Open-source designs for compact nuclear power plants

“We can’t wait 10 years to start decarbonizing the globe,” he said. And he bets on nuclear energy. He sees how new nuclear projects are few, most of them delayed, most of the times because they are so expensive. And he puts his own money on the table, in a nonprofit organization – Energy Impact Center – a research think tank that is making open-source designs for compact nuclear power plants that cost a lot less than versions from decades ago. We talked with Bret Kugelmass, Managing Director for Energy Impact Center about their OPEN100 project, the promises and the challenges.

Mr. Bret Kugelmass, you made your fortune and your name in the business world with a robotics company, Airphrame. What was the personal drive that brought you in the energy industry?

In 2017, after meeting with several climate scientists, I made the decision to refocus my efforts towards enabling global clean energy. Energy is the foundation of modern society and we have a great opportunity ahead of us to not only protect the environment but also increase access and affordability. Energy may be the single greatest enabler of prosperity and certainly the highest level of impact.

So, the primary goal is fighting climate change, by decarbonizing the atmosphere. Why nuclear, instead of the darlings of most environmentalists, wind or PV energy?

It was only after a survey of all available and future energy technologies that we discovered nuclear had unique advantages driven by base physics. By exploiting atomic forces instead of chemical forces, you generate millions of times as much energy for the same material input. Renewables, while excellent for clean air, still add carbon to the atmosphere, albeit at a much lower rate than fossil fuels, but just a lower rate isn’t good enough for addressing climate concerns. The carbon footprint needs to be so low that you can account for your own lifecycle carbon emissions. Only nuclear has the energy characteristics capable of doing so. There are also concerns of intermittency and impact on infrastructure that further impact the practical application of renewables. The only serious criticism against nuclear power is cost, and this is the very problem we set out to solve.

For decades, building new power generation capacities was hampered by costs, so much that we got used to the phrase “market failure”. In the case of nuclear, what are the main categories of costs when we talk about traditional power plants (construction, technology, safety measures, decommissioning, others)? What is different in the case of SMRs?

Big infrastructure, whether nuclear, bridges, tunnels, railways or others can enter into a zone of runaway costs regardless of what you are building. In principle, nuclear should be less than half the cost of fossil energy since the fuel is 5 to 10x less expensive and the CAPEX is functionally the same. What drives cost in new nuclear builds has to do more with construction challenges rather than foundational technology issues. Furthermore, outdated regulations can add overwhelming and unnecessary upfront fixed costs and also truly ridiculous operational costs, such as requiring manual hand recorded data capture instead of allowing the use of computers to record sensor readings.

The OPEN100 project you started at Energy Impact Center offers open-source blueprints for the design, construction and financing of nuclear power plants. How do you see such blueprints might be helpful in cutting costs for a nuclear project?

By publishing open-source documentation we are creating a common data repository to best align stakeholders for efficient project development. This is how it’s done in other industries. When you build an apartment building, there is no mystery about the underlying technology; this allows for a competitive ecosystem of financiers, vendors, engineering firms, all of which leads to lower costs, a more competitive product, and thus greater market access. The current way of doing business, adding complexity and secrecy, has led to terrible economics and project mismanagement in the nuclear industry. It is also very uncreative to think the only way you can build a profitable and defensible business model is by adding proprietary and unnecessary complexity to your system.

What would be the first steps to take for a decision-maker in a company interested in testing your proposal?

The very first step is reviewing the basic engineering, economics, and construction schedule on the OPEN-100.com website and then reaching out to our team to build a relationship. We’ll then participate in a mutual exploration of the local market opportunities, regulatory landscape, and implementation strategy.

If feasible, such blueprints must be highly attractive for investors, engineering firms and large utilities from around the world. Up to now, what is the feedback from them on the OPEN100 offering?

Despite the COVID lockdown, we have never had more international engagement. The outpouring of interest from investors and utilities around the world has been overwhelming and we are trying to staff up as fast as possible to support inbound opportunities.

A few days ago, before us having this conversation, USTDA and Nuclearelectrica, the nuclear power company in Romania, just announced they have signed a partnership for assessing the development of small modular reactors in Romania. That is, for identifying potential SMR compatible nuclear sites, but also for drafting a licensing roadmap for SMRs. Do you see licensing as the most complicated issue for the development of SMRs, in an industry with the strictest of regulations?

Any regulator familiar with “risk-informed performance-based” licensing already has the tools it needs to assess the safety of an SMR in a cost and time-efficient manner. My only fear is that special interests may use adjustment of the regulatory framework to favor specificity and create uncompetitive market dynamics (which is what has historically led to the death of nuclear around the world). Licensing nuclear can be straightforward and efficient if you employ competent engineers using a common-sense framework to assess risk.

What are the plans and goals for Energy Impact Center and OPEN100 project in 2021, after your for-profit Last Energy spin-off company raised 3 million dollars last year?

We’re going to continue to grow our team, deploying both capital and technical resources in order to support the international development of small nuclear power plants.

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This interview firstly appeared in the printed edition of Energynomics Magazine, issued in March 2021.

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