Matt Wald has been writing about the energy and power sectors for decades, including 38 years as a reporter at the New York Times. In this episode, Wald talks about his recent articles for the American Nuclear Society on the nuclear fuel “Gordian knot,” why the U.S. quit enriching uranium and in doing so, empowered Russia, SMRs, HALEU, and why he believes the federal government will have to step in to assure long-term supplies of nuclear fuel for the domestic fleet of reactors. (Recorded May 25, 2023.)
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I'm Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talked about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I'm pleased to welcome Matt Wald. He is a friend of mine. He is an independent writer and consultant and an expert on all things nuclear energy. Matt, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Matt Wald 0:23
Thank you, Robert. Very glad to be here.
Robert Bryce 0:26
Now, I did warn you, I don't want all my guests. But I warned you that our guests on this podcast introduce themselves. So imagine you've arrived somewhere you don't know anyone, you have 60 seconds to tell them who you are, please tell them who you are.
Matt Wald 0:39
I am a person who has a very broad acquaintance with technology and energy and environment. What I do for a living is try to translate what the engineers are saying into understandable English, I do some writing for the breakthrough Institute for the American Nuclear Society. I covered energy and technology for the New York Times for many years. And I also worked for a few years at the Nuclear Energy Institute to trade association of the nuclear utilities.
Robert Bryce 1:08
And you live in Washington, DC,
Matt Wald 1:11
I live a stone's throw from Washington, DC. And actually, electrically speaking, I have just discovered that this building is connected to Washington, DC. And if we put solar on the roof, it turns out, we will collect credits from the District of Columbia, not from the state of Maryland, where we're actually located desease across the street. And in theory, we will rake in money hand over fist, but in practice, I don't think it'll work. But I'll get into that if you'd like.
Robert Bryce 1:40
Okay. And I asked you before we started recording 38 years, the New York Times?
Matt Wald 1:45
That's correct. Yes, I started prenatally.
Robert Bryce 1:49
So I wanted to have you on the podcast, glad that we finally made this happen. You've written two very good pieces for the American Nuclear Society on nuclear fuel, which is an issue as you know, I am as well, adamantly pro nuclear. But I also see very in a very sober way, what are the what are the what the challenges are for nuclear in the United States and more broadly around the world, the first piece was titled on the verge of a crisis, the nuclear fuel Gordian knot. So I want to talk about this. And I'm going to ask that that piece, and I'll ask the question very directly will the lack of nuclear fuel this, and you describe this looming shortfall, due in part to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, will this lack of nuclear fuel choke the nuclear renaissance before it gets started?
Matt Wald 2:37
It has certainly delayed it, because many of the new reactors, the advanced reactors, not all but many run on a form of fuel that is not commercially available, except from the Russians. It is called, hey, Lou, it is high assay, low, low enriched uranium. And let me explain that, in nature, a very small portion of the uranium is the isotope you 235, the stuff that splits easily, it's less than 1%. In the reactors, we run today, we raise that we sort out the isotopes and raise that to about 5%. The upper limit of low enriched fuel, well, you don't worry about proliferation is 20%. Some of the new reactors are designed to run on low enriched fuel, but it's just below that 20% threshold 19.75%. And there's no place to get it at this moment. It's not a technical problem. But it is a commercial problem, and especially a problem of commercial inertia. If you were counting on Russia to supply it, you didn't build your own infrastructure to get it. And then you've decided really isn't practical to import from the Russians anymore, then at least in the short term, you can't get fuel for these new reactors. An additional problem is fuel for existing reactors, enriched by five pursuit where the Western world does is not self sufficient. It's reliant on the Russians.
Robert Bryce 4:01
Well, this is so interesting, because I remember a few years ago, someone came to me with, you know, these reports about what was going on with Russian fuel. And should we be worried about imports? And I was, you know, my kind of had a very blind attitude, oh, well, you know, no problem. You know, they're the lower cost supplier. So we don't need to worry about this. But in reading your two pieces, and I'll have the links to those articles from the American Nuclear Society in the show notes. I mean, you make it clear that the US kind of sleepwalked into this and I'll read the key part here. You find your let me see here it is. You explained in 1993. The US I'm quoting throwing a lifeline to the fledgling Russian democracy headed by Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement to buy high enriched uranium that had been intended for Soviet bombs. Uranium was down blended to below 20% The legal dividing line between HEU and Leu high enriched and low enriched uranium and she Up to USCC us enrichment Corporation, which down blended it further to the level commonly used in reactors. 5%. Over the next two decades, this enrichment met half the needs of the US nuclear energy industry. So is that deal which was megatons to megawatts, right? That was the kind of the branding for it is still coming back to bite us.
Matt Wald 5:21
Partly, yes, it's contributing to the situation that's coming back to bite us. Certainly, if you're in the enrichment business, the last thing you want is for the market to be swamped by a government that's diluting its old weapons stuff. Certainly the world is a better place because there's less high enriched uranium floating around, but it has there's a silver lining there's there's less high enriched uranium the cloud around it is we've let our enrichment capability with her partly because that deal. Well
Robert Bryce 5:57
is so I'm going to push back on that. She said we've let our enrichment capability whether it's gone, isn't it? I mean, we don't have any left do we are I mean, walk us through that because we're not producing any uranium oxide you pointed to the EIA is data on that. I mean, we're now the US nuclear sector is wholly dependent on imports. Am I correct? We
Matt Wald 6:19
got several different components here. One is uranium or uranium oxide. And there's lots of that available from places like Canada and Australia. Although the low cost low cost supplier is Kazakhstan, which could also be a problem. Because Oxton when it was part of the Soviet Union, which shipped the stuff for export Leningrad, it has recently pioneered shipping it through Pakistan, instead, all well and good, but Kazakhstan is a low cost supplier, whether it is a long term reliable supplier remains to be seen just how much do you want to rely on a post Soviet Republic, after you get the yellowcake the uranium ore from from a mill at the at the mine and you bring it to a factory, you convert it to a different chemical form, so you can enrich with enrich it is converted to something called uranium hexafluoride. Essentially, you're mixing fluorine gas, and you end up with it in a form that can be sort of a gel or gaseous. And that's what you put into a centrifuge. I should add, by the way, fluorine is the basis of world war one nerve gas, it's pretty toxic, the uranium is not that the fluorine is our ability to do that conversion has withered away, because the Russians do a lot of the conversion, then you enrich it, the United States doesn't have any native enrichment capability anymore. We had something called gaseous diffusion, which was invented to build the first atomic bomb during the the Manhattan Project in World War Two, those became obsolete, we did not replace it with anything else. There's one centrifuge plant running in the United States, it's in New Mexico runs very well. But it's not sufficient to meet our needs. And because it is not an American technology, by international law, it can only be used for civil purposes. If we ever need enrichment for non civil purchase purposes, submarine propulsion, propulsion of aircraft carriers or weapons. We don't have a way to make it at this time, although we do have a stockpile. But the whole world relies on enrichment. I should say Soviet enrichment, it's enriched enrichment leftover from the Soviet era in the hands of the Neo Soviet government in Moscow.
