Argonnes Developing Micro-Nuclear Reactors for eTruck Supercharging

The largest cross-country 18-wheel trucks will need five to 10 times more electricity than an electric car to recharge its battery. And these trucks often need to recharge far from high-power transmission lines.

Engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory want to factory mass produce microreactors to enable the electric transportation future.

Microreactors will use nuclear fuel and passive safety features. They will recharge cross-country semitrucks at thousands of rest stops across the country. They will be about the size of two home water heaters.

When the rest stop is empty, the reactor produces power in the form of heat, which is transferred and stored in a separate tank of inert heat-transfer fluid. When trucks crowd the rest stop, the system taps that heated fluid to produce steam, generate electricity and recharge batteries.

The fuel is made of Tri-structural ISOtropic (TRISO) pellets, developed from 60 years of research at DOE National Laboratories. The pellets contain low-enriched uranium covered by layers of carbon and ceramics. Those protective layers ensure the reactor’s safety.

The cost will be less than $3,000 per kilowatt-hour for capital costs and will use proven, practical approaches.

Argonne laboratory’s award-winning System Analysis Module (SAM) Reactor Analysis Code picked the best reactor size, fuel amount and heat-transfer fluid type.

The system could be standardized, mass-produced on an assembly line and loaded on trucks to ship to installation sites across the country.

Other Pebble Bed Nuclear Reactors

Westinghouse eVinci has gotten about $50M and they are working towards 2023 or 2025 for a first unit. They want to mass-produce heat pipes and factory mass produce the entire reactor in the 200 KWe to 25MWe power range. eVinci will also use fuel pellets.

the US and other countries have significant funding for small modular reactors (SMR). In May 2020 the DOE launched the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) offering funds, initially $160 million, on a cost-share basis for the construction of two advanced reactors that could be operational within seven years. The ARDP will concentrate resources on designs that are “affordable” to build and operate.

Pebble bed reactors and high-temperature gas reactors are getting activated in Asia. China has the 210MW HTR-PM (being tested now) and Japan has the HTTR (30MW).

Time will tell if what makes sense engineering and technology-wise will overcome the regulatory and business hurdles to take become a massive part of our energy and transportation future.

SOURCEs- World Nuclear News, Argonne Labs, NEI Magazine
Written by Brian Wang,

54 thoughts on “Argonnes Developing Micro-Nuclear Reactors for eTruck Supercharging”

  1. No problem. Just strap a CAP-1400 reactor to the back of the truck. You'd have 0.19 gigawatts to spare. That's so you can make it fly when you reach 2015.

  2. No, but how about for small-med boats? They could run for years. Or make a larger boat with the reactors to link up to smaller battery-powered boats and recharge them at sea. This could be done.

    Excess energy could be used for desalination.

  3. Thanks. That gives me an idea what you were talking about.
    I think battery swapping should start with a fleet of vehicles like a taxi company or delivery trucks. If Shai Agassi didn't start with that no wonder it didn't work.

  4. Triso fuel – the fission products are mostly locked up in the tiny fuel granules, so even if somehow they breached containment and smashed a bunch of the hard ceramic spheres, there'd be minimal release of radiation. Whereas if they detonated that truck next to an LPG store or a gas pipeline, there really could be a mess.

  5. Being underground would certainly be a plus, out in the boonies those that hire can't be choosy. It is the potential for inside jobs that I find most troubling about the system. And if it is above ground, it is perfectly normal to have trucks completely filled with ammonium nitrate, or other chemicals for farms, mines or industry. All you need is one bad actor and there could be quite a mess.

  6. OK, let me ask you this… What is Hiroshima and Nagasaki like today? You get two choices: thriving cities or nuclear wastelands?

    So perhaps the public and you are both wrong?

  7. The "horrors" of Chernobyl is a gross exaggeration [1]. We are talking about 100-200 deaths, and up to 10 000 deaths when counting the statistical number of deaths due to low levels of radiation in Europe.

