Industry Wants Small Reactors – But There are Hangups

March 6, 2023

Above, Bill Gate’s 2016 prediction for his Small Modular Reactor design, met with some skepticism at investor’s conference.

Industry wants to decarbonize, most of them at least, now understand that climate change is a real, and a threat, if nothing else to their business models.
A number of them are looking at small modular reactors (SMRs), which we’ve been told are going to come on line any time now, for quite some time. (see above)

Latest hangup is the belated realization that most of the SMR designs require a specific type of nuclear fuel, so-called High Assay Low Enrichment Uranium (HALEU) – the entire global supply of which is currently produced in Russia.
As amazing as it seems, the very smart people who have been working on this for more than a decade somehow failed to ask themselves if this might be a problem.


Dow and X-Energy Reactor Company entered into a joint development agreement (JDA) to demonstrate the first grid-scale advanced nuclear reactor for an industrial site in North America. (Earlier post.)

As a subawardee under the US Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) Cooperative Agreement with X-energy, Dow intends to work with X-energy to install the Xe-100 Gen-IV high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) plant at one of Dow’s US Gulf Coast sites, providing the site with safe, reliable, low-carbon power and steam within this decade. 

The Xe-100 is fueled with 220,000 graphite pebbles with TRISO (tri-structural isotropic) particle fuel. X-energy manufactures its own proprietary version (TRISO-X) to ensure supply and quality control. Built with a high-temperature-tolerant graphite core structure, the Xe-100 is designed for a 60-year operational life.

The reactor can provide reliable baseload power to an electricity system or support industrial applications with 200 MW thermal output per unit of high pressure, high temperature steam.

The JDA includes up to $50 million in engineering work, up to half of which is eligible to be funded through ARDP, and the other half by Dow. The JDA work scope also includes the preparation and submission of a Construction Permit application to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The utilization of X-energy’s fourth generation nuclear technology will enable Dow to take a major step in reducing our carbon emissions while delivering lower carbon footprint products to our customers and society.

—Jim Fitterling, Dow chairman and CEO

Working with DOE and subject to its review and approval, Dow and X-energy expect to finalize site selection in 2023. The parties intend to perform further ARDP-related work under the JDA as the project progresses. Additionally, the companies have agreed to develop a framework jointly to license and utilize the technology and learnings from the project, which would enable other industrial customers to utilize Xe-100 industrial low carbon energy technology effectively. 

Unlike existing light water and other small modular reactors, X-energy’s HTGR technology can also support broad industrial use applications through its high-temperature heat and steam output that can be integrated into and address the needs of both large and regional electricity and/or industrial manufacturing systems. The four-reactor Xe-100 nuclear plant will provide a Dow facility with cost-competitive, low carbon process heat and power to make essential products used by consumers and businesses every day. 

X-energy’s innovative and simplified modular design is road-shippable and intended to drive scalability, accelerate construction timelines and create more predictable and manageable construction costs.

X-energy was selected by DOE in 2020 to receive up to $1.2 billion under the ARDP in federal cost-shared funding to develop, license, build, and demonstrate an operational advanced reactor and fuel fabrication facility by the end of the decade. Since that award, X-energy has completed the engineering and basic design of the nuclear reactor, advanced development of a fuel fabrication facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and is preparing to submit an application for licensure to the NRC.

US Department of Energy HALEU Consortium:

Several reactor systems supported under the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program require HALEU, including X-energy’s XE-100 High Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor and TerraPower’s Natrium Sodium-Cooled Fast Reactor.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) established the High-Assay, Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU) Consortium to help inform activities carried out by the Department to secure a domestic supply of HALEU. Section 2001 of the Energy Act of 2020 directs the Secretary of Energy to establish and carry out, through the Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy (NE), the HALEU Availability Program (referred to as the Program), including establishing the HALEU Consortium.

Currently, there is a very limited domestic capacity to provide HALEU from either DOE or commercial sources. This presents a significant obstacle to the development and deployment of advanced reactors and increases the risk of private investment to develop an assured supply of HALEU or to support the infrastructure required to produce it.

The purposes of the HALEU Consortium include:

  • Provide the Secretary of Energy HALEU demand estimates for domestic commercial use.
  • Purchase HALEU made available to members for commercial use under the Program.
  • Carry out demonstration projects using HALEU under the Program.
  • Identify actionable opportunities to improve the reliability of the HALEU supply chain.


 U.S. firms developing a new generation of small nuclear power plants to help cut carbon emissions have a big problem: only one company sells the fuel they need, and it’s Russian.

That’s why the U.S. government is urgently looking to use some of its stockpile of weapons-grade uranium to help fuel the new advanced reactors and kick-start an industry it sees as crucial for countries to meet global net-zero emissions goals.

Production of HALEU is a critical mission and all efforts to increase its production are being evaluated,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said.

The energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine has renewed interest in nuclear power. Backers of smaller, next-generation reactors say they are more efficient, quicker to build, and could turbocharge the shift away from fossil fuels.

But without a reliable source of the high assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) the reactors need, developers worry they won’t receive orders for their plants. And without orders, potential producers of the fuel are unlikely to get commercial supply chains up and running to replace the Russian uranium.

“We understand the need for urgent action to incentivize the establishment of a sustainable, market-driven supply of HALEU,” the DOE spokesperson said.


2 Responses to “Industry Wants Small Reactors – But There are Hangups”

  1. J4Zonian Says:

    I saw this thing somewhere…

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