DOD X-Energy Microreactor
Artist impression of a micro reactor.

Inside the DOD’s $17.49M Bet on X-energy: A Green Revolution in the Making?

On September 13, 2023, the Department of Defense (DOD) announced its decision to exercise a contract option with X-energy, LLC, a Rockville, Maryland-based company. This collaboration is part of the Strategic Capabilities Office’s (SCO) Project Pele initiative. The primary goal? To develop an enhanced engineering design for a transportable micro nuclear reactor. Interestingly, this isn’t the DOD’s first foray into micro nuclear reactor designs. In 2022, the SCO chose BWX Technologies, Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia, to construct a prototype micro reactor. This ongoing project has already seen the commencement of long lead hardware fabrication.

The new contract with X-energy aims to create a complementary micro reactor design. This design will leverage the advancements made by X-energy under Project Pele in 2022. The endgame? A reactor design that’s primed for licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for both commercial and military applications.

Dr. Jeff Waksman, the Project Pele program manager, emphasized the potential of nuclear reactors, noting their “extraordinary energy density.” He stated, “By developing two unique designs, we will provide the Services with a broad range of options as they consider potential uses of nuclear power for both Installation and Operational energy applications in the near future.”

The DOD’s energy consumption is staggering, utilizing approximately 30 Terawatt-hours of electricity annually and over 10 million gallons of fuel daily. With the expected electrification of vehicles and the development of energy-intensive capabilities, this consumption is only set to rise. A transportable nuclear reactor could be the solution, offering a resilient, carbon-free energy source without increasing the DOD’s fuel needs. This energy solution is especially crucial for mission-critical operations in remote and challenging environments.

However, the contract with X-energy isn’t just about design; it’s also about analysis. The one-year contract will delve deep into design options, culminating in a Preliminary Engineering Design and the start of a regulatory preapplication process.

Jay Dryer, the SCO director, highlighted the office’s expertise in adapting commercial technology for military use. He believes that by fostering multiple micro reactor designs, the SCO can catalyze a competitive commercial marketplace for these reactors.

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On September 15, 2023, X-energy further elaborated on their collaboration with the DOD. They revealed an expanded contract under Project Pele to craft a cost-effective advanced nuclear microreactor prototype for remote military locations. This prototype isn’t just for military use; it has potential applications in the commercial and industrial sectors.

The financial specifics? X-energy anticipates advancing its prototype design with an award of $17.49 million from the existing DOD contract. Project Pele, initiated by the SCO in 2019, envisioned a fourth-generation nuclear microreactor to deliver dependable, carbon-free energy in remote areas.

X-energy emerged as one of the two finalists from a preliminary design contest to present a final design to the DOD in 2022. Harlan Bowers, X-energy’s president, reflected on their journey, stating, “We learned a tremendous amount while working through the first phase of Project Pele with subject matter experts at the Department of Defense.” Bowers envisions a “clean, practical, and cost-effective microreactor” that can rival today’s fossil fuel-based power generation.

The next phase will focus on refining the design, prototype testing, and initiating reviews with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This ensures the microreactor adheres to safety standards and is licensable for civilian use in the U.S.

X-energy’s expanded contract aims to offer two microreactor designs through Project Pele. Additionally, it seeks to pave a commercial path for the wider adoption of microreactor technology. Their transportable microreactor, designed to produce between three to five megawatts, promises to be cost-competitive with remote diesel power. Engagements with the NRC are on the horizon for X-energy, opening up a plethora of deployment opportunities to address off-grid, remote, or small-scale grid resiliency needs.

Dr. Jeff Waksman reiterated the immense potential of nuclear reactors in meeting resiliency needs, especially in challenging logistical scenarios.

X-Energy Reactor Company, LLC, is at the forefront of developing advanced small modular nuclear reactors and fuel technology for clean energy generation. Their innovative approach promises enhanced safety, reduced costs, and faster construction timelines compared to traditional nuclear methods.

In December 2022, X-energy announced a definitive business combination agreement with Ares Acquisition Corporation, with the transaction expected to conclude in the fourth quarter of 2023. Upon completion, the merged entity will be christened X-Energy, Inc., with its stock and warrants anticipated to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. As the world grapples with energy challenges, collaborations like these between the DOD and X-energy might just be the spark needed to illuminate a sustainable future.

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