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X-energy is leading the way in nuclear reactor, fuel design innovation

Every year during the third week of October, the international community celebrates Nuclear Science Week. During this week educators, scientists, and students celebrate and discuss the many ways in which nuclear science plays a pivotal role in our society.

>>>READ: Policy Expert Outlines Regulatory Reforms Needed to Advance Nuclear

To honor this event, C3 Solutions will be conducting a series of interviews with some leaders in nuclear policy, science, and technology. Today, in continuation of our observation of Nuclear Energy Week, Drew Bond interviewed Clay Sell, CEO and director of X-energy, a nuclear reactor design and fuel design company.

Sell came to X-energy after serving in the White House and then the Department of Energy under the George W. Bush administration as the Deputy Secretary of Energy. During his time in the White House, Sell played a pivotal role in advancing the Next Generation Nuclear Initiative that was passed in the 2005 Energy Act. While the Initiative didn’t result in the construction of a new nuclear plant, due to funding and legislative challenges, Sell says that the experience has come in handy in his role at X-energy.

“That program, although it never resulted in the construction of the plant, went a long way in both qualifying the fuel that X-energy uses in its reactors today and identifying a lot of really important regulatory issues and resolving those regulatory issues that make our licensing path more attractive. It’s one of those strange circles in life—you work on something 15 years ago and you really see the huge benefit to my company today.”

One way in which Sell and his team have looked to innovate the nuclear industry is through their reactor design. Their reactor, called the Xe-100, is a module that produces 80 megawatts of electricity. In commercial applications, X-energy sells these modules in packs of four, producing 320 megawatts—enough to power roughly 300,000 American homes. Should a utility wish to purchase more than a bundle of four, X-energy can easily add more modules to the site.

There are several reasons that X-energy has gone all-in on smaller reactors. The primary one is economics. By producing a small modular reactor, the company has, as Sell puts it, “a wide variety of industrial fabricators to make our modules.”

He continues:

“If you go huge, there are only one or two foundries in the world that can make the largest forgings for nuclear power plants. We did not want to be captive to one or two foundries anywhere in the world just from a market power standpoint. We wanted a size that we could procure from a wide array of sources here in the United States and globally.”

The smaller size also allows X-energy to transport its reactors on the back of trucks, rather than having to rely on shipping containers or ports. Additionally, these smaller reactors require a smaller physical footprint—only 22 acres. X-energy has established a target date of 2027 to bring its first Xe-100 module to market.

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X-energy is also working on producing fuel for its reactors and the reactors of other companies. The reason for this was also economics, as the company did not want to be constrained by supply issues. The fuel is called TRISO-X and uses uranium that has been enriched to 15.5% and encapsulated in a graphite ceramic ball.

By using graphite ceramics, which don’t melt at any temperature scenario that would be seen in a reactor, X-energy ensures that 99.9% of the waste produced during burnup is retained in the fuel form. Sell stated that X-energy will start the construction of a commercial fuel facility for TRISO-X in 2024, making it the first new nuclear fuel facility in the United States in more than 50 years.

>>>READ: Climate Scientist Makes the Case for Nuclear Energy

These fuel innovations, coupled with the safety features of the Xe-100, virtually guarantee that a meltdown is impossible.

The future is indeed bright for X-energy. In addition to Xe-100 and TRISO-X, the company is working with the Department of Defense to create an easily transportable nuclear reactor that can replace diesel generators and be deployed in remote communities for three to five years without needing to be refueled. X-energy is also playing a key role in space exploration and is working closely with NASA to create an energy source that can be used in a future colony on the moon.

With the need for nuclear energy being so obvious in reducing emissions while providing reliable power to consumers, it is important to have entrepreneurs such as Clay Sell and his team at X-energy creating the innovations that are needed to power the world. In the future, expect to see X-energy in your community or the moon.

Watch the full interview here.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

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