At $40 million each in matching funds over the next five years, the grants will go to X-energy, a little-known Maryland-based startup that is developing a new version of a pebble-bed reactor, and to Southern Company, the Atlanta-based utility that is working with TerraPower on molten-salt reactors.
It’s a promising development for the advanced nuclear industry, which has struggled to find funding and regulatory approval. Much of the money raised so far has gone to just two companies, Tri Alpha Energy, which is working on fusion reactors, and TerraPower.
X-energy was founded in 2009 by Kam Ghaffarian, who previously founded Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, a major contractor for NASA. Based in Greenbelt, Maryland, the company is working on a high-temperature reactor that is cooled by gas, rather than water, and uses small fuel pellets inside a graphite cylinder, rather than solid fuel rods. The design, says Pete Passano, the company’s vice president of fuel production, makes the reactor immune to meltdowns. Encased in layers of carbon and ceramics, the individual fuel pebbles, each the size of a poppy seed, maintain their integrity at temperatures of 1,800 °C, far beyond the temperatures that might be reached inside the core in the event of an accident, according to tests at Oak Ridge and Idaho national laboratories.
Southern plans to build a prototype of the molten chloride reactor by the mid-2020s. Coupled with recent private funding announcements for companies including Terrestrial Energy and Transatomic Power, the DOE’s support could help jump-start a sector that promises to make real the long-awaited renaissance of nuclear power