Robert Bryce 9:02
Well, in that that Russian supply chain now I was looking at Centris energy, which is the company that is now the only company in the US that has the ability to make ayllu are wholly one that has that license, rather, they're not making it they proven, I guess, a demonstration project. But we're now 28% Of all the nuclear fuel in American reactors is coming from the Soviets. Is that right? And the Russians, I'm sorry, the Russians forgive me. You mentioned
Matt Wald 9:27
that's about right. But old habits die hard. That's right. They die hard in Moscow to in a sense, the it doesn't matter what fraction we get. We're in a global market. It's kind of like oil, where at the moment we're pretty much self sufficient in oil. If there's a real oil shock in the Middle East prices here will rise to sure this is availability of an international commodity. It doesn't matter which particular supplier is yours. And Europe and Japan are also relying on a world market that is, in which this very heavy involvement from the Russians.
Robert Bryce 10:10
Well, but you know, I'll tell you, I mean reading your two pieces in the American Nuclear Society and again, my guest is Matt L. Matthew Wald, Matt L. Wald on Twitter that's at Matt l Wald on Twitter. It paints a pretty dire picture. I mean, I don't mean to be alarmist. But I'm also, you know, I went I talked about this on the podcast before I went to Japan earlier this year, and I was there in February and March and I went to there. the JNF Elgin, Japan, nuclear fuel limited. They're building their own reprocessing plants. They're building their own enrichment capability. They is there strong government involvement there, the nuclear utilities in Japan are all in they're all very cooperating very well. And I see nothing like that here in the United States. And so it seems to me that we've seen and we'll all ask the question this way. There's been a lot of investment obviously, in the nuclear sector, billions into the into different reactor companies. We've seen new scales gone public, there's a lot of money floating around, has there been too much
Matt Wald 11:10
private money and your tax dollars?
Robert Bryce 11:12
Yes. And a billion dollars or more in federal grants to the different industry, different companies? Has there been too much investment in the in the reactor in the reactors themselves? Or use the oil and gas industry terms in the downstream and not enough investment in the upstream?
Matt Wald 11:29
Yes, but it's a complicated problem. The problem is not that the Russians are going to cut us off, or that we're going to cut the Russians off. The problem is that the Russians might cut us off, or we might cut the Russians off. I don't know where your 401 K is invested. But let me pitch you on an investment. We're worried about the Russians, how about if we spend multi billion dollars in multi years to build new enrichment capability? Make Hey, Lou, make the low enriched stuff we use now our bread and butter? Here's the catch. It won't be done for three, four or five years. In three or four or five years? Who's going to be president of Russia? Will there be a war going on in Ukraine? What will the price of a unit of enrichment be on the world market? And the answer is nobody knows. This is not the kind of atmosphere in which corporate America or you with your 401 K wants to sink money. It's just too uncertain. And the only party that can realistically do this is somebody with very deep pockets, which is Uncle Sam, at least until June 1 When we default on our debt, but you understand what I mean?
Robert Bryce 12:48
Well, I'm so I want to come back to the government role here because that's how you ended the second installment of your your, your deep dive into the fuel supply issue for American Nuclear Society. But you make the I'm glad you made that point. Because I was looking at sinteres energy and their website and their what they were, you know, their recent press releases it was earlier this year. So Centris, again, is the only domestic producer license to produce Halo Halo rather. And then in February, they said a full scale Hey, Luke cascades consisting of 120 individuals centrifuge machines with combined capacity of approximately 6000 kilograms of Halo per year, which they use that acronym six MTU per year, could be brought on online within about 42 months of securing the funding to do so. So I bring that up, because here is the company that owns is the only one that is licensed to produce Halo, but they're saying okay, we get the money, it's gonna take us four years to bring this capacity on.
Matt Wald 13:48
Well, in the 6000 MTU isn't gonna get you very far exceeded 6000 kilos individual refer Yeah,
Robert Bryce 13:56
right. And you beat me to the punch there, because the even the NEI zone data from their 2020 report expects the halal market will be 37 empties by 2025 and 130 by 2030. So you know, what centers could produce at six empty us? It's a drop in the bucket compared to what this expected demand is. So I'm only reading it because I'm trying to reinforce a reinforcing rather what you just said about well, how do you bet on this market? How does anyone bet on this and that it would have to be the US government to step in to take to have a major industrial policy as a national champion to make this fuel supply secure. But is that even a remote possibility at this point?
Matt Wald 14:41
Well, in a way we did it for oil. We built the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and it was always measured in the number of days of imports that it could replace. We do have a very small, low enriched uranium stockpile. It's good for five years six core loads a core load is 1/3 of a core. If you've got 92 reactors operating, and each is refueling in every 18 months or two years, six spares is not a whole lot.
Robert Bryce 15:15
six pairs for one reactor is what you're doing
Matt Wald 15:18
well, for whatever number of reactors you spread them among. Yes, right.
Robert Bryce 15:24
But I want to make sure I'm understanding. So we do have because you mentioned that in your in your ans pieces, right. So we do have a reserve, but that reserve is only good for how long if we if we spread it among all the reactors in the US?