    The thing is, though, that low levels probably do not kill anybody. Its an artifact of the "linear no threshold" model, which is belied by the normal death rates in the areas mentioned by John ONeal below.

    So no, John is not "arrogant", he is right on the money.


  8. You are correct about the public sentiment and wrong about the technology. How bad "radiation" should be frased: compared to what? how bad?

    A truthfull answer to these questions will tell you that the radiaton is less bad than other environmental risks, less harmfull and less likely. So no, the public is not right, but they are rightfully in power. I support democracy, i.e. the right of the public to decide things both correctly and incorrectly.

    Now, somehow, the public seems only to be allowed to decide issues when public opinion happens to be maximum idiotic…

  9. You're right, my figure was out of date – coal production has cratered since 2008. While I agree that centralised reactors with power lines will be the main use of nuclear, I do think that the security levels demanded are way over what's necessary, and more so for an underground reactor with no moving parts, no water in the core, and ceramic fuel rated to ~ 2000 C.

  10. So why does anyone think fast charging is better than making batteries in a standard size to be swapped out for batteries that have been recharged relatively slowly whenever the electricity supply is greater than other demand?

  11. Chernobyl will not a be 'a "no human" zone for several thousand years'. The power station had four reactors, and the other three kept on working for the next fifteen years or so. Several hundred people sneaked back to their homes and are still living there, growing their own food and harvesting mushrooms and nuts from the forest – they're judged to be healthier than the evacuees. The radioisotope that actually killed people ( apart from the firemen in the first response, some of whom got very high doses ) was iodine 131. This is dangerous precisely because it has a short half life – eight days – and also because it concentrates in the thyroid. That all expended itself in the first three months after the accident. The only significant one left now over most of the exclusion zone is cesium 137, with a thirty year half life. That will take ten half lives – 300 years – to disappear, but conversely, it releases slowly in the body, giving DNA repair mechanisms more time to fix any damage. Cesium does not concentrate into one part of the body, and its biological half-life – the average time of residence in the body – is much shorter, about seventy days. In any case, populated areas with high natural background radiation levels, such as parts of Kerala in India and Guarapari in Brazil ( from thorium sands ), or Ramsar in Iran ( radon and radium ), don't appear to have increased cancer rates.

  12. Hmm. Also says "30.1% of originated tonnage for U.S railroads", so I am not sure what their measurment was that resulted in the 14%. Maybe value? In any case, 30.1% is lower than 50%.

  13. Sure, people obsess, exaggerate, and play "Chicken Little". You get no argument on that from me. I see it all the time and am no fan I assure you. But the thing is, nuclear is one of those few areas where it's justified. Chernobyl will be a "no human" zone for several thousand years, and shows how bad things can get when they go wrong.

    That said, the deeper problem with nuclear is not the public's fear, rational or not. It's the serious danger that is inherent and inseparable from the technology itself. Splitting the atom creates lethal radiation. There's no way around that. No matter what reactor design one uses, you will always have a system that generates lethal radiation. Now assuming you had your choice of a non lethal tech, like solar panels on your roof, or the govt offers to build a 10 MW nuke reactor 5 miles from your house. Which would you prefer? Of course, that's a fair choice, but I think it illustrates the dilemma.

  14. Thx, appreciate the link. I learned something new reading that wiki article. Had no idea that two new reactors were being built in Georgia. I was surprised to see that.

    That said, even that article indicates that more all other new construction has stopped and the number of operating reactors is diminishing.

    The thing is, I'm not anti-nuke. Unfortunately, the problem with the technology is twofold: one, humans operate it, and two, it has the potential to irradiate lots of people when those humans make a mistake.


