with Yasir Arafat, who is the Chief Project Lead of the MARVEL Project at Idaho National Laboratory. Yasir, welcome. It's so nice to have you.
Yasir Arafat [00:01:08] Oh, thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
Sarah Howorth [00:01:09] Yeah, of course. And since we are here at the Symposium, you can likely hear in the background maybe some murmurings of the nuclear industry as well, which is exciting as we're all gathered here. So, let's start off with the Titans of Nuclear question, where did you grow up?
Yasir Arafat [00:01:27] I grew up in Bangladesh. I was there pretty much up until college. In a small place called Chittagong, that's the main port city. And then for high school, my brother and I, we moved to the capital and then from there directly shipped to Pennsylvania for college. So, that was the story there.
Sarah Howorth [00:01:46] Awesome. And where did you go to college?
Yasir Arafat [00:01:48] I did my undergrad at University of Pittsburgh and then did chemical engineering, not nuclear. But nuclear was sort of my... It was a concentration. As a chemical engineer, in the senior year you get to pick which direction you want to go. Pharmaceuticals, food industry or energy. Even in energy, you have different sectors. Petroleum was a big thing there, but I didn't want to necessarily go in that direction. I wanted to move towards something that is not contributing to climate change. And again, especially coming from Bangladesh, that's one of the countries that's most vulnerable to the rising sea levels. And in fact, it's happening now.
Yasir Arafat [00:02:33] As I was growing up, we could see lands being washed away and the footprint is getting smaller. And it's never a debate that the rising sea levels are happening. Some people knew this was related to climate change, others didn't, but that was a fact, right? It was not even a debate. So, I couldn't get my conscience to kind of get to the point where, "Hey, I want to go work for the oil and gas companies." I wanted to work more towards the clean energy sector. And there were the renewables, wind and solar and nuclear. But the physics side of it attracted me the most. in the nuclear area, not as much... And I think the innovation opportunities were as exciting to me, as the solar and wind area, so I kind of went towards the nuclear side. So yeah, that's how it all started, my journey on the path of nuclear.
Sarah Howorth [00:03:27] That's awesome. So, the technical side of nuclear kind of sparked your interest the most.
Yasir Arafat [00:03:31] That's right. That's right. And again, it was kind of interesting that during my junior year, you get to go for an intern fair and pick where you want to do an internship. I printed out one resume and I walked to the Westinghouse desk. And they had their headquarters there in Pittsburgh. I was like, "Hey, I want to work here. This is the only one that I printed off. I'm not trying to like fish around for internship jobs. I know what I want. If if you're in, you can do my interview." And I got picked after a series of technical questions that they ask, which is kind of unusual for intern job interviews. Anyway, that's why I got into the industry as my footing and kind of spent the first 10 years of my career there.
Sarah Howorth [00:04:17] Hey, I mean, that's awesome. You knew exactly what you wanted and you went out and got it.
Yasir Arafat [00:04:21] Yeah, yeah. And I did. It wasn't all nice and smooth. I remember during my senior year, Fukushima happened. So, I did an entire year of internship at Westinghouse, and the following year Fukushima happened. I was like, "Oh, no, what have I done? Did I pick the right direction for my career here?" You have all these people going around and getting all nervous about the whole accident. But after all the scare was kind of settled in, I took a step back and said, "You know what? This might actually be the right decision here. If the industry went through something like this, like a major accident, maybe there are a lot of opportunities to improve it." So ever since then, I sort of made kind of an internal mission to figure out how we can transform the nuclear industry in a way that those types of accidents are not possible. So, that's kind of how the journey started, the beginning for me, and then went from there.
Sarah Howorth [00:05:27] That's awesome. So, you worked through that kind of scare with all of your technical knowledge behind you, which I'm sure was a huge help in rationalizing what really happened. But for someone who doesn't have that technical knowledge or for someone who just started learning about the industry maybe a few days ago, what would you say to them?
Yasir Arafat [00:05:46] Well, I'll take a step back there. Once Fukushima happened, I was going through this emotional roller coaster. I was in my senior year of college. And would I say I knew a lot about nuclear, technically? Probably not. Did I do an entire year of internship? Yes, but I didn't know... It was the beginning of my nuclear journey. I did dig into it and tried to understand what was going on, but at the end of the day, I would be similar to, more on the boat of the general public with some technical information rather than an expert in the industry. But again, I thinking from a notional perspective, I thought, "Hey, if something like this could happen, we can do better."
Sarah Howorth [00:06:29] Yeah, that makes sense. And so, tell me a little bit about your time at Westinghouse. What did you learn there and how did it get you to where you are today?