Matt Wald 15:35
A few minutes? A few minutes. Okay, well, no, it'll, it'll handle six refueling. But we do 40 or 50 refueling a year.
Robert Bryce 15:47
Okay, right. Got it. Okay, six refueling of six reactors. And we have 90, right, so yeah, right. 92. So this what the so would it be fair to say then that I'm jumping ahead here a little bit that you believe maybe we need a uranium equivalent of the SPR than a nuclear fuel equivalent funded by the federal government that would be the inert nuclear energy sectors equivalent of the SPR,
Matt Wald 16:13
that would certainly be one approach. And bear in mind that what reactors produce is electricity, which is fundamental to the economy, right, oil has become somewhat less important. Over the years since this strategic petroleum reserve was established, electricity gradually becomes more important. We got a lot of money invested in machines that turn uranium into electricity, and uranium is what they run on. We're going to look pretty silly if we can't run those machines, because we don't have low enriched fuel. So yes, one approach would be for the government to set a price at which it'll buy the stuff. And it'll guarantee a market at a floor price, right? So that an investor would then say, well, if Russia straightens up and is allowed back into the world market, and turns loose with all of its capacity, and drives down the price of enrichment, at least I know, I can still sell the Uncle Sam at a price that will cover my costs.
Robert Bryce 17:21
So it'd be similar to contract for difference, I guess, using a different term, your contract term that would be reserved for domestic producers, the fuel that so they could make sure they can compete in the international market,
Matt Wald 17:33
or survive, survive, right? You're in bed with elephants, essentially.
Robert Bryce 17:38
We'll see. You mentioned so we're just focusing on the US. But I've thought about your piece and visa vie the rest of the world. So it's this nuclear resurgence isn't just happening here. We saw. In fact, there was a headline today Poland just announced that they approved the new Westinghouse design, the ADEA 300, which is interesting, because the design was apparently just unveiled. So I mean, miraculous how quickly that happened?
Matt Wald 18:01
Yes, and they would they would like an AP 1000. Also, there's like, a whole bunch of things. In addition to that, Robert, as you know, better than I do. We need a reactor we can sell to Nigeria, right? We need, you know, the whole world is electrifying. And we need them to do something other than coal. Right. So we've got a renaissance going on in Eastern Europe, especially. Right, so some probably some growth coming in France and Great Britain. Japan is going to start back up. China is its own self contained world for fuel and reactors. But we need reactors in South America, in Africa, other parts of Asia, and we need to persuade countries that would buy these things that the fuel to run them will be available. Right?
Robert Bryce 18:54
We need we need and we not only need the technology, we need the walkaway safe the passive safe, the you know, low cost durable, resilient, we need the reactor we need the machines
Matt Wald 19:04
and that right and then add fuel to the list. Right. But
Robert Bryce 19:07
and but to make the machines we also have to have the supply chain and the manufacturing capabilities. Right. So, you know, I see three major hurdles and we'll just maybe I'll bounce bounce those off of you. So what are the impediments to the nuclear resurgence the nuclear renaissance? Well, it's the NRC which is obvious and I've written about this a bunch you know that this agency is slow walked a lot of reactor designs now they maybe they're getting religion, but new scale took six years and $500 million, and you bribed me on Twitter's roughly a billion dollars. Okay. So six years and a billion dollars. That's not does. Way to commercial success.
Matt Wald 19:40
I'll give you another another problem here. The NRC has never been able to license more than a few reactors a year. And it was it was approving big reactors, if we switch to SMRs, which has a lot of things to recommend it right. And we want to make a dent instead of 1000 megawatt reactor 1200 megawatt reactor we're going to do for SMRs. Right? The number of licenses the NRC has to deal with is going to quadruple. So we need a system of
Robert Bryce 20:13
n, the overall capacity may be only equal to one of the old gigawatt scale reactors.
Matt Wald 20:17
Exactly. So the number of licenses necessary to get 1200 megawatts online is now four instead of one. If you look at these hundreds of cold sites that people are talking about converting, right, these are Truman administration era coal sites, 60 megawatts, 80 megawatts? You know, 300 megawatts, right. We're now not talking about the 92 behemoths we have running now we're talking about hundreds of reactors, right? That solution is probably not to quadruple the size of the NRC, the solution is to find a more effective, efficient way to mass produce licenses. And I don't mean just, you know, shove them out the door, you still got to be careful with these things. But there's got to be a more efficient way to get these things done.
Robert Bryce 21:01
Well, I that's a really good point. And I hadn't thought about it in those terms. So I'm glad you you typified it that way. So we've got I see three buckets, right. The NRC, the regulatory scheme, right, you know, how do we get these things approved? Right, but then we have to build them. Right. So we need that industrial base. And maybe that's not as challenging? Maybe it is, you know, but, you know, depending on what the design is, but we have to have fabricators. And, yeah, don't have that installed base for that. Now we do it for automobiles, right. We do for, you know, for, you know, I would say, you know, gas turbine is right, but don't have it for nuclear reactors in the kit that is going to be needed for those things. And then the other part is the fuel. In I don't even want to handicap which one is most important. I think they're all come together, right? But they all are going to have to be overcome. And as I look at this and try and do it in a very sober way, I think, man, I mean, how and then the fuel one to me is the newest I guess, and kind of the one that is the most, as I see it, maybe the most intractable in terms of will, because of the lead time to make it happen, right? Because we're serious about that we've got to start building the centrifuges, we got to get the mines approved, we have to do all these other things. Now, to set the table for the next four or five years centers alone has already said for years,
Matt Wald 22:17
it's a problem but let me tell you two things that cut in the opposite direction. Okay. Many of the new reactor designs, our low pressure reactors, the reactors we have now they run it over two pounds per square inch, 2500 pounds per square inch, very thick steel done to exacting standards carbon steel lined with with stainless steel, huge pipes that that are set up to carry huge pressures and safety systems that are geared to if we get a leak, it's going to be a gusher right. Low pressure reactors, which may not use water as the as the working fluid may use molten salt may use or inert gas may use something else. Low pressure reactors come in low pressure vessels and low pressure piping. And that's easier to fabricate.
