Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Southern Co. Moves Closer to Advanced Reactor Technology

Southern Co.'s nuclear unit and X-energy LLC are taking another step toward commercializing next-generation nuclear reactor technology, the companies said Monday.

The companies have signed a memorandum of understanding to commercialize and use X-energy's high-temperature gas-cooled reactor.  The MOU moves forward on efforts to develop advanced nuclear technology to keep nuclear as a viable electricity source.
Their efforts already have the backing of the federal government.  The Energy Department earlier this year awarded Southern and Maryland-based X-energy up to $80 million to develop advanced nuclear technologies that would be commercially ready by 2035.

X-energy's so-called Xe-100 reactor technology has key differences from traditional reactors, including fuel, temperature and cooling requirements.

Pebble fuel is key to unsurpassed safety. (Credit: x-energy.com) Click to Enlarge.
The reactors operate on "pebble" fuel:  200,000 dense pebbles, each filled with 24,000 tiny particles.  The way the pebbles are packaged makes the reactor safer than traditional ones, said Martin van Staden, X-energy's vice president of nuclear development.

The reactors don't have to stop operating during a refueling, he said.

The reactor makes energy — and steam — at a much higher temperature, which means it can operate more efficiently.  It also doesn't require water to cool it, removing any chance of a nuclear meltdown, van Staden said.

"In the worst-case scenarios, the reactor will shut itself down and dissipate the heat naturally to the environment," Staden told EnergyWire in an interview.

What may be most important is the reactor's ability to run as baseload generation or "load follow," which means it can adjust its power output as electricity demand fluctuates throughout the day.  This separates next-generation reactor technology from current reactors and is a key point as renewable energy starts to play a greater role in Southern's generation mix.

The Xe-100 reactors would be able to ramp up or down their power output in conjunction with how much solar, wind or other renewables are on the grid at the time, working in tandem with those intermittent resources.

Staden said the companies may be able to develop and use the Xe-100 reactors around the 2027-2030 time frame.  This is because they are building on previous work on next-generation reactors that started more than a decade ago.

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