At the University of Texas at Austin campus in mid-August, X-energy CEO Clay Sell, Dow Chemical CEO Jim Fitterling and Texas Governor Greg Abbott touted the promise of nuclear energy to a crowd of about 70 people.
That fireside chat was several months after Dow agreed to become the first industrial manufacturer in North America to announce the deployment of advanced nuclear technology. The chemical giant plans to site X-energy’s small modular reactor (SMR) plant at its UCC1 Seadrift Operations manufacturing site, which is located on the Gulf of Mexico coast in the Lonestar State.
As the demand for carbon-free power grows, X-energy is one of the innovators re-thinking nuclear to be smaller, more modular and easier to build. The company believes its Xe-100 SMR is uniquely positioned in the energy mix for a range of utilities and industrial customers.
X-energy’s Xe-100 is a high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor that can produce 80 MW of electricity or 200 MW of high-temperature steam. A four-unit plant delivering 320 MWe is the plan for Dow’s Seadrift site.
Ben Reinke, who is X-energy’s Vice President of Global Business Development, spoke to Power Engineering about the Xe-100 design, a leading example of what is expected to be nuclear’s next chapter.
“Our technology really begins with the fuel,” Reinke said.
Key safety features
As Reinke explained, central to the Xe-100 reactor are fuel pebbles, which are made of graphite and each about the size of a cue ball. Inside each pebble are more than 18,000 small uranium particles.
Those particles are enriched to 15.5% and then wrapped in three layers of high-temperature tolerant ceramics. The inside and outside layers are made of pyrolytic carbon, while the middle later is silicon carbide.
Reinke said it’s these three layers that help retain radioactive fission products when the reaction occurs, even in a worst-case accident scenario. X-energy believes as a result, the Xe-100 is “meltdown-proof.”
“We designed a reactor that stacks roughly 220,000 of these pebbles inside of a graphite core, and then we flow helium through that reactor,” said Reinke, “And that together allows for this incredible safety case.”
The whole concept of wrapping uranium in these high-temperature ceramics is the basis of Tristructural Isotropic, or TRISO fuel. Reinke said a similar concept was developed decades ago, but X-energy has been taking this a step further, working to develop and commercialize its pebble-based design, a fuel called TRISO-X.
X-energy’s technology was derived from research that came out of a mid-2000’s DOE program known as the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). The idea behind that program is that a large reactor would be used for process heat and electricity to help create a hydrogen economy.
But Reinke said that program never took off, and when X-energy founder Kam Ghaffarian started the company in 2009, he scooped up some of the talent involved in these efforts and in TRISO-based fuel work around the world.
Enter Dow, which was actually part of an industry group that informed those mid-2000’s DOE efforts.
Less than three years ago, X-energy met with Dow about the latter’s desire to decarbonize its industrial sites by 2050. At the time, Reinke said X-energy had already received a large grant from DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) to develop the Xe-100 reactor design. Through the ARDP X-energy was awarded $1.2 billion in federal cost-shared funding.
Enabling industrial decarbonization
At its Seadrift site, which is currently powered by three natural gas-fired boilers, Dow manufactures more than 4,000,000 pounds of materials per year for use in applications that include food packaging, footwear and wire and cable insulation. Seadrift has substantial needs for power and steam, and like many industrial sites, operates continuously and cannot tolerate interruptions.
“When you lose steam, it’s a bad day because that means that you’ve got to go back in and start your systems back up,” said Reinke. “Every moment that you’re not producing product is a moment you’re not producing revenue as a company.”
That’s why the challenge to decarbonize the industrial sector is huge, and renewables alone cannot do the job. In looking toward X-energy’s reactor, Dow is seeking a high degree of reliability for its power and steam production.
Speaking of the Xe-100, Reinke said: “We wanted to design something that specifically could address industrial needs.”
Along with Dow, X-energy plans to submit a construction permit application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in early-2024. The company believes the subsequent application review period could take between 24-30 months.
Around early-2026, X-energy expects to begin site prep and pre-construction on non-nuclear activities. The company could begin nuclear construction later that year as it works concurrently to receive an operating license in advance of any hot start of its reactors. Reinke envisions a three-year construction period, with the first reactor coming online sometime in 2029.
Why Texas could be ideal
While X-energy has an agreement to bring multiple Xe-100 SMRs to the Pacific Northwest, the Dow site in Texas is expected to be home of the first to reach operation.
It’s the Lonestar State that could prove most friendly to X-energy, with the state’s rapid renewable energy growth and large number of industrial sites that require significant amounts of electricity and steam for their processes.
“You need firm capacity, especially when you have a heavy industrial load like Texas does, where you need firm capacity for those industrials,” said Reinke. “In that case, technology like ours is extremely well-suited.”
During the fireside chat in August, Gov. Abbott issued a directive to the state’s Public Utilities Commission to formulate a working group that would study and provide recommendations on the issue of nuclear energy. This includes coordinating with ERCOT to begin addressing the technical challenges of incorporating advanced nuclear technology into the state’s grid.
The working group would also consider all potential financial incentives available, determine nuclear-specific changes needed in the ERCOT market, identify any federal or state regulatory hurdles to development and analyze how Texas can streamline and accelerate permitting for building new reactors.
“We’re looking at Texas as a great example of a multiple source technology kind of testbed, where we’re going to see a lot of technologies come to the fore,” said Reinke.
Merger to take effect
While X-energy works to commercialize its Xe-100 reactor and TRISO-X fuel, the company is preparing for a significant milestone – going public.
In June 2023, the company’s pre-money equity value was revised to $1.8 billion from approximately $2.1 billion to establish “a more attractive entry point for investors.” At that time, X-energy updated cost estimates to complete the full ARDP scope to a total of between $4.75 and $5.75 billion, reflecting higher costs for construction materials and labor, increasing interest rates and supply chain constraints for equipment.
On Oct. 13, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) declared effective the Registration Statement on Form S-4, essentially determining the business combination to be in compliance with relevant securities laws and regulations.
Shareholders are expected to vote on the merger Oct. 31.
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