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Next-Generation Nuclear Reactor Gets Construction Permit

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted a construction permit for a next-generation nuclear reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Knoxville News Sentinel reports.

What’s going on: “Unlike every commercial nuclear reactor in the country, Hermes [the demonstration reactor planned by California startup Kairos Power] will not be cooled by water, but by a molten salt mixture that captures heat produced by fission.” 

  • Kairos plans to begin building the reactor next year on the site of the former East Tennessee Technology Park, where the U.S. government enriched uranium for more than four decades starting in the 1940s.
  • The new project is the first non-water-cooled nuclear reactor to get NRC approval in more than half a century.

New reactor, old technology: Kairos “owes much of its work to more than 60 years of research at [Oak Ridge National Laboratory], which pioneered molten salt reactors, first through an experiment to create nuclear-powered jets for the U.S. Air Force.”

  • Funding for that endeavor eventually declined, and the project ended in 1973.

​​​​​​​Why it’s important: Now, “[e]xactly 50 years later, the U.S. could be on the cusp of a nuclear renaissance with another wave of enthusiasm for molten salt technology. Kairos is leading the charge to build the first commercial molten salt reactor.”

  • Hermes will use a fuel developed at ORNL and produced by Kairos in a partnership with Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
  • Just a single “golf-sized” piece of the fuel is capable of producing the same amount of energy as burning four tons of coal, according to the News Sentinel.

Down the road: Kairos—which expects to have Hermes operational by 2026—has also “submitted a construction permit application for Hermes 2, a two-unit demonstration plant in Oak Ridge that will build on the lessons of Hermes.” 

The NAM’s view: “Nuclear energy is critical to meeting decarbonization and energy security goals,” said NAM Vice President of Domestic Policy Brandon Farris.

  • “The NAM is a strong proponent of an all-of-the-above energy policy, which includes nuclear energy and the entire supply chain that makes it possible. We are encouraged that manufacturers continue to innovate and look forward to the next generation of technologies that make reactor designs safer, more compact and more energy efficient.”
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