Partners in nuclear power

Oregon State Nuclear Engineering Professors Qiao Wu (left) and Jose Reyes discuss NuScale Power's ongoing research at Oregon State.


Is it possible to revolutionize nuclear power in the United States? Oregon State Nuclear Engineering Professor Jose Reyes cofounded NuScale Power to do just that. He's joined by fellow Oregon State Nuclear Engineering Professors Qiao Wu and Todd Palmer to discuss NuScale's revolutionary design and its test facility here on campus.

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Season 4
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JENS ODEGAARD: Picture a nuclear power plant. A huge concrete dome rising above the landscape. Do you have it in your mind’s eye? Now take that picture, and scroll to an alternate image--a revolutionary design that’s come out of an ongoing research partnership between Oregon State and NuScale Power.

[MUSIC: "The Ether Bunny," Eyes Closed Audio, used with permissions of a Creative Commons Attribution License]

NARRATOR: From the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, this is Engineering Out Loud.

JOSE REYES: So instead of the big concrete domes you're familiar with, it's a steel vessel which sits underwater underground. And that's kind of the whole concept: it's a reactor inside of a steel thermos bottle underwater underground….

ODEGAARD: That’s Oregon State Professor Jose Reyes, former head of the School of Nuclear Science and Engineering and cofounder and chief technology officer of NuScale Power. He joins me today with a couple of fellow Oregon State nuclear engineering professors.

PALMER: Ya, my name is Todd PALMER, I'm a professor here in the School of Nuclear Science and Engineering and I'm currently serving as the associate school head as well.

WU: I'm Qiao WU, professor in nuclear engineering.

ODEGAARD: NuScale Power was founded by Jose in 2007 following a research project at the School of Nuclear Science and Engineering involving Todd and Qiao among others. Today NuScale remains one of the school’s premier research partners.

Let’s jump back to 2000 and the beginning of the story.

REYES: Ya, so it was an interesting project. The Department of Energy had a program called the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative (NERI) and as part of that program they were looking for innovative ideas for new reactor concepts and just a whole range of technology concepts. So we proposed what was called a Multi-Application Small Light Water Reactor (MASLWR). and so that was the genesis of what kind of later became NuScale. But it was a small modular reactor that could be factory built. The original design could be deployed and then operate for 7-8 years and then be retrieved, so that was kind of the original concept.

The idea was that these would go into locations that were either remote or that they needed power and that you didn't need to refuel. So you would, essentially like a battery, you would deploy it there and it would operate continuously for 7 or 8 years and then at the end of 7 or 8 years you'd retrieve it and you'd put in a new one. It was kind of an exchange concept.

ODEGAARD: In addition to being able to be factory built, the other part of the concept that really set it apart was safety.  Qiao explains.

WU: I remember Jose at that time, which is way ahead of the Fukushima accident, he picked safety as a priority.  So we wanted to make it a small, modular, and most importantly safe. So I think that get us kind of rolling, for this reactor which is way ahead of the Generation III reactor we are working on at that time. The way we worked on the Generation III reactor, which is a big one like the Westinghouse AP1000, and the idea was passive safety cooling, however Jose kind of pushed this to an extreme: integrate all these components into one cylinder, that's a vessel, eliminated the pump, eliminated the outside steam generator, and put also the pressurizer inside. So that system was simple at that time, we were very excited for such a kind of innovation.

REYES: as Qiao mentioned, one of our focuses was really safety to begin with. We didn't know if it would be economic or not, [laughs]. But our goal was safety, so the first test we did in 2003 was the first test in the world that demonstrated that you can have a small containment tightly coupled to the reactor pressure vessel--you'd pressurize it

[sizzling, metal cool down in water, steam, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution License]

 and it would reject all the heat without any operator action to a pool. And it just would by itself, passively cool down, so it was really a landmark test for us back in December of 2003. 

ODEGAARD: This passive cooling is possible because of the radical design, the extreme simplification of the reactor compared to current designs that we’re more familiar with.   