Robert Bryce 23:14
Now, and that's a good point. So x energy or the or the molten salt designs Oklo, then they that they'll be easier to fabricate, don't use necessarily a specialty steel. But that fabrication wouldn't be as big of a problem. So if I am i right to read them back to you, then you're saying okay, well then the two big hurdles are the NRC in the fuel.
Matt Wald 23:37
The fuel, there's a lot of uranium around. But it takes time to get geared up. The Canadians chemical has shut down some mines in Canada that it's now reopening. We do have the ability with enough lead time to produce a lot of uranium. And maybe we should be stockpiling that to or stockpiling low enriched uranium. The Australians can gear up. Kazakhstan is open for business, although how much of the market you want to give you want to rely on them is an open question. Certainly the uranium resource is enormous. It's like It's like oil, which is for years people were predicting we'd run out of it. And it turns out that the ability to find it and extract it has grown faster than demand. Right. And we're not alone here with uranium. The supply chain for offshore wind is a total nightmare. And the supply chain for certain ingredients of wind and solar is a nightmare. Let me take a step back from that. If you look at the amount of electricity the United States uses now, and you say okay, we're going to electrify all of home heating. We're going to electrify all of train transportation, diesel and gasoline, we're going to electrify all of industry because those things could be carbon free. Not that they are they might come from burning natural gas, but they could be carbon free, if we do all those things. And just to make things simple, suppose in the year 2050, we have continuing efficiency improvements and continuing growth, and those balance each other out. So what we're talking about is taking the amount of energy we get now from gas and natural gas, and oil and coal. And transferring that over to the electric side, our electric system has to grow by a factor of two and a half to three. And if you take the electric system we've got now it's 60% carbon emitting. So we've got to throw out 60% of what we've got, and increase our total to about 250 or 300% of what we got now, right? That is an incredible infrastructure job. That's just no matter how you do it, some mixture of reactors, wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, whatever else you can think of it's not emitting, right. It is just an astoundingly immense thing. And we're going to see supply chain issues and all of that, not to mention supply chain issues in mining for the stuff you need for batteries. Right. That it yes, it's a challenge for nuclear, it is a challenge for everything.
Robert Bryce 26:25
Well, that's well, I liked what you talked about that I think that that's a good way to see the broader picture. And I'm, in fact, I'm writing an article now about the grid and expansion of the grid, and how long how challenging it's going to be. And, and I think the, you know, where I look at the nuclear sector, I think, Well, where are those places we could put reactors, as you pointed out earlier, it's at the sites of old coal plants, right? Because they have the energy, they have the grid infrastructure, the Transformers already there, they have the rights of way they have the, you know, the those wires and poles in place, and they want a replacement industry, and they want a replacement industry. But so where's the prototype for that? Or where's the one off that is going to hopefully prove the prove that design or prove the this concept? It's TerraPower and Kemmerer? Wyoming? Right. They just delayed that project by two years because they can't get
Matt Wald 27:17
fuel. Yes. Right. So
Robert Bryce 27:19
is there are there other there are other countries that are looking at fabricating? Hey, Lou, in the meantime, because as centers as energy as centers, energies, investor report says, Okay, well, or their press release from February says it's going to take us 48 months if we get the if we get the funding to make this happen, or other places producing Hey, Lou now, Russia, just the Russians, and that's 10x, which is part of
Matt Wald 27:43
Rose. Yeah, exactly.
Robert Bryce 27:47
So they're the single supplier globally. Right now for Haley.
Matt Wald 27:51
Yes, although that's overstating it, because there's not much market for Halo. Okay, at the moment, there's a potential market for Halo. Got it. And for years, there have been people who are saying, you know, if we had enrichments of 19.75%, you could do all sorts of creative, wonderful things with a reactor. And if only we could buy the stuff. And then there are the suppliers who are saying, you're, you know, you may or may not ever want to buy this stuff from us, we're not going to build a plant to make the stuff until you got to plant to use it. Right? You're saying we're not going to build a plant to use it until you can supply it. But we've been at a standoff again, this is a place where government can get involved can facilitate, it'd be the middleman
Robert Bryce 28:34
right? So which came first the reactor or the Halo or the chicken or the egg? Or, you know, we can we can crucify that concept or that meme. But what about try so so I'm one of the first questions I wrote down here, Matt was, okay, well, so explain the different forms of fuel because there that we've talked almost exclusively exclusively so far about Halo, right, which,
Matt Wald 28:56
which uses tries to use his head. Try so is you may have heard the term before pebble bed. billiard ball bed would have been more accurate, but it doesn't sound as good, right. These are fuel elements that are about the size of a billiard ball, it can vary, and they have little flecks of fuel in the enriched enriched uranium you could use lutonium You could use some other things. Covered it's like risotto covered in layer after layer of very tough, very heat resistant material, eventually, in the form of a billiard bowl, and you've got a giant gumball machine. You never shut the machine that reactor for refueling. You don't new gumballs at the top, you pull them out of the bottom and you let it run. You then look at each one you withdrawing, see if it's if it's superyacht if it's finished. If it isn't, you dump it back in for another run. And each one of the Is bowls is its own containment. And it allows operation at much, much higher temperatures than a water based reactor. And the hotter the product, the more efficient it is, the fewer calories it takes to make a kilowatt hour. Right, the more you can use it for other purposes, this is what Dow Chemical wants to build near Victoria, Texas, right because it will replace natural gas, they've got a natural gas boiler down there that's reaching its retirement age. And decarbonisation means electricity. But it can also mean direct use in industry without going through the electric stage. But it needs Halo,
Robert Bryce 30:39
right, and so just a backup. So that's the Dow Dow, it's x x energy. Now, energy and energy is they use this tricel fuel which so that's a The trysail is a term for the fabrication, the shape the form factor of the fuel in the reactor of the uranium. Yeah. And x energy is a is their design is a gas cooled reactor.
