Inside the MARVEL micronuclear reactor project at the Idaho National Lab

Nuclear reactors have a well-deserved reputation for being massive construction projects that often experience cost overruns. Furthermore, once built, monitoring and maintaining them requires a team of dozens of trained specialists.

But Yasir Arafat believes that nuclear energy doesn’t have to be that way.

Arafat is the technical lead on the microreactor project at one of the US government’s nuclear research laboratories, the Idaho National Lab, and in his role there, Arafat is leading the effort to build a small, relatively inexpensive nuclear reactor. It’s more of a nuclear battery, he says.

Arafat grew up in Bangladesh before going to college in the United States and is driven by a deep sense of urgency to help the world decarbonise. The effects of global warming are not discussed as a distant future scenario in Bangladesh – climate change is already part of everyday life today. Nuclear energy does not generate any greenhouse gas emissions, and Arafat hopes to contribute to the solution by building a prototype microreactor that could help the industry develop.

The prototype will be called MARVEL reactor, short for the Microreactor Applications Research Validation and Evaluation project, and the goal is to have the first one in operation by December 2023, making it the first advanced microreactor in the United States, Arafat told CNBC. (These photos show a prototype MARVEL reactor that runs on electrical heat, not nuclear heat, for preliminary research purposes.)

Yasir Arafat, technical lead on the Marvel microreactor project, shows the prototype to CNBC.

Photo courtesy of Magdalena Petrova, CNBC

The Idaho National Laboratory began designing and modeling the MARVEL reactor project in June 2020 under Arafat’s leadership. If completed, the MARVEL microreactor “will be the first of its kind capable of demonstrating how we can really miniaturize a nuclear system into something portable and transportable, and also capable of delivering heat and electricity to the end customer,” Arafat told CNBC in an interview on video in Idaho in May.

There are already a number of private companies – including Oklo, Westinghouse (where Arafat worked for a decade) and General Atomics – developing microreactors, and their goal is the same as the government’s: to develop a reliable, emission-free energy source.

A single microreactor can power a community of 1,000 to 10,000 people, whether it’s a hospital or a remote military base. The current electrical grid in the United States is based on a system of generating electricity at a centralized location and distributing it to end users. But microreactors are a component of a forward-looking vision for the electricity grid that is less centralized and more resilient to natural disasters.

In addition to being potential clean energy options for remote locations or small communities, microreactors could be a key part of a future clean energy network that includes renewable solar and wind power and battery storage, Arafat said. Nuclear power is a base-load power source, meaning it can provide power when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, serving as a backstop for the intermittence of renewables.

A prototype for the Marvel reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Photo courtesy of Magdalena Petrova, CNBC

smaller = cheaper

Small modular nuclear reactors are orders of magnitude less complicated to build and build than conventional light water reactors. Microreactors take this even further.

“All the hardware can be built in a factory, like the way we make automobiles or cars,” Arafat told CNBC, enabling the production of hundreds of microreactors a year. From the factory, a microreactor can be transported to the customer’s location, fueled and started. The goal is to be able to deploy a microreactor in less than a week, “so it’s more like a nuclear battery than a large-scale power plant,” he said.

“If we get really good at manufacturing these systems and take advantage of factory manufacturing, we can make them cheap enough for every campus in the country,” Arafat told CNBC.

Microreactors use a different type of enriched fuel just below the 20% threshold set by nuclear nonproliferation requirements. This fuel, called HALEU, or high-dose low-enrichment uranium, allows the reactor to be smaller.

“Actually, we can build a much more efficient core that is significantly more compact and smaller. So we would actually need a much smaller amount of fuel to design a reactor rather than a much larger core. That’s the biggest advantage.” to increase enrichment”. said Arafat.

The small size and factory fabrication mean that micronuclear reactors will be much cheaper to build than conventional light water reactors, which chronically run over schedule and under budget. The third and fourth reactors being built at the Vogtle plant in Georgia have become infamous examples of such excesses.

Yasir Arafat, Technical Lead for the Marvel Reactor Microreactor Project, speaking to CNBC at the Idaho National Lab.

Photo courtesy of Magdalena Petrova, CNBC

This is not to say that the first microreactors off the production line will be as cheap or fast as the technology will become. But they will likely be deployed in places where there are no cheap and reliable clean energy alternatives, such as remote communities in Alaska.

“Currently, the only technology that works there is diesel generators and they have to fly on diesel in those places. That’s how remote they are. If we can replace those diesel generators with a micro reactor like this, it can certainly be significantly cheaper than what they are currently paying,” Arafat told CNBC.

In addition, as the microreactors will be located close to where the energy will be used, the cost of transmission will be practically nil, said Arafat.

Microreactors also require fewer personnel and less maintenance work than traditional reactors, in part because their fuel only needs to be replaced every five to 10 years, versus less than two years for a light water reactor, says Arafat.

Then there’s the security piece. The microreactor is designed so that many of its systems operate passively.

“So everything from heat generation, heat transport, heat removal to heat rejection, all these cooling circuits are done passively, without any engineering systems,” Arafat told CNBC.

Also the side of the reactor is boron carbide, which is the same material used in armored vehicles.

“So if there are extreme weather or man-made conditions, there will be little to no effect on the actual operation or safety of these systems,” Arafat said.

The prototype of the Marvel reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Photo courtesy of Magdalena Petrova, CNBC

A critical piece of a bigger puzzle, but no panacea

While Steve Nesbit, president of the industry trade group, American Nuclear Society, supports the idea of ​​micronuclear reactors and the MARVEL project specifically, he cautions that they will not be a panacea for decarbonization.

This is largely because conventional light water reactors generate hundreds of megawatts of power, and a microreactor will generate between one and five megawatts of power, according to Arafat.

“I think they have a future, but there are limits to our ability to meet our clean energy needs with them,” Nesbit told CNBC. “Microreactors are ideal for remote situations with microgrids, but not so much as a means of generating gigawatt-scale clean electricity for the conventional grid.”

The same view is shared by nuclear innovation expert and professor Alex Gilbert.

“They are distributed energy resources, intended to serve off-grid customers, small towns and industrial operations,” Gilbert told CNBC. “Alaska will likely be an initial early market, as will other parts of the Arctic such as Canada, Russia and Scandinavia. They can play key roles in microgrids, complementing solar power and distributed batteries.”

But many of the key issues facing microreactor development are the same as those facing large-scale nuclear power development in the US: “We have a stunted supply chain, costs will be high and unpredictable to begin with, and the regulatory system in place to deal with them,” Gilbert said.

That said, addressing these issues for microreactor deployment could help pave the way for these same issues “for large-scale deployment of larger advanced reactors,” Gilbert said.

Arafat knows the MARVEL project has a greater purpose: to flex the muscles of nuclear innovation in the US for the first time in decades. “So the art and science and technology of going through the development of new reactors is also kind of a new realm for us in a lot of ways,” Arafat told CNBC.

– CNBC Magdalena Petrova contributed to this report.

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