Aside from aiming to create about 500 jobs in New Hanover County with an average six-figure salary – noteworthy in itself – GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy’s current slate of projects represents a new frontier for the industry.
Stateside, there’s a rebirth of nuclear technologies. As aging reactors continue to power a sizeable share of the nation’s carbon-free electricity, the next wave of nuclear innovations looks to deliver cost-effective, reliable and scalable solutions.
This comes as the Biden administration has set a goal for the U.S. to achieve a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035.
“You can add all the solar and wind that you want – and you should, by the way, absolutely,” said Jay Wileman, president and CEO of Wilmington-based GE Hitachi. “But it won’t get you there. You’ve got to have nuclear to be able to get to those net-zero aspirations.”
Since 1969, General Electric has produced nuclear fuel in New Hanover County and chose its Castle Hayne campus as its nuclear headquarters in 2003.
The bulk of the business’s operations has historically entailed producing boiling water reactor fuel and engineering support for most of the reactors designed by the company globally (some have closed, but nearly 70 GE reactors were built in 10 countries, according to Wileman).
In recent years, GE Hitachi pivoted. In addition to maintaining its domestic and global engineering support and fuel production, the company began dedicating additional resources to two newer ventures: developing small-modular reactor and sodium-cooled fast reactor designs. Cooled using different mechanisms, both emerging technologies represent advanced blueprints contributing to nuclear’s renaissance.
“That’s really driving our growth,” Wileman said.
As part of the shifted focus, in October Global Nuclear Fuel-Americas (GFA) – a GE-led joint venture with Hitachi – unveiled plans for a new fuel fabrication facility in Wilmington, expected to cost at least $85 million to build.
This local operation will create the next generation of fuel, produced with ultra-enriched uranium, for the proposed Natrium advanced sodium fast reactor being designed by GE Hitachi and TerraPower, a company founded by Bill Gates. About 100 new employees are needed to power the new facility, according to TerraPower.
Through local performance-based incentive agreements with the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County, GE Hitachi is eligible for $1.5 million to create 485 jobs to support the Natrium fuel facility as well as work on the company’s separate small-modular reactor design, called the BWRX-300.
The Wilmington site’s depth of experience with fuel fabrication made it a prime candidate for GE Hitachi’s new fuel venture, according to Wileman.
“We have an existing facility and a license with the (Nuclear Regulatory Commission),” Wileman said. “And so, what better way to do it than just grow where we’re already good and we have a team here instead of a greenfield where you have to stand up all the infrastructure again?”
Roughly 61% of the nation’s utility-scale electricity was generated by fossil fuels last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), and about 19% was powered by nuclear energy.
In North Carolina, nuclear reactors provide three-fourths of the state’s carbon-free electricity, according to the EIA; the nearby Brunswick Nuclear Plant that opened in 1975 with reactors designed by GE is one of three in North Carolina, all operated by Duke Energy.
After a spate of activity with the construction of nuclear reactors between the ’60s and ’80s, domestic investment in new facilities and technologies dried up, in part due to high-profile nuclear accidents and a stronger appetite for cost-competitive natural gas.
“Every time you’d see a little momentum (in the nuclear industry) built, there’d be something that would come along and kill it,” said Tim Beville, the U.S. Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations’ acting associate director of project management for nuclear technologies.
The nation’s fleet of utility-scale reactors is decades old, Beville said, and some have shut down rather than receive upgrades. “Companies are loath to invest in those 1,000-megawatt reactors anymore,” he said. “They want to see things with more flexibility.”
Meanwhile, advanced designs have been making progress on an international scale.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work here for decades and decades trying to show that these designs can be built at some point and operated safely and moved into the commercial market. But more recently, there’s been a lot of movement in the international world,” Beville said. “China is developing sodium reactors. Russia’s got state-sponsored companies that are developing gas reactors. Congress is seeing this and saying, ‘Hey, what about us?’
