Nuclear Power and the Perils of Pioneering

Fifth in a series of eight articles

By Gwen Holdmann
June 22, 2023

One day in 2004, Marvin Yoder, the City Manager of Galena, AK, received an unusual e-mail that would change his life and the course of an industry. The email was an inquiry from Toshiba Corporation, asking if Galena might be interested in hosting a demonstration deployment of a small nuclear microreactor “battery” that was under development in Japan. This reactor was intended to be the first of a new generation of advanced nuclear microreactors – a generation that addressed many of the persistent concerns related to nuclear energy. It did not require cooling water, was highly compact, would be buried underground, and run largely autonomously. In essence, the Toshiba reactor was a de facto thermal battery – producing heat for both power generation and space heating. The fuel it contained was purported to last 30 years and once the fuel was expended, the entire reactor would be removed intact and replaced with a new one.

Honda 2 kW suitcase generator
The relative difference between the 10 MW Toshiba 4S nuclear reactor and a conventional 1000 MW nuclear power plant is similar to the difference between a non-rechargeable Duracell D battery and my Honda 2 kW suitcase generator

To put this in context, the difference between this reactor and a conventional nuclear power plant can be compared both in size and operating concept to the difference between a non-rechargeable Duracell D battery and my Honda 2 kW suitcase generator.

While this may sound like science fiction, this technology has been incrementally evolving for decades. Progress has been slow, hampered by price competition from cheap natural gas, negative public perceptions of nuclear energy exacerbated by the Fukushima Daiichi accident, and the glacial pace of licensing through the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But the urgency around decarbonizing our energy supply has spurred renewed interest in nuclear, and there are currently dozens of companies with big investors that are committed to bringing safe and efficient small reactor designs to the market within the next two to seven years.

As Marvin recounted when I reminisced with him about his experience, the Galena of that era did not tend to shy away from controversial opportunities. Within a month of that initial inquiry, representatives from Toshiba were on the ground in the community, hosting a public presentation that drew nearly the entire town. And thus an unlikely partnership between a high-tech multinational firm and a small village in rural Alaska was forged.

The proposed Galena project – and Marvin himself – ultimately had a profound impact on the U.S. nuclear industry, igniting ideas about new business models in an industry that had been largely stagnant for decades. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission scrambled to catch up. Siting a small reactor in a remote, rural community like Galena was different in almost every respect from any other plant they had licensed. Although the project generated a great deal of interest, the Toshiba reactor was never built. In many ways, it was an idea a little ahead of its time. But it marked the beginning of a shift in the nuclear industry. 

Small nuclear reactors – an option for Alaska?

I got involved in nuclear energy right around the time the Galena project was scrapped. It was 2009 and much of Alaska was reeling from steeply escalating energy prices. The Alaska Legislature asked UAF’s fledgling Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) to take a harder look at the new technology. As an engineering physicist with a background in thermodynamics, I was tapped to lead the study. I had never thought much about nuclear energy, despite living less than 20 miles from the Byron reactor in northern Illinois while in high school. My most vivid impression of the true scale of that reactor occurred while taking private pilot lessons. At the time, I had hoped to become a pilot in the Air Force reserves and having some flight experience, I was told, would be helpful. Typically, my instructor had me fly north from the Cottonwood airport in Rockford, Illinois. Due to developing thunderheads one afternoon, we turned to the south instead. After flying over bucolic farm fields and small hamlets, we ended up circling the Byron nuclear facility. From ground level, I had never grasped the full magnitude and scale of this power plant, commanded by its two landmark cooling towers. It was an enormous complex, and with lightning flashing behind it on the horizon, it looked quite ominous. That little flightseeing tour left a deep impression on me, including a measure of fear and awe for what a nuclear incident could entail.

The team that worked with me on that 2009 study was an eclectic bunch, including everything from economists and social scientists to physicists and a chemical engineer. We became invested in the work, committing nights and weekends and occasionally feeling a bit like investigative journalists as we dug through obscure technical reports to gain an objective understanding of Alaska’s nuclear history. This included researching the full history of Alaska’s nuclear past – the decommissioning of the Fort Greely nuclear reactor in the late 1960’s, the Amchitka testing, Project Chariot, and the 10 tiny radioisotope thermoelectric generators used at Burnt Mountain to power a telecommunications site. In the final analysis, the entire team developed a real interest in small nuclear and the potential it could hold for Alaska. We found many aspects of the technology compelling including the intrinsic safety of the technology, its ability to provide essential heat in addition to power, the long intervals between refueling, and attractive economics - especially for high cost areas of the state.