Yasir Arafat [00:06:37] Yeah, I was very fortunate how my career trajectory went at Westinghouse. I got hired in the R&D, the research and development sector of Westinghouse. And I was there throughout my entire time at Westinghouse in that department. I worked on almost 24, 25 different projects, and they were all very different from one another. So, I got a very nice breath of working through different types of problems.
Sarah Howorth [00:07:08] Yeah, that is nice.
Yasir Arafat [00:07:09] And that's kind of divided into two buckets. One is for existing plants, they were called evolutionary innovation. And then the other bucket was revolutionary, which is like, not done currently, how do you think differently about nuclear? There were two different buckets there. But if you kind of look at all those 24 projects, a few of them were regarding reactor designs. So, there was a time where I was leading the radwaste system in the AP1000. I worked there for a little bit. And then from there, I got recruited into the Westinghouse SMR program, small modular reactor. It was going full-fledged, and then after two years or so, that project got shelved at the time because they wanted to put all their efforts on the AP1000, which was still under development.
Yasir Arafat [00:08:00] And then once the summer got shelved, my colleague and I, we started thinking, "Well, how can somebody just come in and say it's not feasible economically for us as a company and just stop the project and shelve it?" Because there were a lot of good things going on there. It was a smaller version of the AP1000. At that time, I was a purely technical guy. I did not look more into the economics or the business case side of things. So, I started looking and studying more about why do some technologies come to fruition and others don't? So, I started learning more about the product-market fits and working from the problem backwards to the solution, not the other way around. Not like, "Hey, I have this cool technology. Where can I find a place, right?" So, I started learning those as my own understanding on how to go about the innovation process.
Yasir Arafat [00:08:57] In some of the other products that I was doing, initially they failed. It kind of made me understand, "Well, it doesn't matter if you have a cool idea, it might not technically pan out." And then fast forward, there were some other products which were technically very cool, even I have a couple of patents on them, but nobody ever picked it up and put it in a plant or a system in practice. I'm like, "What's the point of that?" So, I started like learning and figuring out and read a lot of books and did a lot of workshops on what did this really mean to find product-market fit?
Yasir Arafat [00:09:32] And we applied a lot of that when we started the eVinci micro reactor program. And again, this was like the 2014, 2015 timeframe. At the time, people didn't even know the term micro reactor. So we said, "Nuclear has to do it better. Let's go figure out..." It is not possible for an energy technology like nuclear to stay confined in just one space. We only have large-scale power plants for the base load generation. That is it. If you look at solar, if you look at wind, if you look at fossil... Fossils, for example, start from our cars all the way to combined cycle gas plants. You've got the entire spectrum that they play in. Same with solar energy, from rooftops to utility scale. I think nuclear was kind of confined. And so, we started asking the question, "Hey, where else can nuclear play a role where currently it's not doing so?"
Yasir Arafat [00:10:30] And so, we spent about a year and a half or so trying to just focus on trying to find the opportunity in the market. We even did a trip up in the Arctic in the remote communities in Canada 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle. I mean, these are remote, remote places where you can't even get there without a plane.
Sarah Howorth [00:10:54] Oh, wow. Okay.
Yasir Arafat [00:10:55] And if we stayed overnight, I could have seen the the aurora borealis. That was a missed opportunity. That was on my bucket list. But anyway, we actually saw and figured out, understood really, how energy is delivered, how they use it, how they rely on it. Like here, if the lights go off, we have an annoying day, for example. Well, not what happened in Texas two years ago. I don't want to undermine that. Hundreds of people died. Energy's super important here. But same thing. Up there, if the energy goes out, their survivability is at risk entirely.
Yasir Arafat [00:11:31] So, the resilience of energy is super important. You basically have the locals running those diesel generators. So, we really learned about what are the key requirements that micro reactors have to do differently that current reactors don't? Like for example, the operator of the diesel plant was our tour guide.
Sarah Howorth [00:11:55] Oh, wow. Okay.
Yasir Arafat [00:11:57] You basically have a system, that essentially, you have to just look at it every couple of hours and not pay a whole lot of attention to it, and you can step away from the system and it will run on its own. It's not reliant on a very highly-trained set of operators that are running this complex machine the way that nuclear is. We have hundreds of people running a nuclear power plant. We can't do the same thing for micro reactors.
Yasir Arafat [00:12:23] So, we started generating requirements like, "Okay, we need no more than two operators the way we do university research reactors." And then, "It has to be walk away safe." And, "We cannot build something here on the ground. We have to transport it pre-built." So, a lot of these features that you see today that define micro reactors are coming from some of our early work when we were trying to define the market at that time. And then, we shared with the rest of the industry what we were trying to do, and then those got picked up by others. And now we kind of, over time, defined... If you go to the Office of Nuclear Energy, DOE has a website on what makes a micro reactor a micro reactor, and they kind of define some of those key criteria like factory fabrication, walk away safety, as well as transportability through standard modes.