REYES: If you're familiar with existing nuclear power plants, they require backup power and systems to provide water from an external tank through piping and through pumps to inject into the reactor. In this design, what we have is a reactor, which houses the nuclear core, as well as steam generator and pressurizer all inside a nuclear vessel and then that vessel sits inside a containment vessel, which is steel. So instead of the big concrete domes you're familiar with, it's a steel vessel which sits underwater underground. And that's kind of the whole concept: it's a reactor inside of a steel thermos bottle underwater underground, that's the way the whole there's no. The reactor will shut itself down without any operator or computer action, without any AC or DC power, and it will stay safe without the need for adding additional water. So it really is a revolutionary design. 

PALMER: It was so revolutionary in fact, that it was almost impossible to use the computational tools that had been developed for analyzing and showing that existing reactors were safe, because they were designed for all these systems that didn't exist on this design. So, I mean they came along and said, "Gee, it looks really great. How are we going to actually be able to model this, because none of the, we don't have pumps anymore, there's a lot of systems that are gone." It was kind of cool. 

ODEGAARD: What was your approach to kind of figure out how to model this?

REYES: Ya, so my first models of the depressurization behavior was on a spreadsheet [laughs]. So, we were just doing...

WU: I still have that.

[all laugh]

REYES: An Excel spreadsheet because it was so simple. You know, basically it’s a tank blowing down steam into another tank, so the physics was not very complicated. And we found that, after some time, using the existing codes, that you could simplify them a bit and they predict very well the plant behavior. 

ODEGAARD: This initial MASLWR design project ran until 2004, when, as is the nature of research grants, the funding ended. Yet the MASLWR facility was still there at the Oregon State Radiation Center on the west edge of campus, and the idea wouldn’t go away.  

[MUSIC: “All The Colors In The World,” Podington Bear, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.]

REYES: Well, as most DOE projects go, they come to an end, and then you publish the results, and then basically you plan on another project. But this time in 2004, I actually left for sabbatical. So, I went to work with the IAEA, that's the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna. So, that was a sabbatical year, it was wonderful. I highly recommend sabbaticals.

[all laugh]

REYES: So that was a sabbatical year. And while I was there, I got to meet a lot of the engineers from different member states. I mean, it's just a great place to learn about what's going on in the world of nuclear. And as I started talking about small reactors, what I found was that most of these countries, they didn't have the capital to pay for a large, 1000-megawatt plant, or they didn't have the grid to support that. So, even if you could give them 1000-megawatts, they didn't have the distribution system that would allow you to do that. The

[musical scale, used with permission of a Creative Commons Sampling Plus License]

a-ha moment for me occurred there, and I said, wow, we have this great experiment back in Corvallis, and we need to move this from the lab to the market. And I remember thinking, how hard could that be?

[all laugh]

ODEGAARD: Ignorance is bliss, as they say, so Reyes started the migration from the stability of day-to-day academia into the ever-changing environment of the startup world.

REYES: The College of Engineering is certainly a real leader in helping start-up companies, because I certainly didn't have a clue how to start up a company. So, when I came back in 2005 talking to, back then, Dean Adams, he was able to connect me with a business mentor.

ODEGAARD: This business mentor turned out to be one of Oregon State’s very first nuclear engineering doctoral graduates, Paul Lorenzini from the class of 1970.

REYES: He teamed with me. His background, he had just retired as president of Pacific Power & Light, he had his Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering, and he also was an attorney, so it was perfect. The two of us started working from 2005 to 2007 on what the company would look like. We made about 25 design changes within Oregon State to go from the 2003 MASLWR design to transform it to a commercially viable NuScale design. And then in June of 2007, we generated some IP, Intellectual Property for the company, worked a technology transfer agreement with the university, and we founded NuScale Power. By February of '08, we had our first investors putting money into it. And they opened the door to us at the small bank building on, is it 2nd Street?

PALMER: Yep. The old Ben Franklin building.