Reshaping Perceptions

One of the researchers involved in the study had spent his childhood in Germany, living with the repercussions and legacy of the 1986 Chernobyl reactor meltdown which killed 30 operators and firemen and released radioactive fallout across many parts of Europe. During the six months we worked on the project, he never mentioned this history or concerns about nuclear. However, shortly before we published the report, he shared that he had come to think differently about nuclear energy as a result of this work. His exposure to the technology behind advanced reactors had led him to re-examine his fear and deep opposition to the legacy nuclear energy technologies that had shaded his childhood.

The stigma associated with nuclear energy is a real challenge and not easily overcome. I’ve been convinced some of it relates to the human tendency to conflate adjacent technologies, like nuclear weapons and nuclear power. But there are some legitimate concerns regarding nuclear energy. The human and environmental impacts of poor mining practices, the geopolitics around global uranium sources, and the lack of a long-term geologic storage facility in the U.S. for high radiation level nuclear waste represent a few. Microreactors don’t solve those problems. On the other hand, all energy technologies pose some level of negative impact. Solar, wind, and batteries require mining rare earth minerals and other raw materials, much like the uranium used to fuel nuclear reactors, only in much greater quantities. The waste from those technologies is not as closely tracked, and the toxicity of most of those metals and other elements does not degrade over time like radionuclides do. End-of-life management is something we should assess for all energy technologies; especially those we deem sustainable.

What advanced reactor technologies do address is safety and environmental issues – where most of the stigmas reside. In particular, the small amount of nuclear material and the configuration and packaging of the fuel is such that in a worst-case accident (earthquake knocks the reactor over, a missile hits it, etc.), it will passively shut down as dictated by the laws of gravity and physics, rather than relying on a human or computer to take some action in order to initiate a safe shut down. And, it is physically impossible for any nuclear reactor – including conventional ones – to blow up. They can melt down and that can cause lots of bad things to happen, but they cannot become a bomb.

In a recent poll of 600 randomly selected Alaskans, only half of respondents had ever heard of a micronuclear reactor. Of those who had heard of microreactors, 73% believe that Alaska should explore microreactors as part of a diversified energy portfolio for the state. Support was consistent across all political affiliations – democrat, republican or independent. On the other hand, at least 10% of Alaskans are strongly opposed to nuclear energy. This is similar to hydropower, which was the most popular among the conventional technologies, but which 9% of respondents also strongly opposed.  

The perils of pioneering

In October, 2021, The US Air Force announced that Eielson Air Force Base would be the home of its first small nuclear power plant. A commercial microreactor of up to 5 MW could be operational there as soon as 2027. Because this is a first of its kind power plant, it is almost guaranteed to be very high cost, subject to unforeseen challenges with slipped timelines, licensing, and other delays. But small nuclear is coming, and by all indications it is coming to Alaska first.

I have mixed feelings about demonstration projects in Alaska. On one hand, I love seeing our state benefit from new technological solutions and I am proud of our legacy of innovation. But I have all too often seen Alaskans left holding the bag when a technology doesn’t perform as advertised. In other cases, I have seen companies generate millions or even billions of dollars  from technologies successfully prototyped in Alaska, without leaving a discernible economic or social benefit behind.

