X-energy reactor a fit for industrial decarbonization

The heat-generating potential of X-energy’s Xe-100 small modular reactor (SMR) makes it a fit for hard-to-decarbonize industrial processes.

An artist's rendition of the Xe-100 (Source: X-energy)

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The high-temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) will generate 200 MW thermal output, of which 80 MW is converted into electric power, thus providing both low-emission electricity and heated steam.  

The Xe-100 is one of two advanced reactors, alongside TerraPower’s sodium-cooled fast reactor Natrium, to be supported by the U.S.’s more-than $2.5 billion Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) which aims to aid in the design, licensing, construction and operation of the reactors.

Demonstrations of both first-of-a-kind, advanced reactors are expected to be generating power by the end of 2030.

The Xe-100 demonstration reactor will showcase its dual heat and power functions at chemical company Dow’s UCC Seadrift Operations manufacturing site in Texas.

“The Dow project is extremely important to us because there is a large market in the heat space and the industrial decarbonization behind it,” says X-energy Vice President, Global Business Development and Advisor to the CEO, Ben Reinke.

“Also, it’s something that differentiates us as there are not a lot of reactors that can achieve the temperatures the Xe-100 can.”

The next generation, advanced reactors differ from the current generation gigawatt-sized plants in their size, fuel consumption, inherent safety mechanisms, and flexibility when providing for sometimes bespoke power needs of individual customers.

The production of heat, as well as electricity, means the Xe-100 is especially well suited to replace fossil fuel generators currently powering chemical and mineral related industrial facilities.

It also addresses one of the largest polluting sectors in the United States.

Electrical power generation accounts for 25% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, while industry accounts for 23%, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The joint development agreement (JDA) with Dow includes up to $50 million in engineering work, with half eligible to be funded by the ARDP and the rest by Dow.

Four Xe-100 rectors will act as a drop-in replacement for three natural gas boilers at the Seadrift site to ensure reliable steam generation for Dow, which will then sell any excess power to the ERCOT market.

Potential market opportunities

Details of other potential clients beyond Dow and Energy Northwest remain under non-disclosure agreements, but many across the industrial sector have expressed interest in the reactor, Reinke says.

“We’ve looked at a number of different market applications, ranging from mineral extraction and processing to oil and gas, including refineries, to petrochemicals, to steel manufacturing, and also at coal replacement for nuclear power,” he says.

Xe-100 potential uses in Teeside, UK 

(Click to enlarge)

Source: Beyond Electricity; Nuclear energy's role in supporting industrial decarbonization and economic growth on Teeside and beyond. Results of a 2023 independent research commissioned by X-energy

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Reinke sees the ARDP as a three-legged proposition for the company, with one leg being the Dow project and its overnight capital expenditure (CAPEX), or the direct costs of the physical construction of the nuclear plant at the Dow facility.

The second leg of the stool is the design of the Xe-100 intellectual property (IP), while the third leg is the overnight CAPEX, licensing, and deployment of the company’s first commercial scale fuel facility, or TX-1.

The X-energy reactor will run on tri-structural isotropic (TRISO) particle fuel, developed by the company’s own TRISO-X advanced nuclear fuel fabrication facility to be built in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

For the construction of the 215,000 square foot (near 20,000 square meter) facility, the DOE awarded X-energy a $148.5 million tax credit in April via funds from the Inflation Reduction Act.

The fuel is packed into tiny particles and then into pebbles designed to withstand high temperatures without melting, offering enhanced safety features and, the company hopes, a reduced plant footprint without the need for an extended Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ).

Fuel squeeze

The U.S. ban on Russian imports of enriched uranium has given rise to concerns over the availability of high assay, low enriched uranium (HALEU) used to make the pebbles, however, it will be supplied by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) the first few years of the demonstration.

The Xe-100 also needs considerably less fuel than the TerraPower’s Natrium, says Reinke.

To keep the HALEU supply flowing so the newest reactors, including those that form part of the ARDP, don’t face a fuel squeeze in the first few years of life, the government has earmarked $2.7 billion to rebuild the domestic nuclear fuel market.

In the short-term some demonstration reactors will take supplies of existing stockpiles of HALEU held at national labs, says senior analyst for the Nuclear Innovation Alliance (NIA) Erik Cothron.

“There's also the potential to down-blend sources of high enriched uranium held by the Department of Defense, though for the medium- and long-term, we need to build up domestic supply.”

Finding a niche

SMRs – defined as reactors that generate 300 MW or less – have been hailed as the solution to a number of electrification needs as the world ramps up decarbonization efforts, including powering data centers, producing clean hydrogen, and deployment to hard-to-reach oil and mining operations.  

While the technology to produce clean hydrogen that could use the heat and pressure from the Xe-100 is still in development stages, Reinke sees an eventual use case as the industry grows.  

“We do see a hydrogen market that will be growing and evolving and, as it does, we think our product is extremely well placed to help provide a lower cost of hydrogen production,” he says.

The same applies for data centers, which increasingly require a rising level of electricity that needs to be tappable 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he says.

Meanwhile, a partnership with one of Canada’s leading power producers TransAlta in the province of Alberta will study the feasibility of replacing fossil fuel electricity generation sites with an Xe-100 plant.

The province, a lead oil producer in Canada, is exploring SMRs as a means by which to cut emissions from petrochemical plants, hard-to-access mines, and fossil fuel operations.

“The Athabasca Oil Sands is one of the Great Western aligned set of resources and, to remain competitive, they have to find a way to decarbonize the extraction of heavy oil and there's a tremendous steam requirement and electrical requirement there,” says Reinke.

“Our technology is ideally suited to decarbonize mineral extraction, resource extraction and processing.”

By Paul Day