Sarah Howorth [00:13:20] Well, going back a little bit to some of what you were talking about, what characteristics of the technology that you were seeing made it able to come to fruition? What were you seeing where you thought, "Oh, this is viable. This can happen."
Yasir Arafat [00:13:39] You mean for the eVinci timeframe? At the time when we looked into all of that, we said, "Okay, well, we need to find a really simple technology that does not have all the complexities of a typical power plant that's water-based." And as we know, water is a great coolant. It's also a moderator, but it also comes with a lot of baggage with it, right? For example, if you try to heat it more than 100 degrees Celsius in atmospheric pressure, it tends to boil. So, you have to have a pressurized system to go to a higher temperature where you can extract useful energy out of it. And then, you have as such, water's a universal solvent. A lot of things dissolve in it. A lot of things can be undissolved from it. So, if you look into all the various systems in a typical power plant, you have about 100 systems that make the reactor vessel kind of happy enough to be able to operate properly.
Yasir Arafat [00:14:41] At that time, Westinghouse was a DPWR company. It was the biggest PWR company in the United States. So we were like, "Oh, can we use light-water reactor technology?" And we determined at the time, probably not the best idea, right? Because yeah, you can make something smaller, but you still have all these various systems which will still give you a plant, not a transportable device.
Sarah Howorth [00:15:02] Right.
Yasir Arafat [00:15:03] So, we started looking into other technologies and we landed into the Los Alamos work that they did on the Kilopower as well as they did a paper study on a transportable heat pipe reactor. They named it Megapower at the time. So, that was kind of intriguing. It had few moving parts and everything was kind of passive, which we liked that a lot. And so, we started talking to Los Alamos and really learned about the capabilities of the technology. And really, it was a pretty cool technology at the time when I looked at it and we thought, "Hey, this actually has the potential to reduce the number of systems, to work passively, to reduce their failure rate and be able to fulfill all the requirements that we actually found." And so, we picked that as our technology choice. We looked at all the other technologies at a little bit higher level, but we thought that would actually meet the requirements the most at the time. Now I have to say, my views have changed slightly since then.
Sarah Howorth [00:16:06] Okay. Noted.
Yasir Arafat [00:16:07] We can get into those. I think most technologies have capabilities to get there except a few. But I'll tell you more that in a few minutes, I suppose.
Yasir Arafat [00:16:18] So anyway, I think at the time it made a lot of sense. It's very difficult to get a really good heat pipe reactor. You have to do a lot of R&D upfront to make sure you do it right. But when you get there, it's a very lucrative technology. So, I give props to our team at the time that evaluated this and said, "This is the direction we want to go.".
Yasir Arafat [00:16:39] And so, we did a heat pipe reactor design at the time. We partnered with Los Alamos National Lab. We strove to pull together a lot of the expertise from other areas of Westinghouse. Essentially, we were like a small startup type of an activity where the majority of the VPs and others did not believe that we could actually do this. And so, we were kind of like a little skunkworks-type of activity. We started pulling resources together. And at some point, we were able to convince... In fact, the first two years, we were asked by our senior leaders at the time to not disclose what we were doing because they thought that there's something brand new and we should keep it hush-hush. And then, we saw another company, a startup company, saying "We're going to build small reactors." We're like, "Hey, you know, what the hell? We should have just talked about it from the very get go." So, that was kind of like the 2014, 2015 timeframe.
Sarah Howorth [00:17:42] Okay. And then, all of that led you to your time now at INL?
Yasir Arafat [00:17:49] Yes. Well, it's kind of interesting. I was kind of leading, from a technical perspective, the eVinci program, and the team was growing at the time. And there was a little transition happening. So typically, what happens and the way it works at Westinghouse, you have R&D programs and innovation projects as they call it. The ones that get to a certain level of maturity, they became a product line. That's kind of like the transition that was happening at the time. And INL kind of reached out to me, "Hey, you fit the profile of something we're trying to establish here for the DOE micro reactor program. We need somebody to help establish the program. Would you be interested?" I was like, "No, no, I'm not. Just go away.".
Yasir Arafat [00:18:33] I just talked to the hiring manager. At the time, it was Jess Gehin, who is the Associate Lab Director right now. And we partnered with INL at the time for various things. So I called, I was like, "Hi, I talked to Jess two days ago." I was curious what INL was up to in the micro reactor space. And I called up Jess, I was like, "Hey, what are you guys up to?" And then Jess was like, "Well, we're trying to formalize the DOE micro reactor program. I think you have a lot of experience that actually would fit to this as one of the early people working on micro reactors. You can help use guide which direction our technology focus should be in some ways." So, I was like, "Okay, well.".
