Urenco Ltd., the world’s second-biggest maker of atomic fuel, is advancing its attempt to supply radically smaller nuclear reactors in order to boost demand for its services.
The company is developing, in conjunction with Amec Foster Wheeler Plc, a generation of small, modular reactors called “U-Batteries,” Chief Executive Officer Thomas Haeberle said in an interview from the company’s headquarters in Stoke Poges, England. Urenco’s miniature reactors can generate 10 megawatts of power or heat, about 1 percent of what comes from a modern atomic plant.
“It’s going to take maybe 10 years to be operational, but I’m deeply convinced that it will successfully complement existing nuclear,” Haeberle said. “It’s a more radical downscaling approach that will develop even more because it uses standardized equipment.”
With the U-Battery, Urenco is tapping into global interest in remaking nuclear power along smaller and more modular lines. Instead of being built on the giant scale of a traditional power plant, they’d be small enough to fit in a 324-square-yard area of a soccer field’s penalty box.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency approved the initial review stage of a first-of-its-kind modular reactor made by NuScale Power LLC earlier in March. Countries from China to the Philippines and Saudi Arabia have shown interest in scaled-down nuclear power plants. In August, Urenco was among 32 companies shortlisted as eligible to compete for a contract to build the country’s first commercial mini-nuclear plant.
Downsizing the nuclear future
The U-Battery is being developed for small towns and industries operating in areas beyond the reach of large nuclear plants. While a typical reactor generating a 1,000 megawatts of power would need pervasive grid access and dense populations for profitability, a U-Battery could make economic sense even in more remote areas with less concentrated economic activity.
The construction company Laing O’Rourke Plc as well as shipbuilder Cammell Laird Holdings Plc are also part of the group developing U-battery.
U-Batteries would use standardized gear produced in factories and could generate power at about 9 cents a kilowatt-hour, according to Urenco estimates. Central to the U-Battery design is its so-called TRISO fuel, a three-layered sphere with a uranium kernel that can withstand temperatures as high as 1,800 Celsius (3,272 Fahrenheit), according to the prospectus.
The company is in talks about conducting trials on a prototype in Canada and Poland and is about to start the licensing process, the CEO said.
“It’s one of the clear innovative and promising ideas that Urenco has developed in the last years,” Haeberle said. “It will enable nuclear to grow in areas that big nuclear wouldn’t have access to.”