REYES: Yep, right, right across from the Burger King. Very convenient.

[all laugh]

ODEGAARD: How many people were involved in NuScale at that point. You, and Lorenzini...

REYES: So we started with two of us and then I'd say by the end of 2008, we were about 35. So, we grew very quickly and we eventually kind of outgrew that building. We moved to the HP campus and that's where we are now.

[MUSIC: “All The Colors In The World,” Podington Bear, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.]

ODEGAARD: HP stands for Hewlett Packard which has a large facility here in Corvallis. Today NuScale has 450 employees with five offices in the United States and one in London. Fluor Corporation,a Fortune 500 company, became the lead investor in 2011, bringing needed structure and other support.

REYES: And that was a major transition for us because we went from venture capital, which tends to fluctuate, quite unstable, to a strategic partner. So, Fluor's an outstanding company, over 100 years of experience. They have about 60,000 employees and they have projects in I think 66 countries, so they’re all over. By them working with us, it bought a real stabilization to our entire process and allowed us to have a consistent budget, to progress, and really that's what lead later on, in 2013, to get funded again by DOE. So, DOE came back in as through a cooperative agreement, and they provided $217 million in matching funds. So, essentially for every dollar that was being put in by NuScale Fluor, DOE was matching that and that's what allowed to get to this year, where we were able to submit the first small modular reactor design certification application ever presented to the NRC, so that was a huge, huge accomplishment for the company.

ODEGAARD: As Reyes mentioned, NuScale submitted this design certification application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December of 2016. What this means is that NuScale’s design is officially being reviewed by the NRC. If it passes the review process, NuScale can go ahead with actual production.

NuScale’s Integral Systems Test facility, which supports this application and review effort, is here at Oregon State in the same high bay facility that the original MASLWR concept was first built. Supported by NuScale grants, Qiao is the lead faculty member from Oregon State’s end involved in this NuScale testing and related research. Referring to the application and review effort, Qiao had this to say:

WU: It has a huge impact to department, too, because the research program, NuScale, contracted OSU to do it. We involved a lot of undergraduate students, graduate students, to the hands-on work, data analysis, so it's one of the pinnacle research programs to attract the students into our research program. Every year, we get about fifteen students, undergraduate and graduate students, working on the project. They do the tests, they do the data analysis, instrumentation, calibrating, quality assurance, all those aspects. Without this program, it's a real program, industry program - I don't think they can get such an education or experience anywhere else. So, this is a huge lift to our program for our graduate students and undergraduate students.

[MUSIC: “All The Colors In The World,” Podington Bear, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.]

ODEGAARD: This research partnership will continue as NuScale moves through the review process--which will require more testing and verification of their design--and then on to production. 

As it stands now, NuScale plans to have a plant operational by 2026--the deadline set by their first customer: Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems or UAMPS. 

The plant will be located on land at Idaho National Laboratory and consist of 12 factory-built reactor modules. This factory-built technology is a huge deal in the nuclear world.   

REYES: The fact it's a small reactor vessel that's nine feet in diameter inside of a small containment vessel about fifteen feet in diameter, that could be factory-built. And so that was one of the big innovations, was that you can do all your concrete work at the site, and then parallel, you can be working in a factory, perfecting the modules and producing modules. So, as soon as the site's ready and completed, than you can ship the modules into the plant and install them one at a time, basically.

ODEGAARD: Each module produces 50 megawatts of electricity, for a total of 600 megawatts from a 12-pack plant. I asked Jose why 12 modules was the ideal number for the U.S. energy market.

REYES: That's a really good question. That really came from our customers. We started early in I think 2008, 2009, we were already talking to utilities. And we thought it was really important to get their input early on. So, while we're designing, let's find out what's important to them. Most of the utilities that we talked to had large amounts of coal-fired power production, and a lot of the plants were 30 to 40 years old, and they were getting ready to retire those coal-fired plants. And those were typically in the range of 150 to 300 megawatts, and there were a few that were bigger.