Yasir Arafat [00:19:15] So, backwards... And this a story a lot of people don't know. About six or eight months prior to my transition to INL, I was talking to one of my contacts from the Pentagon in the Army. He gave me information which was like, "Hey, Yasir, it's great that you guys are working on the eVinci micro reactor, but you should make it smaller." I was like, "Okay, interesting. How small?" And he gave me some dimensions of it, which were pretty small. Wanted tens of kilowatts instead of megawatts.
Yasir Arafat [00:19:51] So, I started thinking in the back of my head, "What would that look like?" And at the time, I also knew that Westinghouse would not necessarily have an appetite for another brand new, small, tiny reactor. But I kept at it and let it brew in the back of my head. And so, when INL sort of reached out to me, there were two reasons I transitioned. One was, I was helping one company develop a micro reactor. And because I was one of the earlier people to kind of look into the opportunity of micro reactors, I had my internal mission that it would be super nice to see at least some company make it to market with a micro reactor. And so I thought, "Hey, instead of helping one company, maybe if I go to the national labs, I can have multiple." So I thought, "Maybe I should just do that." That was one reason.
Yasir Arafat [00:20:43] In the back of my mind, that other small reactor was still playing in the back of my head. And so I told Jess, "Hey, Jess, I'll help you establish the program. After that, can I just do whatever I want?" He got all confused. He's like, "I don't know what that means, but sure." Which was kind of nice. It kind of shows the leadership where they just don't want to stifle you in your thought process.
Sarah Howorth [00:21:08] Yeah, that's great.
Yasir Arafat [00:21:09] So, I made the transition. I felt comfortable doing that. And I helped Jess establish the program within a month or so. And then right at the end of 2019, a month after I got hired at INL, I drew up a little sketch of what was brewing in the back of my head. I showed it to Jess. Like, "Hey, can we build this?" He's like, "What am I looking at?" I told him it's a test micro reactor, and I think there's a need for that. At INL, we built 52 reactors in a span of about 25 years, which was fantastic. From the 50s to mid-70s. And if you kind of spread it out, that's an average two reactors a year, which is phenomenal. So I think as a national lab, that role has to be played by a national lab. It can not be done by industry because they don't have all the facilities that national labs do.
Sarah Howorth [00:22:02] Right.
Yasir Arafat [00:22:02] They have infrastructure, they have the people, they have a regulatory body on site, the Idaho Operations Office, they have fabrication capability, all of that. They kind of have the right elements needed to make something like that happen.
Yasir Arafat [00:22:19] So, I pitched it to the lab and I told them, "Hey, we need to get back to that same space of building reactors. That's going to be a great vision for the lab going forward. And the first step of that is building our own test reactor as quickly as possible. Learn from it, share with everybody else, but also gain it for ourselves so we can help for the next demonstration and kind of revamp the capability of doing reactors." That wasn't very hard for me to sell that vision because the lab leadership already had that vision. They were just trying to kind of put it all together. And around that time, when it was the right climax, that's when I pitched the "how to do.".
Yasir Arafat [00:23:02] I told them, "Here's the first step. We're going to build our own test reactor, hopefully funded entirely by one sponsor, not multiple, so we can actually get control over the entire design process." I gave them a whole laundry list of things that we should put in place to make it successful. Like, "Yeah, I'm going to select my own team. We're going to use agile process for hardware. I'm going to modify it for us. We need to have champions in the lab leadership and DOE leadership." All those various things. Things that I learned from my eVinci days and from all the books that I've read. I put them all concisely together into this list of less than 20 items and said, "If we don't agree to one of these items, then we're not going to do it right." And the lab leadership thought it was reasonable and said, "Yeah, go for it." And that's kind of what the recipe was for success in many ways for MARVEL.
Sarah Howorth [00:24:01] Yeah, that's great. So, you got your creative freedom, which was also very technical freedom, which is great. And that came to fruition in the MARVEL Project a little bit.
Yasir Arafat [00:24:11] Yes. I mean, I did have that in Westinghouse as well, but I have never built a reactor from scratch or design from scratch before then. So, it was a lot of learning from there as well. And it's still part of a existing, large company with different dynamics. But if you compare that to the national lab, I think the lab leadership gave me a bit more freedom on the creative, technical side. A bit more. Because we were starting it from scratch, and I was able to learn from my previous experiences and be able to gather and put things upfront that usually took a while for me to learn in the Westinghouse days.