One example of the latter case is Ormat Technologies. Ormat was a tiny Israeli company established by the Bronicki family in the mid-60’s who had a niche expertise in turbine designs. Their technology could generate power from relatively low temperature heat sources that were insufficient to produce power using conventional means. A few years after they were established, they got their first big contract for their remote power unit (RPU). That contract was halfway around the world in Alaska, after Ormat was selected to supply dozens of small, 5-kW generators for cathodic protection along the entire length of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Ormat engineers had long considered geothermal as a potential heat source to drive their RPUs – especially geothermal resources that had previously been overlooked for power generation because temperatures were too low to produce steam. At that time, most geothermal power plants required steam to drive a turbine and generate electricity, a process referred to as a stream Rankine cycle. The turbine doesn’t care what energy source is used to produce steam – it could be coal, geothermal, or nuclear. But even if temperatures are too low to convert water to steam, you can still boil some liquids (like many organic hydrocarbons) into vapor to drive a turbine. This process is fundamentally the same as a steam Rankine cycle, but because it relies on vaporizing an organic fluid instead of water it is called an Organic Rankine Cycle, or ORC. This is the type of system Ormat were experts in building.

Taking advantage of the work they were doing in Alaska, they dragged one of their RPUs to Manley Hot Springs for testing. They used warm geothermal water from the springs to drive their turbine and proved it was a viable approach. It was the first time a sub-boiling geothermal fluid was used for power generation in the U.S. or Europe, though Russia was separately developing and testing a prototype in Kamchatka around the same time.

Ormat’s history in Alaska is mentioned nowhere on their website, yet when you talk to the founders it is an important part of their company lore. Ormat grew from that small mom-and-pop company winning their first big contract in Alaska, to become a publicly traded company worth $5.1 billion today and a recognized leader in geothermal power generation equipment and development.

UAF Researchers work with Ormat Technologies to test their RPU at Manley Hot Springs.
Picture courtesy of John Zarling, faculty emeritus at UAF.
UAF Researchers work with Ormat Technologies to test their RPU at Manley Hot Springs.

Did Alaska benefit from being the site of this technological first? Not much. I know this history because as a young engineer tasked with managing development of the first geothermal power plant at Chena Hot Springs, I tried to get Ormat to give me a quote for a unit. After pestering them for several months, they ultimately declined to work with us. Their reason reverberates with me to this day. “You are too small, too remote, and too low temperature.” This is no slight to Ormat – this was just a business decision. There was no hometown discount or special favoritism to a site in Alaska just because it had played an important role in their product development. After the concept was proven in Alaska, we were just not a mainstream market worth bothering with.

The Ormat story is hardly unique. A more recent example is the Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) Battery Energy Storage System (BESS). GVEA was at the forefront of battery storage technology when seeking vendors for the BESS 20 years ago. When completed, it would be the largest single battery ever built in the world, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records. As a result of this prestige, it attracted vendors from all over the world, with the successful bidder ultimately being ABB and Saft – European companies not even on GVEAs radar when they published the solicitation.

Today, battery systems are ubiquitous components of the power industry. The biggest batteries in the world are now 10 times larger than GVEAs. And, with rising global demand, the top vendors can choose to be picky about where and for whom to prioritize its sales. Alaska deployments are always higher risk, because – as Ormat opined – we are too remote, too small, and have challenging environmental conditions.

So when GVEA recently sought bids to upgrade and replace their BESS system, they were shocked by the quotes they received, which were much higher than anticipated based on publicly available costs. The fact that they were once a leader in this technology field didn’t matter – nostalgia took a back seat to current project economics.

Settling the landscape

Alaska is going to be a proving ground for these small nuclear reactor designs. The question is: can we convert current industry interest into an approach that works for us? A single 5 MW microreactor at Eielson is not going to move the needle on Alaska’s future energy needs. If we wait for that unit to be proven, we can get behind a very long line of prospective customers, not just in the U.S., but globally. And history proves there won’t be much nostalgia about giving us a discount or letting us cut in line when there are so many other lucrative sales opportunities.

Ramping up production will take years. Our best bet to reap the benefits of this promising technology is to reserve a spot in line now. At the federal level, there is a high probability that the Department Of Defense will continue to invest in this technology. A collaborative state/federal partnership to co-design and procure a number of reactors for both civilian and military applications would benefit everyone. Alaska could move beyond our history of being a technology proving ground that launches products and companies into a global market. Instead, we have an opportunity to shape a new narrative. We can help the U.S. maintain its leadership position in a promising global industry, while ensuring Alaskans benefit from an emerging technology that is in many ways uniquely suited to our needs. We are small, we are remote, and we are low temperature. In other words, we represent the ideal niche market for micronuclear reactors.