  15. I am not seeing the relevance of rail freight moving less coal. And I see no reason it would be "about half". All bulk is 52% of rail freight. That includes agriculture and energy products, automobiles and components, construction materials, chemicals, equipment, food, metals, minerals, paper, and pulp. So you are saying just 2% is all these other things. They did not give a breakdown but "In 2019, the estimated total value of nonfuel mineral production in the United States was $86.3 billion"
    As that is "nonfuel" that means not including coal, oil, etc. That does not revel the weight, and not all of that would be moved by train…most of it probably.
    Here we go! Coal was 14% in 2019:
    So way short of "half".
    I never said "swarms of fanatics just waiting for the chance to take out a reactor". The reality is reactors are very well protected in the US. But if you did have thousands of tiny reactors, it would be prohibitive to provide a similar level of protection. You really think a gas station could afford 20 security guys? And that is way less than reactors typically have.

  16. I live in the southern part of New Zealand, probably further from a working power reactor than any other inhabited place on earth. When I tried googling to see what the background radiation level was in my city, one of the first hits was from a guy from here on a chat group, who was hiding in his house because his geiger counter had told him that a particularly toxic cloud from Fukushima was passing over. In fact, it's unlikely that any detectable radiation had made it past the equator, and they can detect radiation in very small increments. It took a year before they detected radiation attributable to Fukushima in bluefin tuna off California, but none in the water – tuna move much faster than ocean currents. The levels were a fifth of those dating back to the atomic bomb tests in the sixties, which in turn were far below that from naturally occurring potassium 40, uranium, rubidium 87, and carbon 14.
    I did know a farmer from here who died of acute radiation poisoning. He went into hospital for treatment, and was accidentally given a much larger dose than prescribed – it killed him in a week. Properly managed radiotherapy does induce cancer in maybe one out of 500 patients, since tissue round a tumour will unavoidably get some fraction of the dose designed to kill the tumour. The doses involved are far above anything that anyone living near Fukushima received.

  17. I did not claim a nuclear renaissance took place – only that we (in the US) were getting to the point where building new nuclear power was being considered again.

    I do recall that quite clearly, and recall that when I watched the first few videos of Fukushima my thought was "Well, so much for a rebirth of nuclear power for another couple decades…" The "mushroom cloud" (hydrogen explosion) was especially cringe-inducing, since it was obvious how lots of people would react to that.

    Collecting original source evidence is too difficult to be worth it for a NBF comment, so I'll just give you the Wiki link:

  18. I think you miss my point. It doesn't matter how much potential nuclear has. And it doesn't matter how well the plants are designed. In the public's mind, nuclear = Chernobyl. Moreover, Fukushima just reinforces that point. And the fact is they are right. Nuclear power creates radiation. Radiation is bad. The public knows that. They don't care what new safe way someone comes up with to generate it. It's still bad.


  19. Was considering a nuclear renaissance in the 2000s? Where, good sir, did you get that from? I clearly recall that decade and no such renaissance took place. If you want to truly gauge the public's outlook on nuclear then simply consider that nowhere in the US is there any serious effort underway to build another reactor, no matter what type and how safe. Then also consider that California is shutting down its plants. For better or worse, the trend is away from nuclear.


  20. Agree with DrPat. Additionally, it's comments like yours sir that only drive people away from nuke power (NP) even further. The glib way you dismiss the "horrors of Chernobyl" as you put it serve to convince the public that the industry can't be trusted.

    The thing is I'm not even against NP. It makes sense for a lot of reasons. But arrogant folks who think that people are "obsessing" are exactly the fools who, through their own indifferent attitude and incompetence, will cause another such incident to happen.

    If you want to convince people that NP is safe, then stow the arrogance and start recognizing that people have legitimate concerns about NP safety.


  21. Think of the people who die/will die early because we did not start O'Neill project 40 years ago. Millions at least.

  22. "cheap clean energy" is free existing fusion with existing distribution system, thru out the Solar System. We just have to scoop it up and beam the energy the last little distance. Space Solar. Boiling water on Earth cannot compete, even if the heat were free.

  23. What is weird is that, something like that will eventually happen, perhaps. Power supply comes in the frame. But, until then. . .