“We’re a free-market economy, and we don’t have the state sponsorship to compete with these kind of capabilities.”
But lately, that’s changed. In the 2020 federal budget, Congress appropriated $230 million to launch the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), to fund two new reactors to be cost-shared with the industry and constructed within five to seven years.
By October 2020, the Department of Energy had picked its two projects: X-energy’s gas-cooled reactor design, the Xe-100; and the Natrium sodium-cooled fast reactor design.
GE Hitachi’s new Castle Hayne facility will produce fuel for the proposed Natrium demonstration project reactor, planned near a retiring coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming (Similarly, X-energy is planning a fuel production facility to support its new reactor design).
Teams behind the Xe-100 and Natrium designs each received $80 million from the ARDP in 2020 and again in 2021 to help forge the concepts into realities. Then last year, Congress appropriated nearly $2.5 billion to the ARDP through fiscal year 2025 under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Beville, who leads the ARDP, said the amount – and mostly the fact that it included pre-appropriated funds – was unheard of. “I’ve been in government for 30 years. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
Through the cost-sharing agreements, the ARDP has committed nearly $2 billion toward the Natrium project and about $1.2 billion to the Xe-100 to help develop the advanced reactors.
“They’ll invoice us, and we’ll pay them 50% on the dollar for it,” Beville said.
To carry out a total financial split of the roughly $4 billion Natrium and $2.5 billion Xe-100 projects (which includes the reactors and fuel facilities necessary to power them, like the one being built in Wilmington), Beville said more appropriation will be needed after 2025.
“If we’re going to fully fund these things, we’re going to need some more appropriation in the out years,” he said, “but I mean, that’s a pretty good start.”
Without government-backed assistance, Beville said he believes progress on both planned advanced reactors may not be occurring as promptly. “They may not have taken the risk, because the financial risk was way too high at the time,” he said. “But with a[n up to] 50% cost share, it really, really eases that burden.”
John Kotek, who was acting assistant secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy during the Obama administration, said the value of the wind production tax credit, for example, has been more than $4 billion annually over the last several years. “We haven’t had that for nuclear until now,” he said.
Kotek said that another piece of recent legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, is a “landmark in U.S. clean energy policy and will provide a springboard for a broad range of new nuclear projects in the U.S. over the next decade.”
Production tax credits set to begin in 2026 in particular will incentivize utility companies to invest in advanced or modern nuclear reactors, said Kotek, who is currently the Nuclear Energy Institute’s senior vice president of policy development.
Clean energy goals, many driven by state-level policies, have in part driven the urgency to decarbonize and the recent surge in federal nuclear support, Kotek said.
“We’ve gone from five years ago where you had essentially no U.S. utilities with a decarbonization commitment,” he said, “to a place now where more than 80% of the customers in the U.S. are served by a utility that has pledged to go largely or completely carbon-free by 2050 or sooner.”
A RUSSIAN MONOPOLY
Many next-generation nuclear reactor designs rely on fuel made with high-assay low-enriched uranium, or HALEU. The nation’s existing nuclear fleet is powered using fuel enriched with 5% uranium; HALEU is enriched between 5% and 20%.
Today, there’s only one commercial source of HALEU across the globe: the state-owned Russian company TENEX.
Both X-energy and TerraPower had initially selected TENEX as their sole HALEU supplier in their ARDP applications, according to Beville.
“We originally were going to buy the first load over in Russia,” Tara Neider, TerraPower’s senior vice president said at the October groundbreaking event for the fuel facility in Wilmington. “We absolutely will not do that now.”
“On February 23rd of this year, everybody was thinking about nuclear for net-zero carbon,” Wileman said. “On February 24th ... they started thinking about nuclear as energy security,” he continued, referencing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “So our phones have been ringing.”
