Deborah Deal-Blackwell is part of an ambitious brother-sister team that is shaking up the world of nuclear energy. Working hand-in-hand with the Los Alamos Laboratory’s Technology Transfer Division, Deal-Blackwell and her brother John “Grizz” Deal had already created several small spin-offs four years ago when they came in contact with Dr. Otis “Pete” Peterson, who had invented a small modular reactor he thought could be used in remote mining and tar sands development. Together they founded Hyperion Power Generation with Grizz serving as CEO and Deal-Blackwell as vice president for public policy and licensing.
Deal-Blackwell immediately saw the possibility of wider applications for the reactor. She persuaded Peterson and Grizz, who was “entrepreneur-in-residence” at Los Alamos, to journey to Washington to make a presentation to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “At the time, the NRC didn’t even have anyone assigned to SMRs,” she recalls.
What happened next is the stuff of legend. According to some stories, the NRC told them to go away until they found a customer. According to others . . . well, we’ll let her tell it. In any case, Hyperion has taken the small modular reactor idea and run with it, putting them on the map. Last March Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial saying SMRs might be the future of nuclear energy in America.
Now Hyperion has a customer. This month the company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Savannah River National Laboratory to employ a Hyperion Power Module to power its energy park. Tomorrow, after four years of effort, Deal-Blackwell and her co-founders will sit down with NRC officials in Washington to begin discussing how the Commission might begin regulatory review for the nation’s first small modular reactor.
Here’s what Blackwell had to tell us about the effort:
NTH: What are the Hyperion Power Module ’s main features?
DEAL-BLACKWELL: It’s probably the smallest of the small reactors now heading toward licensure in the U.S. At 70 MWthermal / 25 MWelectric the HPM is really in the class of “mini”-reactors. Each reactor unit is 1.5 meters in diameter and 2.5 meters tall – about the size of two residential hot tubs stacked together. We wanted it to be small enough to fit on one truck, which is important because the unit is sealed at the assembly plant. It’s completely assembled off-site and buried in the ground in a specially designed vault. After that, it’s not to be opened or refueled. The whole assembly, including the electricity-generating component, sits on less than an acre. The entire plant can be constructed in just a few months. At the end of its useful life, which is around 10 years, we take the entire sealed reactor back to the factory where it can be refueled. We’ve got one of the few business plans that doesn’t involve leaving spent fuel on the customer’s site.
NTH: Does the design of the HPM have anything to do with submarine reactors or is this completely different?
DEAL-BLACKWELL: The Soviet Union created submarines using lead-cooled fast reactors that were so fast the West was forced into revamping its own technology. A lot of inspiration comes from the Soviets’ Alfa class submarine but our design team at Los Alamos National Laboratory has made significant improvements on our own.
The HPM’s lead coolant is actually lead-bismuth eutectic (LBE), a mixture of 45 percent lead and 55 percent bismuth. It’s a liquid metal similar to the sodium in a sodium-cooled reactor except that it doesn’t have the disadvantages of sodium. Sodium burns on contact with air and reacts violently with water, while LBE does not.
LBE can operate at low pressure, which reduces the need for complex, emergency-coolant injection safety systems in high-pressure reactors. The chance of pipe rupture and loss of coolant accidents are reduced significantly. Also LBE has a much higher boiling temperature (1670o C) compared to sodium (883o C), which provides greater safety margins for coping with abnormal events.
NTH: How do you envision these reactors being deployed?
DEAL-BLACKWELL: Primarily for mining operations, manufacturing facilities, and military bases in the U.S. There is a potential for Homeland Security/ Emergency Response use as well. Overseas, the sky is the limit. With so much of the planet still without electricity, the opportunity to raise the standard of living for impoverished populations is vast. SMRs can provide the energy to irrigate farmland, desalinate water, mine in isolated areas, run small manufacture plants and electrify whole villages and towns.
NTH: How much will they cost? Is there a containment structure in there? Would that change the cost projections?
DEAL-BLACKWELL: We are projecting that each HPM (the reactor unit) will run about $50 to $75 million, plus another $25 to $50 million for the balance of the steam to electricity generating plant. The containment structure is included in those costs.
NTH: What was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s initial response when you approached them four years ago?
DEAL-BLACKWELL: Contrary to legend, no one said “This can’t be licensed – go away you strange red-haired woman.” On the whole, their response was positive. Everyone was excited about the “Nuclear Renaissance” at that point. True, they were not ready to deal with SMRs, but they were gracious and encouraging.
On Capitol Hill, however, the idea met with more resistance. I remember being laughed at by people who are now consultants to other SMR vendors. To their credit, however, some Senators such as Jim Webb and George Voinovich were visionary. They were intrigued and saw the potential for U.S. manufacturing and jobs and for getting military bases off the vulnerable common grid. Amazingly, the hardest sell was within the nuclear industry. Some of the big names in the nuclear industry that advocate for SMRs today were against them nine months ago. All they knew were big light water reactors and they could not envision anything else. Few had a clue about the role small FAST reactors could play.
NTH: Babcock & Wilcox has since indicated it is designing an SMR and of course the Japanese, Koreans and Russians are in the hunt, too. With the amount of investment required to go through NRC licensing, can a small company really compete in this field?
DEAL-BLACKWELL: Of course or we wouldn’t be in it. At the IAEA convention last week in Vienna, Secretary Chu asked me why we were pursuing an LBE fast reactor design. I told him because we believe it is absolutely the best design on the planet for this size range. It’s safer, more efficient, and more appropriate for many types of applications. Every day new stakeholders come to understand its advantages. We have enough advocates and committed customers now that we have secured a place in the emerging mix of nuclear energy providers. Keep in mind that many of the biggest advancements in technology have come from small companies, even start-ups. Could anyone have envisioned Microsoft or Apple? They have created entire industries.
NTH: You’ve talked about having other options, meaning that there may be other ways to get your reactor up and running without going through NRC approval. What are the possibilities abroad?
DEAL-BLACKWELL: Certainly a design certification and manufacturing license from the NRC is crucially important to us. We are not trying to “go around” the NRC. But yes, there are other opportunities abroad. All countries have their own regulatory authority and we look forward to working with them.
NTH: How did this renewed effort with the NRC come about? Did you initiate it or did they?
DEAL-BLACKWELL: It was a mutual decision that the time had come and we were ready.
NTH: Considering the potential of nuclear energy and the degree to which public fears have been exaggerated, does it seem possible that 20 to 30 years hence someone could be selling nuclear “batteries” at Wal-Mart?
DEAL-BLACKWELL: I don’t see that happening in 30 years. Maybe 300 years! The nuclear industry moves at a conservative pace, particularly in this country. This is appropriate because the industry cannot make even the smallest mistake. Coal and oil-based technologies may cost many lives every year but when it happens, the public does not demand that we shut down all operations. But even the smallest incident with no fatalities or discernable injuries at a nuclear reactor can have dire consequences for the industry. No, retail sales of fission technology is not likely in the foreseeable future, but check back with me in 300 years and we’ll see who’s right!
NTH: Thanks very much for your time.