Sarah Howorth [00:24:53] So, the nuclear industry loves its acronyms. Let's break MARVEL down a little bit for people who aren't familiar with it already. What exactly does it mean?
Yasir Arafat [00:25:03] Yeah, it is a good question. I do put a lot of emphasis into how to manage, how to communicate with folks and how to manage branding. For example, before eVinci, we went through a whole naming exercise for a few months.
Sarah Howorth [00:25:24] Oh, wow.
Yasir Arafat [00:25:26] 600 names, and then we boiled down to one name. So, that gave me a lot of experience on what kind of name sticks and what doesn't. So for MARVEL, I actually named it as well, just like the eVinci one. That was one of my... We had a lot of people piling in to the collection of names, and eVinci was coming from my pile. So, I take a little bit of semi-pride on that.
Sarah Howorth [00:25:48] Yeah, you should!
Yasir Arafat [00:25:49] For MARVEL, it's actually not a... It's a different category of names. It's actually an abbreviation. But I wanted to pick a name that actually people can easily remember, regardless of what it's abbreviation is. I can barely remember on a good day. So, it actually stands for Micro Reactor Applications Research Validation and Evaluation Project.
Sarah Howorth [00:26:13] Okay, awesome.
Yasir Arafat [00:26:15] M-A-R-V, and then I couldn't get an L, so I just put the E-L for "Evaluation." It worked out okay.
Sarah Howorth [00:26:20] Yeah, yeah.
Yasir Arafat [00:26:21] So, that's what it stands for. And it's not something that is a name of a Greek god or something scary. I wanted to make it something that would be exciting, that people can attach to very well, they're not going to easily forget, and it would be exciting for the industry. Like for example, we have multiple people, sets of tours that we give on various topics at the national lab. And there was a time where we were allowing the public to come in and out. There was a young child that came in for a tour with his parents at the TREAT facility, and I was talking about MARVEL. I was kind of excited to see the level of excitement from the, I think nine or ten year old. He was like, "I really like the name. Is it like Tony Stark's reactor?" And obviously it's not, but I didn't want to crush his excitement. I was like, "Yeah, it's something very much like that. It's a small, compact reactor that can create electricity and power and you can do awesome stuff with it," which is very true.
Sarah Howorth [00:27:24] Yeah, yeah.
Yasir Arafat [00:27:26] So yeah, I think it resonates with people and it sticks. You don't forget about it, and it's not a scary one.
Sarah Howorth [00:27:32] Yeah, that's awesome. A lot of people already really love that name and it evokes a kind of sense of wonder, for sure, like that. So, that's awesome. Let's go into a little more detail about the project itself, where it's at now, and a little bit of its history.
Yasir Arafat [00:27:48] So MARVEL, because we were building a new reactor in quite some time, we're like, "We're going to get the majority of the benefits out of this project as much as possible." So, what are the current challenges? Right now, industry, we are viewed as, "Oh, nuclear is not innovative. They can't get a new technology out," which in some ways is true, but not for the reasons that people think it was. And then, "It's too slow. It takes forever." So we said, "Okay, we're going to change all that. We're going to build a micro reactor as quickly as possible."
Yasir Arafat [00:28:27] So what's quick, right? We started asking ourselves, "Well, if you think about the most innovative technology of the last 20, 30 years that's impacted people's lives the most, what is it?" And actually, it turns out to be our cell phone, right? And we do get an upgrade every two years or so. And that's for an existing technology, right? So, if we are able to actually design a reactor within a two year timeframe, I think that's going to be super phenomenal. Like, it's unheard of, right? Yeah. When we started pitching eVinci at Westinghouse back in the days, we said, "We're going to design this thing in five years." And we were told, "That's crazy."
Sarah Howorth [00:29:06] Yeah.
Yasir Arafat [00:29:07] And we're talking about even crazier, two years, right? And I said, "Well, even if it takes even double the time, we're still transformationally different and faster than everything we've seen so far." So, speed was definitely one of our metrics of performance. Safety is number one, for sure. I mean, you're not going to get a reactor authorized or licensed or be able to start it without proving to the regulator that you are safe, period. So, that's a given. So, I'm not going to talk about that. But speed was definitely the other one. So, we started asking ourselves... I'm kind of going around into your question, but I'll come back it, I promise.
Sarah Howorth [00:29:46] Yeah, no, no. I believe it.
Yasir Arafat [00:29:47] So, we started asking ourselves, "Okay, well, what are the key metrics we should build to actually meet that two year timeline. Or, let's say in the worst case scenario, double of that, like four years? Two to four years, what can we really do?" So the basic thing is, we can't try to make the most, let's call it the shiniest reactor out there. We have to build a reactor using technologies that we can either find off the shelf, components, which have an existing supply chain. Second, things that we cannot buy off the shelf should be easy to fabricate. Those were the two rules that we used from the very start to now for the project.