Matt Wald 31:05
That's correct. And also, while we're on the subject, something unusual about this product is this project is the owner of the reactor is not going to be Houston power light or some other utility, it's going to be battle. There is a market emerging for private companies that are not in the electricity business to buy reactors, and it could produce some electricity then went back on the grid, but the universe of people who could buy and operate reactors is apparently is probably going to grow
Robert Bryce 31:40
well so that's interesting because I've thought about that to me. I mean there are a lot of interesting proposals out there the Dow ex energy deal is one that to me is really intriguing because maybe they don't even sell any power onto the ERCOT grid maybe they just use that for process heat and use all the electricity themselves
Matt Wald 31:56
they might they might not depending on on daily circumstances. Sure.
Robert Bryce 32:00
But so but so now but just to go on with that form factor does the discussion so Oklo needs Centaurus on their their website they talked about Oklo Radient us NC X energy all need Hey Lou, but that form factor is different. So for an older style reactor they they will be fabric that that fuel will be fabricated for low enriched uranium on existing reactors that's in to the fuel bundles that we see that are right now you're right that long steel tubes that have been are clad and then lowered into the into the reactor vessel
Matt Wald 32:37
they're right there a ceramic fuel for loaded into a special alloys to that lets the neutrons pass through and and to go back half a step sure all of this goes to the stage of uranium hexafluoride which you can enrich to any level you want. And then you ship it to a fabricator and the fabricator can produce conventional fuel bundles of the kind we use now, which by the way, is exactly what the the the GE BW RX reactor or the the Westinghouse ap 300 or new scale will use where you can fabricate it into tricel or something else.
Robert Bryce 33:19
Right. So the fuel bundle that the form factor for the fuel in the reactor can vary, but we whatever that is we're going to need a varying, you know, a different level of your enriched uranium, depending on what the reactor is requiring. Yeah. So I mean, if you were going to look at this, I'm going to put you on the spot here. So of all these companies, we've talked about who, who I saw, at least I believe, I read something that x energy was going to be able to get hailing from the federal government or there were some trials, so that was already being fabricated for X energy.
Matt Wald 33:48
Some there is some that is being fabricated. First out of the box for new reactors, I think is going to be three reactors that are the smallest departure from current designs. Those are new scale, which can run on Westinghouse fuel, chopped in half, it's it's six feet high instead of 12 feet high. Maybe seven feet high instead of 14. Don't hold me to it. The BW RX 300 The GE Hitachi entry, and the Westinghouse ap 300. Those are all light water reactors, right and they all use fuel similar to what we got today. And in fact, not only is the fuel their fabricators ready to make it, it's also licensed and certified. Next out of the box could be either x energy or an atrium. The project that Bill Gates and others are backing right you mentioned in Kemmerer, Wyoming to replace a coal Plant. That's a really interesting design. And but it also requires Halo. That's a design that has a higher enrichment. And as a result, the machine can use more things as fuel, it can split more kinds of atoms and get heat value out of the array, and it will dump its heat into a big tank of molten salt, and the salt to you and me, it looks like a tank of molten salt to everybody else that looks like a battery. It can vary in how hot it is. And you can pull heat off it to make electricity at differing rates, depending on what the grid is doing at that moment. Right? If it's going to serve California, which now has electricity prices that go down to zero or below, because they got so much solar, then at noon, you're not going to produce much electricity, you're going to be storing up heat. And then when the sun goes down, and all of a sudden you have this enormous demand for electricity, you tap that, that thermal battery, make a lot of electricity, but again, that needs healing.
Robert Bryce 36:09
So if I'm going to read back what you've just said, so your your bet is then that it makes sense to me that the NRC, the deployments, the first deployments will be the reactors that have the traditional designs, the ones that were shrunk and smaller versions of what we've been using, which is the lightwater designs right, closer to traditional, yeah, a new scale already has that design approval from the NRC but the BW RX 300, I guess they're actually broken ground in Canada, which could be the first SMR and will likely be the first SMR built in North in North America and the AP 300 That there's Westinghouse is still going to have to go through the NRC for that, right.
Matt Wald 36:44
Yes, but for both of the the GE Hitachi entry on the Westinghouse entry, they're reusing components that are already used in other reactors, and those components are already approved. It's a little bit like you've got a Subaru in your garage, you notice that that? You've got two of them of different sizes. And you notice they have a lot of parts in common. Right. Although in the nuclear field, it's not just the parts in common. It's that the parts, there's the supply chain for that part, and that there's a whole systems that resemble what's already been approved by the NRC.
Robert Bryce 37:27
Right. So they're light more likely to get through that regulatory process faster. X energy using a gas technology or the high temperature, gas or nature I'm using? Yes. Molten Salt. So you've talked about Kazakhstan versus Australia and Canada? Is there a prospects in I don't I didn't see anything in your articles for the ANS about the mining part of this? And maybe I skimmed? Maybe I didn't see it. But are there? Is there a reasonable to assume we would start mining uranium here in the US? So we could meet be self sufficient on the fuel cycle?
Matt Wald 38:04
If the price gets high enough? And if we're really determined to do it,
Robert Bryce 38:08
but again, that would have required government to be involved?
Matt Wald 38:11
Yes, and you'd have to think about where you want to spend your limited resources. If Uncle Sam devoted a certain amount to advance reactor development, a stockpile of low enriched uranium, etc. How much do you want to prop up domestic producers when Canada and Australia are both lower cost producers, and Kazakhstan is really a lower cost producer, you might decide you want to hedge your bets, but it's kind of like oil. We've always bought oil in the cheapest place available. Lately, that's turned out to some extent to be the United States, because it's a byproduct of fracking. Right? And in fact, some uranium is a byproduct of other kinds of mining. But yeah, you could do it. But you really, you really have to want to.
Robert Bryce 39:06
Yeah, so it might be better in terms of so thinking about bets, right? If the government is going to have to get involved here in a big way, might be better to be involved in the refining side or the processing side than necessarily in the mining side. Because that the Canadians could be a key supplier, the Australians, we're going to be friends with him for a long time. Yes, it's down maybe not so much. But that, that it's the enrichment and that and the fabrication part of the the the puzzle here that is going to be the key if we're going to have nuclear fuel security. Is that Is that a fair way to think about it?