But what they want to do is they want a system where you can build a plant,

[building blocks, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution License]

install two or three modules to begin with, and then as they retire other coal-fire plants, they can add two or three modules, up to twelve modules. And that worked out to be the optimum for what they wanted. It worked out very well, actually, because in terms of our turbine sizes and things like that, that's what really helped us with the economics of the system.

ODEGAARD: Each plant would employ about 360 operational staff according to Jose, but beyond just that impact, Jose is looking at even more revolutionary ideas.   

REYES: We've grown so much that there's just a lot of innovation that continues to happen. You know, we started the company early on with three base patents, essentially. And I checked this morning – today, NuScale has 360 patents either granted or pending in 20 countries, so we've done a great job creating an environment that is very innovative. We encourage folks to be innovative. One of the things that we've done is we've also moved to be what is called a "triple bottom line company." And so triple bottom line company means we're looking at people, planet, and prosperity. So, we're trying to move nuclear power away from just power production, electricity, into other areas.

ODEGAARD: Areas like water desalination and hydrogen production. 

REYES: So, desalination - we did a study with AquaTech. One of our 50-megawatt modules can produce

[rushing water, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License]

50 million gallons of clean water per day, with a reverse osmosis process. That's enough for a city of about 300,000. We did a hydrogen study with Idaho National Lab - we can use our modules to produce hydrogen; so about 50 metric tonnes of hydrogen per day that can be used for a wide range of processes. The big one being fuel storage kind of concepts.

ODEGAARD: They’ve also looked into ways a NuScale module could help other industries reduce greenhouse gases.

REYES: We did a study with Fluor, looking at how do we reduce greenhouse gases from some oil refineries. So they're great to work with because they have all the information. 250,000 barrel a day oil refinery, hooking up a NuScale plant to that system, we could reduce CO2 emissions by about 90 metric tonnes per hour. So, that's huge reductions, there. So, we continue to look at ways in which we can impact, to meet our commitment for these three - people, planet, prosperity.

ODEGAARD: Looking back to the very beginning of the story, this type of visionary thinking by Jose is really what made it all happen, starting with the first DOE partnership with Oregon State. 

[MUSIC: “All The Colors In The World,” Podington Bear, used with permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.]

PALMER: I mean, what made OSU the initial ideal partner was Jose. There's no question about it, I mean, when you've got the guy who drove the initial research into the idea who's then kind of been exposed to where that could go, and seize the future a little bit, more of a visionary, it's rare, and he would never tell you this, but it's rare when you've got someone who can look down into the details of something and understand all of the technical aspects of something, and who can look out and see the broader picture as well.

That's a rare skill, and I really think it's primarily because he could do that.

ODEGAARD: This visionary skill has opened the door to more startups and entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering.

PALMER: And at the time, I don't think the college-- let's see, how do you say this, I think they might have seen, I think the college may have seen the value of going that direction with entrepreneurial and startups and things, but they didn't have a lot of experience. It was fairly new. And so, what's beautiful about it is that NuScale kind of got in that stream very early and OSU and COE have really championed this relationship, and it is kind of a flagship, it's something we trumpet pretty loudly when we talk about how this can happen. There have been other startups too, but I don't think any with the kind of name recognition within OSU that NuScale has.

WU: Yeah, I still remember Ron Adams saying, “Well, Jose, I don't know technically what it is you do, but keep going.”

[all laugh]

PALMER: Yeah, that's right.

[MUSIC: "The Ether Bunny," Eyes Closed Audio, used with permissions of a Creative Commons Attribution License]

ODEGAARD: This episode was produced and hosted by me, Jens Odegaard. Audio editing by Brian Blythe. Our intro music is “The Ether Bunny” by Eyes Closed Audio on SoundCloud and used with permission of a Creative Commons attribution license. Thank you. Other music and effects in this episode were also used with appropriate licenses. You can find the links can be found on our website. For more episodes, visit or subscribe by searching “Engineering Out Loud” on your favorite podcast app.