Tech Talk: Kairos Power

How to Reinvent Nuclear Energy

There is a growing consensus that, even if we maximize wind and solar development, renewables alone will not deliver the level of decarbonization needed to meet climate goals on time or at an affordable cost.

However, decades of nuclear power plant operations in the United States and abroad have proven that nuclear energy is green, safe, and reliable. As the grid becomes more decentralized, nuclear power will play a critical role in balancing the grid while complementing renewables and energy storage technologies to create a truly clean energy system.

But with big, expensive plants losing market traction, it is time to rethink how that power is made. The conventional nuclear development cycle is long, slow, and capital intensive. Kairos Power is disrupting this cycle by embracing a rapid iterative approach to bring down the costs of innovation and deep decarbonization.

How It’s Made

Kairos Power’s mission is to enable the world’s transition to clean energy, with the ultimate goal of dramatically improving people’s quality of life while protecting the environment.

To do so, Kairos Power is focused on the commercialization of a novel advanced reactor technology—the fluoride salt-cooled, high-temperature reactor (KP-FHR)—which would provide electricity that is cost-competitive with natural gas. KP-FHR’s cost optimization is enabled by its inherently safe design, which combines TRISO (tri-structural ISOtropic) fuel with Flibe coolant – a molten salt operating at near-atmospheric pressure – resulting in increased margins of safety with a dramatic reduction in the physical footprint of the plant.

The U.S. Department of Energy refers to TRISO as “the most robust nuclear fuel on earth” for its structural integrity, enhanced performance, and ability to withstand extreme temperatures. Unlike fuel for light-water reactors, which is pressed into pellets, loaded into metal tubes or pins, and fabricated into 12-foot rods, TRISO fuel particles are made of a uranium, carbon, and oxygen kernel coated with multiple ceramic layers. This outer shell is extremely tough and provides robust containment for fission byproducts. The TRISO particles are embedded in graphite and pressed into pebbles the size of ping-pong balls, which have remarkable energy density. A single fuel pebble can produce the same amount of energy as burning four tons of coal—but without any carbon dioxide emissions.

By combining high-temperature-tolerant fuel and a low-pressure, single-phase, chemically stable coolant, Kairos Power’s KP-FHR greatly simplifies a typical nuclear reactor’s design. Passive safety features allow KP-FHR to operate safely without the need for a massive, hardened containment building. This reduced footprint is a major driver in rendering the technology affordable.

Mirroring SpaceX, Kairos Power’s iterative development approach enabled by a strong vertical integration strategy leverages multiple design-build-test cycles with both nuclear and non-nuclear systems preceding the first commercial reactor. Through this series of successive major hardware demonstrations, Kairos Power aims to mitigate technical, licensing, manufacturing, and construction risk while establishing cost certainty.

Quiet Climate Politics

The current U.S. policy environment has created a unique opportunity for advanced nuclear in two areas. First, the political debate is finally shifting from the need for nuclear toward the regulatory and policy changes required to make it happen. For example, changes to the country’s regulatory framework are already underway, driven by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE), and engagement by the commercial nuclear industry.

To its credit, the NRC is embracing innovation, exploring risk-informed approaches to safety, and rethinking the current regulatory framework. This will help advanced nuclear designs like KP-FHR become commercialized as early as the 2030s. Kairos Power has conducted many months of pre-application engagement with the NRC, including regular discussions associated with the dozen topical reports that we've submitted. As a result, Kairos Power was able to submit the construction permit application for the Hermes demonstration reactor and have it accepted for formal review, both in record time.

Second, a private-public partnership will also be needed to accelerate the successful implementation of novel technologies in the market. Kairos Power is a recipient of a DOE Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) award for risk reduction funding. The award will support the development, construction, and commissioning of a demonstration reactor in collaboration with Kairos Power’s partners: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Materion Corporation, and the Electric Power Research Institute. The ARDP is a cost-shared partnership between the DOE and industry which aims to demonstrate advanced nuclear technology in the United States.

Clearly more work is needed, not least to address the fact that the United States does not currently have a domestic capability for high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU), which will be necessary for advanced reactor deployment. But it is already clear that, in combination with renewables, KP-FHR’s learning-by-building approach represents a paradigm shift in nuclear development which, supported by a favorable regulatory framework, can enable the world’s transition to clean energy.