Matt Wald 39:41
Conversion and enrichment? Yes, fabrication can also be an issue. You may have seen that Ukraine has signed a deal with Westinghouse for Westinghouse to produce the fuel for the Ukrainian lightwater reactors that are Russian reactors The VV Are reactors. And those in broad outline are pretty similar to Westinghouse reactors. The fuel is a slightly different shape. When you buy a reactor from somebody, it's kind of like having a car you can only take to the dealer for service. And that it's unusual for a country to then turn to some other company for fuel supply, but the Ukrainians doing it for obvious reasons.
Robert Bryce 40:33
Yeah, got it. Well, so let's jump back. And this is maybe beyond Well, it is beyond the scope of what you wrote for the American Nuclear Society. Again, my guest is Matt Wald, my friend Matt Wald, he's on Twitter at Matt L. Wald at Matt L. Wald on Twitter. Is is the downstream and or the the reactor side investable, we've talked about the you know, all the risks on the fuel side, in getting that, you know, providing the the juice that the the reactors the machines need to to, to run, but what about the reactor side? I mean, is there any of these companies, particularly in restructured markets? That's the question I wanted to ask about. Yeah. Can nuclear reactors such as x energy, we talked about them in Texas, and we have the restructured market of the RTO? Here?
Matt Wald 41:23
Oh, wait a minute. Yes. You have the RTO there, but in fact, that's going to be a non primarily a non electric reactor.
Robert Bryce 41:31
Yeah. Okay. Fair enough. So well, so I'll make the fair point. Can New Reactors we've seen Vogel get up to full operating output and Georgia. Can the nuclear sector nuclear reactors large small inbetween can any build them in a deregulated and you build them? Will anyone build them in a deregulated market? Can they are they can they be profitable in a deregulated market?
Matt Wald 41:55
Well, the nuclear renaissance of 2008, which didn't actually happen, right. There were multiple proposals to build them in deregulated markets,
Robert Bryce 42:06
including one here in Texas to expand the South Texas project. Yes,
Matt Wald 42:10
yes. And I should say deregulated is something of a misnomer. It's restructured more than
Robert Bryce 42:16
deregulated. And restructured is the word Ken Lay used in Texas back when when? Yeah, it's got
Matt Wald 42:21
lots of regulations. Public Service Commission cost of service, right? Yeah, yeah. The so there were proposals to build to stamp out identical reactors, and build 810 or 12 of them, and build them in pairs and various places. And when natural gas was 16 bucks, a million PTU back in 2008, that looked pretty sensible. Right? Then came fracking gas got down so low that even the gas producers were starving to death. And that that didn't that doomed that Renaissance? You could build in restructured areas. If you were confident that people were going to pay something of a premium for two categories of electricity. It turns out that a megawatt hour is not a commodity. It turns out that a megawatt hour can have a different value to the system, depending on when and where you produce it. Right? If you put and also how you produce it, if it turns out that you put value on it being carbon free, and you put value on it being available in the early evening, when there's no sun and maybe no wind, and all the solar is suddenly disappearing. And you need to crank up the microwave and the big screen TV and all that stuff. When you drive your electric car back into your driveway and plug it in, then the answer is yes. However, what we've got now is a real cutthroat commodity market where I don't care where it comes from. I don't care what the pollution is. Just give me the cheapest thing you got Graham exaggerating slightly
Robert Bryce 44:07
No, but only slightly. Yeah.
Matt Wald 44:10
To build in where I live, which is in PJM PJM used to stand for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland. It now includes a chunk of Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, the Chicago area,
Robert Bryce 44:28
Delaware part and part of Canada, too, isn't it or
Matt Wald 44:31
not yet, okay. In order to build in PJM, which is the nation's largest market, right, you need some assurance that you're going to earn a premium. Face it. Nothing is going to be the price of solar in the California desert at noon. Right but the more solar and the California desert at noon, is worthless. That's worth it's worse than worthless. It has negative value.
Robert Bryce 45:02
Right? Well, let me let me follow up on that. Because this is something you said. The megawatt hour is not a commodity. So is electricity a commodity or service?
Matt Wald 45:13
Yeah, both. However, however, so let me get back to my condo building a stone's throw from Washington DC and it's wired into Washington, DC. And what town is that in here in Maryland? It's in the village of Chevy Chase, which is literally on the border. Right. Okay. And it's, it's a 16.
Robert Bryce 45:32
Your mailing addresses Chevy Chase, but across the street is Washington DC, correct? Okay, right.
Matt Wald 45:37
We've got a flat roof. It's not shaded, it's you know, 16 storeys high. People say, Well, why can't we put solar up there. So let me take you a little adventure on solar and regulations. I can say,
Robert Bryce 45:51
well, we only have an hour here.
Matt Wald 45:56
I can see from my window houses that have solar on the roof, right, and they get something called net metering. Which means that if they if they use 800 kilowatt hours a month, and they produce 700 kilowatt hours, hours a month, they only pay for 100. They pay for a difference, right. But they only pay by the kilowatt hour. My building is on a commercial rate. We pay for kilowatt hours, but also kilowatts, what is our highest level of demand, because we impose two different demands on the system, we need energy. But we also need capacity, we need local electric company to be ready to run our huge air conditioning system all year long, because for a few hours in August, we're going to need it right. So we get built that way. We don't get billed just buy the kilowatt hour. So if we put solar on our roof, we again get net metering, which is for every kilowatt hour we produce, we get billed for one fewer kilowatt hour. And for every increment that we cut demand, we get billed for less demand, we pay $3.45 per kilowatt of demand, a kilowatt will run will almost run your hairdryer, it'll almost run your microwave. Yeah, right. It turns out that putting solar on our roof will not cut our kilowatt peak demand one bit, because solar peaks at noon, that's half initiative noon. Our peak demand always in summer, which is our peak season comes late in the day when it's hotter, sometimes it comes after sunset. Yeah, so solar makes economic sense for the houses around us, but not for my apartment building.
Robert Bryce 47:42
So is it a commodity or a service or service? It depends? It depends.