Yasir Arafat [00:30:32] And so, we started in June of 2020. And right now we are about approaching the third year. We have gone through the final design review last September. We're addressing all the final comments right now. We're already purchasing material to build the reactor. And we have another approval that we're working with DOE on. Once they review that, the document, and give us the approval to actually fabricate, our plan is to start fabrication in the next two to three months. And the idea is we'll fabricate all the components this first fiscal year, majority of it, and then start assembly, perhaps end of this year or beginning of next calendar year. And our fuel will arrive sometime end of next summer or beginning of fall. So, we'll load the fuel in and go critical before next Christmas. So, that's the current goal.
Sarah Howorth [00:31:25] That's awesome. So, what is your ideal vision for how this project turns out and what it's contributing to the really fast development of the industry right now?
Yasir Arafat [00:31:38] So, we knew there were other companies that were developing micro reactor designs, but they were still a couple of years away. And we thought, "If we do it fast enough, we have a test micro reactor on site, and we can do various things." And that's the whole purpose of MARVEL. One is, we wanted to build a test reactor to show how... Not as a materials test reactor, but an application test reactor. So, we can take this reactor, connect it with wind, solar, battery, hydrogen generation storage and be able to see how all of it works together with the nuclear element in the middle of a microgrid. And try to see if we can get to a stable grid where we can use all clean energy, not just renewables, but nuclear as a part of that, and be able to sustain that in the long run? We've done a lot of paper studies to prove that it can, obviously, but that will be the first demonstration to understand the logistics.
Yasir Arafat [00:32:35] So, what that will do is it gives researchers an opportunity to have a test bed to perform all their R&D for the future. Second, a lot of these customers that we're targeting for decentralized generation with micro reactors, whether it be university campuses or data centers or remote areas, these customers have not directly run a nuclear reactor in their backyard. So, it would be great to actually bring those customers, first of a kind customers in many ways, onto the test site and show them, "Hey, this is really what a micro reactor is. Here's how we operate a grid. You need two operators. The majority of the time, they don't need to pay attention and they can play on their phones. And you can eat a sandwich around it or you can walk around it and have a picnic, for example. It is something that is so benign, a university research reactor, that it can reside in your backyard." We can talk about it all day, but until we demonstrate that it's hard to get it convinced to the customers.
Yasir Arafat [00:33:39] So, that's the main goal of MARVEL. For the researchers, for the customers, and a third one, which is my favorite as a technologist, is as we go through this, I want to be able to not keep the learnings in-house. I want to be able to share that with as many industries, as many universities, because a lot of our innovations come from there as well, as much as possible. So, we want to keep the project open-ended so that we can collaborate and share those lessons learned so they don't have to go through those risks themselves and they can reduce the barriers to market. So again, to see at least some company get to market, that's kind of my lifetime mission to see that happening.
Yasir Arafat [00:34:24] So we, every six months or so, we have these webinars and we have like more than 200 people. So, we share along the way what we learned, what we did not learn, what are the challenges we faced, how we overcame them, and kind of shared them whether it's applicable or not. And generally, after those sessions we see a wave of contacts for more information on various topics and reactors. Because if you look at all the various designs, there are a lot of commonalities between all micro reactors. So, there are a lot of things we're learning and we're sharing them openly. That's not the tendency, typically, that we see in industry. They try to keep everything closed doors. So, we're kind of bridging all those learnings across the board.
Sarah Howorth [00:35:07] Yeah. So, let's talk more about this collaboration that you mentioned. We talked a little bit yesterday before the interview about collaboration versus competition in the nuclear landscape. How do you think that this collaboration can really push all of this innovation forward?
Yasir Arafat [00:35:24] Again, as I mentioned yesterday, I personally believe that what I've seen is everyone working behind closed doors and they're not being shared because they want to retain their own IP, intellectual property. Which is a way of doing things, and we've always done things in the past this way. But I firmly believe that the nuclear industry is very unique in the sense that we should compete, but not right now while we're in development. I think we as a community have a lot more to gain by collaborating than keeping everything closed doors and competing with one another at this stage.
Sarah Howorth [00:36:06] Right.
Yasir Arafat [00:36:07] Nuclear is complex, and it generally takes a village to be successful. And I truly believe that companies should start evolving a lot of their thinking. And then we see a lot of partnerships as well. But there are many things that should be talked about out in the open, and currently they don't do that. Of course, they can't do that and talk about everything they're doing, otherwise they'll lose all their IP. But I think I would like to see more open collaboration or more open innovation to be put in place and curb away from the competitive nature. I think that would do the industry way more good.
