A US-based energy firm is developing small portable nuclear reactors — innovative devices dubbed the next-generation of nuclear power plants.
The US-based Radiant Industries company has been developing portable nuclear reactors for power generation since its foundation in 2019. Led by Doug Bernauer, a former SpaceX employer, Radiant’s plan for making its powerplant portable is to make a smaller nuclear reactor capable of generating one megawatt of energy, sufficient to power around 1.000 homes. Usually, small portable nuclear reactors, also known as microreactors, have a power capacity of up to 300 megawatts and can be used to power households by generating electricity through nuclear fission reactions. These reactors are designed to be smaller and more compact than traditional nuclear power plants, making them suitable for use in remote or isolated areas or as a backup power source for critical infrastructure.
2. Powered by TRISO particles
At the core of Radiant’s technology are TRISO particles which are the fuel for the nuclear reactor. Composed of uranium, oxygen, and carbon, these particles are covered with ceramic and carbon materials and are roughly the size of a poppy seed. The particles are stacked together to form fuel pellets, which are then loaded into fuel rods. When the reactor is operating, the fuel pellets undergo a process of fission, releasing heat and energy that is used to generate electricity.
In the tests conducted so far, Radiant has taken TRISO particles to temperatures up to 1,648 degrees Celsius and has not seen any concerning damage, according to Interesting Engineering. This is higher than the temperature most nuclear reactors will ever reach. The company has also used helium in its reactor design to act as a coolant to facilitate passive heat removal.
Since the TRISO particles need to be refueled only once in five years, the reactor is the ideal option to be deployed at remote locations, which have not been connected to the grid and might be dependent on fossil fuels for energy needs.
3. Grid connection vs autonomy
To power households, a microreactor would need to be connected to an electricity grid or used as a standalone system with battery storage. The electricity generated by the reactor can be distributed to nearby homes and buildings through power lines or microgrids, providing a reliable and constant source of electricity. But these energy devices can also be designed to be autonomous, meaning that they can operate independently of a grid connection. In this case, the electricity generated by the reactor is stored in batteries or used to power on-site equipment, such as water pumps or air conditioning units.
Small portable reactors can provide a constant source of electricity without relying on intermittent renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind. They also have a much smaller physical footprint than traditional nuclear power plants, making them suitable for use in densely populated areas or where space is limited.
Despite the incredible benefits like increasing energy access while curbing nasty emissions, there are potential risks associated with the use of nuclear power, including the risk of accidents or radioactive contamination. The design and deployment of microreactors must be carefully regulated and monitored to ensure their safe operation. At this point, Radiant is focusing on the engineering of the reactor and seeking regulatory approval for its designs and technology, after having partnering with Idaho National Laboratory and the Argonne National Laboratory.