Matt Wald 47:47
So so the state states and the District of Columbia have set quotas, how much solar each electric company has to use. And the electric companies don't actually use the solar when you make a kilowatt hour on your house roof on your apartment building roof, you're making a kilowatt hour, but you're also making something called a record renewable energy credit, right, and we can sell those to the local utility. Turns out the price of RECs in Washington DC is astronomical, because good church, you know, environmental jurisdiction, they've set a very high quota, and they're nowhere near meeting it. Right. So the price has gone way up. So we can sell our RECs into the District of Columbia, we would lose bragging rights, because somebody else gets the right when they buy the wreck. If we had confidence that wreck prices, were going to stay that high, it might make sense to put a little solar on the roof. Right? It won't power much of the building to 16 storey building, it's not all that big a roof. But we don't have that confidence for a variety of reasons, one of which is the District of Columbia and possibly the state of Maryland are eventually going to back off the schools because we're not going to meet them. Right. Which by the way, is one of the reasons we need nuclear.
Robert Bryce 49:06
Well, let's talk about nuclear. I want to just talk briefly about Canada, and then there's a new IEA report on investment that just came out. So Canada there can do reactors that Canada's design is really showing its resilience now, they can use natural uranium for their U turn u 235. That's enriched at less than 1% point 7%.
Matt Wald 49:30
It's not it's not enriched. It's yeah, it's not okay. Right. Okay. Right. It's one it's one part. And 141 is you 235. Yes.
Robert Bryce 49:37
Two, is that an it seems like that's just an enormous advantage for that design and over other designs. Is that a fair? Chris Kieffer is a friend of mine he's been an incredibly effective advocate for Canadian Nuclear and he says, Yeah, we just burn dirt. And you know, that would this would that Canadian with the can do design be a way around having to deal with all these issues we've been talking about around Around enrichment too, is that is that a possibility that that would be a design that we could adopt instead?
Matt Wald 50:07
It might let me give you just a little history. Okay, World War two countries decided any self respecting country was going to have to have a nuclear program. Canada said, well, US has got one, we're gonna have one too. In the US, we said, we're gonna have one too, dammit. And Kevin said we're gonna have one too sorry. But it required two technologies they didn't have one of them was a reactor vessel that was could withstand high pressures. You know, this enormous pot, we put the reactor and the other was enrichment. They didn't have either of those things. So they built a they came up with a design that didn't require either one. The Candu reactor has long tubes, Calabria tubes, the fuel is packs and something vaguely resembling a coffee can you get a machine that shoves it into the tube, it goes around, all the tubes keeps shoving in more fuel. At the other end, there's a pool of water. And every time you push one in, something falls off into the pool of water spent fuel. Because it's natural uranium, you can't use ordinary water. As the moderator as the thing that slows down the neutrons to a speed that's going to make another fission more likely sustained the chain reaction, you have to use something called deuterium, which is the to and can do. It's a pun, like a can do attitude, right. But it's Canadian. Deuterium, right? So you got to scavenge that out of the oceans, which you can do it is a rather energy intensive project. And I think one of the reasons the Canadians did it is they could provide employment for depressed areas like Nova Scotia, which could burn a lot of coal, which are used to evaporate water and differentially enrich the water with deuterium, right? The Indians have built a few there have been a few bills around the world. It's a perfectly good design. But over the years, the price of enriching uranium has gone down, down down, the amount of electricity needed to enrich uranium has gone down. Because the technology has improved. We've gone from gaseous diffusion to centrifuges, centrifuges has gotten better and better. And we may eventually come up with a laser technology that yet again cuts the footprint cuts, the the electricity needed, etc. The Silex technology would be one possibility. Yes. Right. So it, it makes CANDU look a little less important than it used to be. And I gotta say, I have great, great admiration for for Ontario Hydro, which operates most of these things I've only toured one can do was point Lowepro, in New Brunswick. And it's a very effective machine. I'm not sure that's what the world is going to turn to next.
Robert Bryce 53:06
So let's talk about that just for a minute. And then we're because we're coming close to an hour is the is there a sweet spot? Now? I mean, there's this you know, the traditional from the days of Edison and Insel it's been we'll build a bigger generator, build a bigger machine, because you get better efficiency because you have fewer moving parts, you've concentrated your capital on one machine is in a the AP 300 300 megawatts seems like a pretty good, you know, building block size for a deployment in terms of the new reactor designs. But do the SMRs do they make does it make I'll put it this way? Does it make more sense to build SMRs? Or should we really be focusing on gigawatt scale reactors?
Matt Wald 53:49
I think we probably need to do both as fast as possible. But let me go back to efficiencies of scale, right. One issue is after a Three Mile Island, you need a pretty big crew in the control room to operate a current generation reactor. And each crew operates one reactor, you get to New Scale, which is talking about building clusters of 12 small reactors, you're gonna have three or four people running 12 reactors, not 12 people running one reactor. You get down to micro reactors, you know 1.5 megawatts is going to run a remote mining site or a remote village or it's going to be backup power at a military base. It's not clear that you're going to have a dozen people running a 1.5 megawatt reactor. In fact, you may not have an operator at all you may have it may be a remotely monitored machine. So among the efficiency considerations to be dealt with is how big of an onsite crew do you need? X energy, for example, is talking about village actually started building regional service centers. So you don't maintain a full complement of service technicians at each site, you have a regional center from which you can dispatch them as needed. Uh huh.
Robert Bryce 55:25
And remind me x energy was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the DOE grant program, they got something over a billion, was it a billion billion on half dollars?
Matt Wald 55:33
I think it's 1.2. It's they didn't get it, it's promised to them. 1.2 billion. Okay, so I believe the number,
Robert Bryce 55:41
right, because I was looking at the good jobs, first, their data on, you know, tax credits and such and X energy is among the highest because of that deal.
Matt Wald 55:49
They and natrium were the two flagship projects, there's a bunch of reactors at a lower level of technical readiness, that received smaller amounts to sort of push them along and see whether they're going to be ready for primetime.
Robert Bryce 56:08
Gotcha. So where do you then come down on this, Matt? I mean, I've told you my you know, Japan kind of made me I guess, it didn't call my enthusiasm. It just made me much I think more realistic. Or you've written these two articles in American Nuclear Society, and I'll link to them in the in the show notes. Are you are you? Has it changed your level of excitement, your level of belief in the new in the in the Renaissance in nuclear? Has it changed your outlook? Are you more cautious, more optimistic? Where do you come down these days?