  24. My admittedly layman's thoughts on using nuclear power are that electric trucks offer too many advantages not to use them, but upgrading our power distribution systems will be prohibitively expensive to run to every truck stop in the country and then maintain. I always thought that these types of small reactors would be perfect for providing the energy for them because, even if the cost is higher than wind/solar it is still cheaper by far than diesel fuel. There were some good points made here though, about safety and security. Any thoughts on using ANEEL fuel for this type of operation or reactors? This type of fuel seems to resolve a lot of objections.

  25. Yeah, but it is in people's heads that decisions get made, so the fact that the ghosts only exist there does nothing to reduce their power.

  26. So how much fissile material spread over the countryside is acceptable to you then? These could be turned into mini Fukushimas all over the US. At best, the cost to clean up would be astronomical not to mention the infrastructure disruption while this cleanup occurred. At worst you get mini Fukushima no-go areas all over the US if these are targeted and the high cost of having to reroute highways around these areas. Risk>>benefit.

  27. Did you know that in the French localized version, Doc Brown says "2.21 gigowatts"? Yes, with an O which doesn't exist. The funniest thing is when you know that a gigot (pronounced 'jigo') in French is a haunch or leg of lamb.

    Aside from that, the voice of Doc Brown, dubbed by late Pierre Hatet, is fantastic in the French version.

  28. They should focus on military bases, remote research and commercial outposts and other high value secure locations. This is a bit premature. Mars settlement needs something like this that’s been specifically adapted. NASA plans have been way too modest. Mars needs multi megawatt reactors for both power and heat that fit in 100ton Starship cargo bay modules.

  29. It would be cheaper to use this system to switch the locomotives from diesel to nuclear, reducing oil consumption and avoiding transmission losses inherent in long distance electrical lines.

  30. It took an accident on the scale of Chernobyl to kill hundreds of people. What is a terrorist going to do with these reactors other than kill themselves?

  31. The point is that you don't ramp up and down. That's what the heat storage is for. Allows you to pull more or less heat out of storage to match demand. Demand is going to have very little seasonal variation but a very pronounced daily cycle and short term very noisy curve.

  32. It's a technology that has enormous potential (enough cheap clean energy to enable the entire world to consume US levels of energy without wrecking the climate or fouling the worlds air) but one which is locked out of the usual inovation cycle that would allow falling costs/improved performace (due to needing a billion dollars to get past the initial regulatory thicket) and long construction times for large reactors.

    A good example of this was that the diesel back up generators at the Fukushima plant were located in the basement where a tsunami would knock them out. If plant designers could quickly and easily make design changes at each plant, by the time the Fukushima plant was built this simple design flaw would probably have been corrected.

    Someone, somewhere, will eventually get a small demonstration molten salt reactor plant up and running which may break the inovation log jam by demonstrating that it has eliminated the real hazard of nuclear – gasesous radioactive isotopes of iodine and cesium. This would allow sensible levels of regulation (in some countries at least).

  33. Ghosts only exist in peoples' heads. Like the ones obsessing about the horrors of Chernobyl, when coal smoke kills more people every single day than Chernobyl ever did.

  34. I'm all for more rail, and more electrified rail, but the industry is going to take a major hit when the US decarbonises – about half the freight tonnage is coal ( same in China.) I don't buy this stuff about swarms of fanatics just waiting for the chance to take out a reactor. There's been one nutjob from Switzerland's Green Party who took potshots at a French experimental plant with a bazooka – no real damage caused, it was still under construction – and a few Greenpeace loonies who attacked reactors with balloons or fireworks or something, to show what would have happened if they'd got hold of something that could blow through two metres of concrete. Oh, and the Israeli Air Force, of course – terrorists with plenty of armour piercing capability – who took out an Iraqi and a Syrian reactor, and need this deal with the Saudis to have a go at some in Iran. Seems to me thousands of miles of power lines would be much easier targets than a few underground, no moving part fission piles. A film came out recently in which some avenging eco-grannie in Iceland was shorting out high tension power lines with a bow and arrow.