Yasir Arafat [00:36:43] If you look at the total market... And we talked about it in the MIT CANES Symposium, right? How much nuclear energy does this country need to achieve net zero goals by 2050? And it's something in the order of about 300 gigawatts. And if you think about it, that's 300 gigawatt-sized plants, right? Or, times three. I mean, 900 300 megawatt SMRs. And even smaller, more numerous micro reactors. If you think about it, one particular company, I don't see that they're making 900 SMRs by 2050. I don't see that happening. In fact, if there are 30 companies and all of them are successful, it will be a very difficult task to actually achieve all those 300 gigawatts unless the whole entire country comes together and makes it happen like the way we did back in the 50s and 60s and 70s. We did do this, by the way. We built all our plants in a very short amount of time. It is possible; we have done that before. But I think we need to get there again. But we're not going to get there by a single company or or two companies. I think even if everyone's successful, it's going to be very difficult to actually go through this heavy lift of transforming our energy sector completely.
Sarah Howorth [00:38:08] And do you think the national labs can kind of act as a hub for this collaboration? What makes them so essential to the industry right now?
Yasir Arafat [00:38:17] Absolutely. I think national labs play a very important role in here because, as I mentioned before, they have some capabilities that a lot of the companies, both big and small, don't have. And if you look into the past, I referenced the 52 reactors that INL did. Those were the various reactor tests that collected the data for the current technology, and some for the submarines, that really were essential to lift off the industry to where it is today. I think national labs can play a very similar role to perform various types of reactor tests that can springboard some of those technologies to a higher technology readiness level.
Yasir Arafat [00:39:03] And in fact, if you look at INL's plan, our target is to basically help commercial industry perform more and more of these demonstrations on our site, to be able to provide the workforce, to be able to provide the capabilities, the expertise, and be able to go through first of a kind challenges, and then they can go off and then actually commercialize that technology elsewhere. So for initial demonstrations, I think the national labs play a significant role for the overall industry. And INL, being the lead nuclear lab for the Office of Nuclear Energy, has a significant leadership role in making that happen.
Sarah Howorth [00:39:41] Right. And so, a lot of companies also have go-to-market dates in 2025, 2026, 2027. Where do you personally see us in 2030?
Yasir Arafat [00:39:53] I'm an optimist, so I like to be optimistic about the outlook of nuclear. I feel like there are so many companies that are both funneling in private investment as well as government investment that we ought to be successful by at least some of them. And so by 2030, if things are done correctly and we're able to come up with a product that is not only safe but also attractive from a operations utility perspective as well as economically feasible, I think I can see by 2030 we can have multiple micro reactors deployed or even SMRs deployed. SMRs may take a little longer, but typically I think I see micro reactors being the first waves that would potentially hit the market. Obviously, there are a lot of SMRs in the market that are very mature, like the NuScale design, BWRX-300, and then various other designs out there. But micro reactors, I think you can deploy them a little faster.
Yasir Arafat [00:41:03] If I kind of forecast into the future, my ideal scenario would be that I want to see some micro reactors being built in factories and tens if not hundreds of them being deployed everywhere. That's kind of like my vision for what I see nuclear to pan out to be. And this is what I usually tell people, right? If you look into the world right now, 50% of the population inhabit only 1% of the land. The majority of these places are actually inhabitable, currently. So, what I would like to see is... usually people try to think of nuclear as for developing countries, we can provide electricity, for developed countries, we can provide energy security. But the way I see it, I think nuclear can play a much bigger role than that. I think we can enable uninhabitable places habitable.
Yasir Arafat [00:42:01] Like, for example, the Sahara. If we can provide energy, we can solve some of the water challenges, some of the livable challenges. I think we can make some of these places that are so far away from the grid that it's difficult to live, I think with the power generator that can provide electricity and heat, there's so much more we can do with that and make more places habitable that are currently not occupied by people. So, instead of trying to settle Mars, I think there are a lot of places on this earth where we can make people inhabit.
Sarah Howorth [00:42:35] Yeah, that's very interesting. And aside from micro reactors, what technology are you seeing that you're really intrigued by right now?
Yasir Arafat [00:42:46] Just like most people in the industry, everyone has their different favorite technologies, right? I try not to attach myself to a particular one. And that's advice that I got from one of my early, early mentors. He's like, "Don't get married to your technology. The moment you do that, you get stuck in one place for the rest of your career and you can't see objectively what works in what application and where." And not all technology is best for everything, but you have to kind of evolve along with the demand on how to change.
