The modern world faces a conundrum: how can policymakers and nations meet rising energy demand while simultaneously protecting the environment from rising greenhouse gas emissions?
Doomberg—a widely-read writer and commentator on energy, heavy industry, private equity, hard sciences, cryptocurrency, and a host of other complex issues—recently attracted attention by making a provocative-but-true declaration that addresses the above question directly: “there is no path to significant decarbonization of our economy without a global nuclear renaissance.”
Yet such a renaissance may be in the works. A recent joint development agreement made by two companies provides some insight into the quiet revolution happening in the realm of nuclear energy, that scalable decarbonization is possible, and why policymakers should be more attentive.
The Xe-100 Deal
In early March of this year, X-energy, a leading developer of advanced nuclear reactors, and Dow, the chemical and material sciences multinational, made an intriguing announcement. According to the press release, Dow has agreed to place X-energy’s Xe-100 small modular reactor (SMR) at Dow’s UCC Seadrift Operations manufacturing site in Texas. The project’s state goal is “to reduce the Seadrift site’s emissions by approximately 440,000 [megatons of carbon dioxide per year].”
According to Dow, its Seadrift site “covers 4,700 acres and manufactures more than 4,000,000 pounds (1,816 tonnes) of materials per year used in applications such as food packaging, footwear, wire and cable insulation, solar cell membranes and packaging for pharmaceutical products.” Such a large facility with over a thousand employees requires a significant amount of energy to provide power, process heat, and steam, ideally while producing zero carbon emissions.
This is where the Xe-100 enters the picture: it is a high-temperature, gas-cooled, 80 Megawatts electric (MWe) reactor that can be scaled into “a four-pack 320 MWe power plant—with [its] modular design, the scale can grow even larger as needed.”
X-energy and Dow’s new partnership signals that advanced nuclear technology can be implemented to abate carbon emissions in the industrial sector without sacrificing the bottom line. After all, it is traditionally difficult to mitigate higher carbon emissions in heavy industry. Yet this project has the potential to do just so, since nuclear power produces zero emissions during baseload generation. If successful, this would be the first project between two private companies, with some government assistance, to develop and demonstrate “the first grid-scale next-generation nuclear reactor for an industrial site in North America.”
How the U.S. Government Is Helping—and Preparing to Do More
Dow and X-energy are now working to submit a construction permit application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). But regulatory hurdles continue to be a tangled web standing in the way of advanced reactor deployment in the United States. Bureaucratic inertia creates delays, which forces utilities to continue burning more natural gas, coal, and oil for electricity in New York and New England. The Dow/X-energy project will likely not be an exception to overcome NRC foot-dragging; securing the building permit is estimated to go until 2026, with completion of the whole venture expected by the end of this decade.
Despite this impediment, nuclear power is at the forefront of clean energy options available. It is for this reason that the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) is not only pushing for this project, but also helping fund it. The Xe-100 was one of two next-generation reactor designs selected by DoE in 2020 to receive $80 million each for “initial cost-shared funding to build an advanced reactor demonstration plant that can be operational within seven years.” Since the award, X-energy has completed the engineering, begun the initial design of the reactor, and is working with the NRC, along with state and local authorities, on the licensing and development of a fuel fabrication facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Relatedly, the DoE named Dow a sub-awardee under the recent deal between the two companies, which “provides for up to [$50] million in engineering work, half funded by the [DoE program] and half by Dow.”
Other companies have taken notice of this new model of pairing advanced nuclear reactors with other hard-to-mitigate sectors. For example, Nucor, the largest steel manufacturer in the United States, is now considering using NuScale Power’s SMRs to power its scrap-based electric arc furnace steel mills, and has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to further that possibility.
Policymakers are also increasingly recognizing the viability of SMRs. The U.S. Congress is supporting these projects and future projects by considering passing the Accelerating Deployment of Versatile Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy (ADVANCE) Act, which would “facilitate the development of the next generation of advanced nuclear reactors.”
Companies focusing on developing SMRs are intent on demonstrating that it is possible to build a new fleet of atomic plants that are smaller, easier to finance, and construct. If successful, the X-energy/Dow project and others like will show that these reactors can be used in a wide variety of settings, from industrial sites to remote military installations. For its part, if everything goes well with the Seadrift project, Dow envisions retiring its gas-fired combustion and steam turbines at the site.
This would be an astonishing development and would signal to the wider economy that the use of SMRs should be adopted on a grand scale. It is entirely possible that in the future the United States could achieve energy superabundance
With the Xe-100, and other projects in the development and MoU stage, it’s an exciting time for the U.S. nuclear economy.
Todd Royal is the Senior Project Analyst for E4 Carolinas, a non-profit energy advocacy firm located in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is working on a three-year grant for the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration focusing on a value chain study for the advanced nuclear technology sector (Generation IV reactors, SMRs, and advanced reactors). Todd lives outside of Dallas, Texas.