Matt Wald 56:44
Every form of power generation has complications, has environmental complications, business complications, etc. And I'd rather be in the reactor business than for example, in the solar business, where we've got places like California demonstrating fratricide, cannibalism, where every the worst enemy of a solar panel in California is another solar panel in California, because it peak production hours, your output is useless, right. In addition to which you got Uighur slave labor in western China producing these things, and they got some nasty chemicals in them. I have nothing against nasty chemicals, nasty chemicals make the world go round. But But, but you gotta be careful and nothing is simple. Wind has various supply chain problems and intermittency problems. There is no simple solution to our energy problems. What we need is a lot of eggs and a lot of baskets. i There are no showstoppers for nuclear. Of all of the the advanced reactors out there. I have no doubt. Some of them are going to fall by the wayside. Not all of them will make it to commercialization. Right. But some of them will. And you spend money to figure this out. So well,
Robert Bryce 58:11
is that the thing? Then we're going to have to settle on one or two designs, then I mean, is that going to be the the ultimate? Should that be a goal that we simplify it? Okay, we're going to have two designs where one is going to be a 300 megawatt one is going to be gigawatt will have or maybe three and we'll have a five megawatt something you know that
Matt Wald 58:27
the French the French did that and it worked out well for them, right. However, if you talk about getting to zero carbon, or at least getting near zero carbon output, you realize you're going to need a lot of different kinds of reactors. You're going to need smaller ones for places, weaker grids, you're going to need high temperature models for a non electric uses desalination, etc. You're going to need some that incorporate storage. Right? So no, I don't think it's going to be one or two or three, I think it's going to be a much wider variety. But if I knew exactly which ones would survive, then I know where to put my IRA.
Robert Bryce 59:18
Well, so we're right about an hour here. Matt, I want to honor your time I guess again, as Matt Wald. You can find him on Twitter. Matt l Wald. I asked my guests. A couple of final questions, all of them. So what are you reading? We talked about this before we started recording, but what books are on the top of your list or the ones are you finished recently?
Matt Wald 59:38
Well, I just read ministry for the future by Kim Stanley Robinson. It's it's science fiction. And it illustrated for me an interesting point which is opposition to fossil fuels. The outlook on the environment gets muddled up with complaints about the power of corporations, the income disparities in the world. political problems of various kinds, and there are real problems out there. But especially for solar, people think I'm breaking the power of the big corporations. Well, that may or may not be true. I don't think it is true, but it's not a way to make energy decisions. I also, I liked much better termination shock by Neil Stevenson. Also, science fiction, and this is not aliens flying around at spaceships. This is near future predictions about technology and society, where a group in Texas decides to take matters into its own hands and start shooting chaff into the stratosphere to reflect more solar energy back out into space, right to cut peak temperatures and sets off an international crisis, because it all just rainfall patterns in India, etc. That one was really thought provoking.
Robert Bryce 1:01:09
Yeah. Yeah, that's interesting to me, the whole geoengineering issue, I've had a, I've had a couple of people on the podcast to talk about that. And I've, when I've, after they've gone, you know, and I've challenged them as well, how's this possibly going to work? And they don't really have very good answers. But that's, but that's a whole other discussion that we don't have time for here. So what gives you hope, Matt, we've talked about a lot of sobering things. But there are a lot of technologies that are being developed that are very hopeful as well, what gives you hope?
Matt Wald 1:01:37
I'm not sure we're still waiting for the magic battery. We've been working on it for 30 years and haven't found 3030
Robert Bryce 1:01:43
years. I thought we were working on it. So maybe he's a voltage. That's
Matt Wald 1:01:47
more the federal government's been putting big bucks in it since the 1990s. I do have
Robert Bryce 1:01:53
hope that and this doesn't have to be about energy and power, by the way. I mean, I'm just as a general question, what gives you hope?
Matt Wald 1:01:59
No, there's nothing out there good energy and power, you're confused. Well, there's energy and power are an environment are at the heart of a lot of what I worry about. I think we have a lot of inventive engineers out there. We have designed tools, computerization, that makes it easier to, to select new materials, process them, design, things get the pace of technological change, going faster. We have the opposite. Also, we have a paralyzing regulatory system, you're talking about transmission. There's a saying in the transmission business that if you ever go to these hearings, where you're listening to people discuss a new power line, that the public interest, and the interested public are two completely different things, right? We don't have a regulatory system that's geared to dealing with a climate crisis. And in fact, our regulations get more cumbersome every year. Then, clearly, lack of regulation has caused lots of problems. But clearly, if you want to get a transformation of our energy system, something's got to give. Well,
Robert Bryce 1:03:24
I'll agree, but I'll read back then. So what gives you hope is our inventiveness and my Yeah, yeah. No, human inventiveness
Matt Wald 1:03:32
should not be underrated. You can you can run short of some materials, you end up substituting other materials. The the line used to be build a better mousetrap and the world will be the path to your door. The mouse is evolving as it turns out, but the mousetraps are evolving and also.
Robert Bryce 1:03:54
Well, that's a good place to stop. So we'll stop there. Then my guest has been Matt Wald, my friend, Matt. Well, he's on Twitter at Matt L. Wald. He's done a written a couple of really good pieces, some of the best that I've seen on the challenges of the nuclear fuel supply issue. And those are available on the American nuclear Society's website ans.org. And I'll post on the show notes. Matt, it's been a pleasure to catch up with you and Greg Rubicon those pieces on ans i think they're just really well done deeply reported deeply knowledgeable pieces. So glad that you could come on and discuss it.
Matt Wald 1:04:31
Thank you. My pleasure.
Robert Bryce 1:04:33
And thanks to all of you in podcast land for tuning into this episode of the power hungry podcast, make sure and give us a good rating on one of those podcast rating things. 1012 45 stars, whatever you can do on that side. You're not following me on substack do that to Robert bryce.substack.com. And until the next time see you