Yasir Arafat [00:43:19] So right now, where I am, my focus is... I've worked on the light-water reactor sector and the heat pipe reactor technology. And MARVEL is sort of... If you categorize them in the traditional speak, it's a liquid metal thermal reactor. Not a fast reactor, but it's liquid metal cooled, but it's a thermal reactor because we use a fuel form which has the hydrogen in it. So, your coolant can be anything, practically. So, we like liquid metal because it can give you a very, very good power density. So, we're taking all the benefits of the SFR, which is really mainly the coolant because it's such a great coolant out there.
Yasir Arafat [00:44:03] So right now, I'm floating more towards the liquid metal side because if you compare it, if you have a one meter cube volume... If you think about a high-temperature gas cooled reactor, you can extract between four to six megawatts from that cube. So, it's power density is about four to six maximum megawatts per meter cubed. If you take that same cube and look into a PWR, it's about 100, roughly. So, you can get 100 megawatts from that one cube. And if you look into a sodium-based reactor, it's actually 300 to 400. Meaning from that same cube, you can get, three to four times that of a PWR and about 30 or 40 times that of a gas-cooled system.
Yasir Arafat [00:44:57] So, lately I'm a huge fan of liquid metal reactors, personally. And also, if you think about it from a spectrum perspective, I like thermal reactors for small systems. Not for large ones, for the small systems. I like the thermal reactors more than the fast reactors because that actually requires lower enrichment, lower fuel amount, and we can get to better economics, in my opinion, for smaller systems. So, that's where my techie mind is residing at the moment. But obviously, things change all the time. But that's where I'm floating towards. And again, a lot of those, we tried to instill that in the MARVEL reactor. MARVEL is a liquid metal thermal reactor, but it's a very low power system. So, kind of looking into, okay, if you really want to convert that to a higher power system, what are the kind of changes you would make to get there? Again, that's still brewing in the back of my head. We'll see how that pans out.
Sarah Howorth [00:45:54] Yeah. So, you shared some good advice, kind of don't get stuck with one piece of technology. Do you have any other messages for the industry or advice to people who are either working in nuclear or learning about it?
Yasir Arafat [00:46:09] Sure. I think I'll just give a general message here. I think as a species, I think society has never been as dependent on energy as we are today. I mean, think about it. From the beginning of human civilization to now, we're most dependent on energy. I mean, every day, we're dependent on that. If you think about it, a lot of our current challenges in the world, major challenges like climate change, health care, or poverty, they're all related to energy. But if you look into the solution space, a lot of those are also related to energy.
Yasir Arafat [00:46:54] For example, in the developing countries, providing them the right energy, security or availability, and getting them out of energy poverty is an important aspect. For developed countries, I think it's all about the energy security piece. How can we be not reliant on foreign oil and gas or a supply chain that is foreign based? We can move away from that and be able... And again, after the whole invasion of Ukraine, we've seen Europe coming to the epiphany about how important energy security is.
Yasir Arafat [00:47:34] And I think from that perspective, if you think about what technology can really solve some of our biggest challenges and be able to provide the some of the best solutions, like say water purification or desalination or hydrogen production, I think nuclear can play a very, very big role in both the problem solving phase as well as opening up some other opportunities for mankind. And if you look at all the clean energy technology, if you can think about which energy can actually provide 24/7 power anywhere on the globe reliably, regardless of weather conditions and whatnot, the answer is nuclear. And I think if humanity really understands the importance of this technology and gets educated, I think that then we can move in the right direction.
Yasir Arafat [00:48:27] One of my two favorite books... And this is a kind of a suggestion for my authors who are trying to learn about nuclear. There are two good books I would actually recommend. One is The Making of the Atomic Bomb. That's one good book. And the other one is The Power to Save the World. And those two books are interesting. They're very big books, so if you have a lot of time and you want to read some of the content, those are it.
Yasir Arafat [00:48:48] What I like about those two books is the authors, they started their journey as anti-nuclear, but when they started digging into the technology more and more, they understood that it's actually the opposite. So by the end of it, they actually became more pro-nuclear than their initial journey. And I think that gives us an integral message to the public that, in fact... And we see that in a lot of the environmentalists who were anti-nuclear before and they actually have become pro-nuclear now because of the knowledge. So, I think the public is the same thing. If they are curious, if they want to know more about what it actually is and what it isn't, both sides of the coin, I think they'll see that nuclear is actually a fantastic technology to move mankind to this next era of civilization. So, that would be my general message to the listeners here.
Sarah Howorth [00:49:46] Yeah, that's a great note to end on. Go out and get those books and learn some more about it. That's Yasir, everybody. Thank you so much. We were delighted to have you on.
Yasir Arafat [00:49:55] Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.