A Look Back at 2019: Leading the Way in Nuclear Innovation

What pushed us every day in 2019 – and what continues to drive us into the future – is the question: “How can nuclear innovation change the world?”

Many of our recent successes at TerraPower have resulted from years of hard work, dedication and focus. We continue to view nuclear science as a domain which is ripe for innovation. The civilian nuclear energy program laid the groundwork for carbon-free electricity production and much more. As we close out 2019 and move into a new decade, we’re proud of what the TerraPower team has accomplished.

Reaching 1000 Hours of Continuous Operation

Our laboratory has been at the forefront of nuclear innovation for years and it continues to evolve. We reached a major milestone this summer when our Molten Chloride Fast Reactor (MCFR) research team clocked 1000 hours of continuous operation on its experimental salt loop. This is a big step toward our reactor that will use molten salt as both as its coolant and fuel. MCFR offers opportunities to decarbonize world economies by using reactor heat to drive processes which today rely on burning massive quantities of fossil fuels.

Bringing Cancer-fighting Isotopes to Market

Nuclear science and technology offer a path to energy independence, environmental sustainability and many other cutting-edge advancements. We were thrilled to announce our agreement with Isotek Systems, LLC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to provide rare material for next-generation cancer research and treatment. At our recent November event, we showcased how Targeted Alpha Therapy uses Actinium-225 to attack cancerous cells with precision while leaving healthy cells intact. Through our partnership, we’re working to bring this isotope – which is in short supply – to market.

Developing Emissions-free Coal Conversion Technology

Another partnership we’ve formed in 2019 will help demonstrate new and innovative uses for nuclear energy. We teamed up with Ramaco Carbon to use our next-generation nuclear reactors to provide process heat as an emissions-free way to make carbon fiber out of coal. This process for creating carbon fiber precursor holds the potential to drastically lower the weight and increase the efficiency of aircraft, trains and automobiles. That means less fuel, fewer emissions and a cleaner environment.

Laboratory Expansion

After several years of site selection and facility build-out, we have relocated and expanded our laboratory space by five-fold in Everett, Washington. This 65,000 square foot space gives our team more experimental capabilities to rapidly evolve and validate our innovative concepts.

Open Sourcing the Advanced Reactor Modeling Interface 

In an effort to help the next generation of advanced nuclear developers, TerraPower made the framework portion of its Advanced Reactor Modeling Interface available as open-source software for others to use. TerraPower is widely recognized for its game-changing reactor design software. Now, via this open source effort, these tools will be available to a much larger population of innovators. TerraPower is proud of our leadership in this area.

Looking Ahead to 2020

As we move into 2020, we must also continue investing in advanced nuclear for the clean energy of tomorrow. We are excited to see a shift in focus in US government support and increased funding for advanced nuclear demonstration, but there is still more that can be done.

We are proud to support legislation like the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), which contains provisions to expedite the demonstration and commercialization of next-generation nuclear. NELA, which passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this year, would direct the DOE to demonstrate at least two advanced reactors by 2026 and up to an additional five more by 2036.

But Congress also took bold action to further the demonstration of advanced reactors in the last few weeks of 2019 by appropriating $230 million for advanced reactor demonstration. These new public-private partnerships will help construct the demonstrations of first-of-a-kind advanced reactor designs like TerraPower’s Traveling Wave Reactor (TWR) design that uses liquid sodium as its coolant and depleted uranium as its reload fuel. The TWR design aims to deliver nuclear energy, for both process heat and electricity, in a safer and more cost-efficient manner than existing nuclear power plants while producing less waste.

The TWR will be able to run continuously for decades without refueling on depleted uranium — the waste byproduct of the uranium enrichment process — after using enriched uranium as its initial fuel. This innovation will eliminate the need for reprocessing, which in turn reduces both proliferation risks and overall costs for nuclear energy production.

Previous plans for TerraPower to build a demonstration of the TWR in China by the mid-2020s were halted at the end of 2018 as a result of trade disputes between Washington, D.C. and Beijing. Despite this, the TWR could still see its demonstration prototype built in the US thanks to the new push by the federal government to demonstrate advanced nuclear technology in the United States.

We look forward to partnering with the federal government to demonstrate and commercialize domestic Generation IV technology around the world, essentially repeating the history which began at Shippingport 60 years ago. Demonstration of Light Water Reactor (LWR) technology at Shippingport led to hundreds of reactors being built around the world with US-born technology.

But innovation doesn’t stop with one reactor design being demonstrated. The MCFR complements our work on the TWR. 2020 marks the fifth year of a five-year $40 million cost-sharing award from DOE for the research and development of the MCFR project. That award is the basis of apublic-private partnership led by TerraPower on R&D of molten salt reactors. We continue to make rapid progress on the MCFR technology.

TerraPower is also contributing to industry efforts to build, by 2026, a fast-neutron Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) for the DOE to test materials of advanced reactor designs, including fuels as part of the newly-authorized National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC). The experimental VTR will not only close a research gap left open since the closure of America’s last fast reactor in 1994 but will also lead to longer-lasting and more-efficient reactor designs filed at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). As DOE is investigating the potential for a public-private partnership on the VTR, it’s possible that we can play an even larger role on the VTR moving forward.

2019 was an exciting year at TerraPower, but we are all looking forward to 2020. Let’s hope it’s our biggest year yet in showing the true promise of nuclear innovation!