  35. Combined cycle gas takes a while to start the steam section since it has to wait for the gas exhaust to heat up the steam boiler, but a molten salt store shouldn't need lag time. The heat pipe reactors should be high temperature – triso fuel is rated to about 2000 C. As I understand it, the heat pipes work by evaporating molten sodium at the reactor end and condensing it again at the business end. Sodium boils at about 880 C at atmospheric pressure; the operating range of solar salts is 220 to 600 C.

  36. Class 8 trucks mostly pick up, and deliver at locations with large three phase services. I believe one of Tesla's big customers for class 8 tractors will be Walmart. Presumably, trucks will mostly run between distribution centers, and stores, which all have large three phase services. Factories do, probably most warehouses, ports do…..
    Maybe long haul trucks should be replaced with electric freight trains, like Europe uses.

  37. Maybe not. The US was considering a "nuclear renaissance" back in the 2000's, only 20-25 years after TMI and Chernobyl. Then came the 2011 Fukushima disaster and a new wave of anti-nuclear sentiment.

    Since that disaster wasn't in the US, the impact on US thinking was probably about equivalent to Chernobyl – meaning a 20 year delay before we could get serious about nuclear again. So early 2030's might see us looking at nuclear again.

    Possibly claims of new nuclear designs being a a lot safer could pull that in a bit more, at least enough to build some demonstration power plants. So maybe we could see some 'starts' in the late 2020's.

  38. There are uses for small reactors, this is not one of them. While it is perfectly feasible mechanically, the realities of society make this a no go. There just is no way to secure all these locations. These would be magnets to domestic and foreign terrorism, and just people wanting to "get even" with society, big brother and such. If we electrified freight rail, like most other countries, the wires that supply the trains would be close to just about all the highways, and a couple miles of wire, towers and a transformer to cross that distance is going to be much cheaper, even if the reactors were mass produced.
    It would not be cheap to electrify freight rail, but it has advantages. The biggest being attracting more freight to rail. Trains don't actually use much fuel, so all these wires don't save enough fuel directly to be worth it, but running the trains for almost nothing, does make them attractive for freight, reducing the number of comparatively guzzling trucks.
    For context, the U.S. uses trucks to move 2,033,921 million ton-miles of freight. And the U.S. uses trains to move 1,729,638 million ton-miles of freight. The trucks use 24.1% of all transport energy. Rail is somewhere below 2.9% (7x more efficient).
    164,000 miles of highway.
    125,828 miles of rail, though it used to be 254,037 miles, and most of that could be put back into service if needed.

  39. It's interesting that they specifically advocate thermal storage with a final steam cycle. While solar salt storage and small steam setups may be off-the shelf, the direct comparison would probably be flywheel storage and grid trickle charge. If you can put the flywheels below grade, you can turn the flywheel facility roof into a parking lot. Flywheels also allow a very hard user cycle and high power output. I'm not familiar with small steam setups, but how quickly can they ramp up and down? I seem to remember gas peaker plants with heat recovery steam generators would need 30 minutes for the steam part of the plant to come online.

    While TRISO based reactors can go high temperature, I don't believe the suggested reactors are high temperature types, so that precludes direct high temperature thermal storage, or power cycles that depend on high temperatures, such as supercritical CO2.

  40. So right. I don't understand why NBF is so obsessed with nuclear power. It's dead in the US. The ghosts of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island will haunt the industry for the foreseeable future.

  41. For a split second I felt a retro 60's vibe and images of the Ford Nucleon spun by, but my mistake. Definitely no Cyclops from the The Big Bus…

  42. Yup. Might as well just advocate the logical thing, and put them on the truck. It makes more sense, and stands about as much chance of getting done.

  43. So, a small nuclear power plant at each highway recharging stop?

    When modern "green" politics (and their big fossil fuel backers) won't let you install a reactor in a huge, high security, dedicated site that is already zoned for a nuclear reactor and would have full time, expensive, trained staff on hand to make sure there is always someone ready to deal with any technical, or security, related problem?

    This is just some fictional fantasy that some guys came up with over some beers and wrote it up into what is just a science fiction story.

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