Wilmington’s fuel facility is anticipated to be among the first domestically to produce fuel using HALEU. Behind X-energy’s HALEU fuel production facility planned in Oak Ridge, Tennessee – which the company projects to be the nation’s first – the proposed Wilmington fuel plant is “probably the second-most” developed in terms of progress so far, according to Beville.
Work will begin next year on the Wilmington fuel facility, which is slated to be operational by late 2025, GE Hitachi officials said. Construction at the Natrium reactor site in Wyoming is expected to begin in 2025.
BIG THINGS, SMALL PACKAGES
In addition to work on the Natrium project, progress on GE Hitachi’s first-ever small-modular reactor (SMR) design also is key to the company’s growth.
This water-cooled design, the BWRX-300, is essentially a more compact and efficient version of existing boiling water reactors. In contrast, the Natrium design aims to use sodium as its coolant.
Unlike the HALEU fuel needed for the Natrium design, the BWRX-300 would rely on the boiling water reactor fuel GE Hitachi is already producing in Wilmington.
“Another big benefit is the fuel for this is exactly what I’m making,” Wileman said. “I don’t need to qualify a whole new fuel for this small-modular reactor.”
The BWRX-300 is based on a previous, already-approved design, which officials believe will help fast-track its deployment.
SMRs are smaller than traditional nuclear plants, and GE Hitachi’s design is more simplified, cutting down concrete and rebar by 90%, according to Wileman. The BWRX-300 is 300 megawatts (MW); by comparison, each element of the two-unit Brunswick Nuclear Plant has a generating capacity of about 930 MW.
Though it’s smaller, the SMR’s performance-by-megawatt will be about 50% better than traditional designs, Wileman said. “We’re making a standard plant that you can repeat over and over and over again,” he said. “That’s not how this first wave of reactors was built back in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s.”
Wileman said the smaller design was intentional “to help facilitate, really a relaunch of nuclear.”
Momentum is already building behind the design.
Ontario Power Generation selected the BWRX-300 design for a planned facility, and GE Hitachi has potential deployment projects in the works with utilities ranging from the Tennessee Valley Authority to Polish-based Synthos Green Energy to SaskPower in Saskatoon, Canada.
“This is a highly gated process,” Wileman said of the licensing and engineering work required to meet regulatory benchmarks. “You want to make sure you get your engineering work all complete before you make that final decision to build,” he said, citing a cautious optimism that the new partnerships will result in new reactors.
This summer, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved Oregon-based NuScale’s design, making it the first and only approved SMR template in the nation. Dozens more designs are underway, and GE Hitachi’s SMR design is in “pre-application status,” according to an NRC spokesperson.
GE Hitachi officials said they hope to deploy the design by the end of the decade.
‘EVERY FLAVOR OF ENGINEER’
As GE Hitachi shifts pace with advanced technologies, the greater General Electric structure is preparing for a major reorganization.
Last year, the conglomerate announced it would split into three public companies, focused on aviation, health care and power. GE Hitachi will fit into the power arm, recently renamed GE Vernova, in the tax-free spinoff set for early 2024.
Earlier this year, GE Hitachi began its latest hiring spree to gear up for its Natrium and SMR projects, hiring more than 250 for its Wilmington campus. (Along with GE Aerospace, which has 530 employees, GE companies in Wilmington employed 3,100 as of last December, making them the area’s largest for-profit employer.)
Wileman said he needs “every flavor of engineer you can think of” – nuclear, mechanical, civil, electrical and more – to support the company’s endeavors, with an average $131,000 salary for the new jobs.
Sean Sexstone, GE Hitachi’s executive vice president of advanced nuclear, said he sees Wilmington being the global epicenter of advanced nuclear growth.
“The amount of people,” he said, “we need to hire to execute what we have on our plate today is tremendous.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Sean Sexstone's name.
Staff Reports - Feb 3, 2023
Staff Reports - Feb 3, 2023
Johanna F. Still - Feb 3, 2023
Johanna F. Still - Feb 3, 2023
Neil Cotiaux - Feb 3, 2023
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