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Nov 23, 2023

Yu: So you're right, it is a very regulated industry. Even as this moment, the concept phase, we have partnerships with the Department of Energy, with DOE's Idaho National Laboratories. We talk to the National Security Agency, letting them know what we're doing. We're in touch with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Broadly speaking, none of them are there to make you fail; they are there to assist. And of course, nuclear is held to a higher standard of safety, by an order of magnitude actually, than any other energy system. And so you do have that regulatory framework to contend with, but we operate with those timelines built in.

Walker: There are no micro reactors, industry-wide, currently licensed because, yes, the regulatory period can be so onerous that a lot of companies don't make it through because of the financial demands. I believe we have mitigated against that. As we mentioned earlier, we are coming at this from a much more commercial angle with different backers. That helps with the expenses of the regulatory period.

MW: Does that commercial priority mean each reactor is different? I mean scale is the point, right, to keep costs down?

Walker: These reactors are going to be mass-manufactured, so there's not going to be a huge amount of tailoring, but some specificity will be possible. Our aim is to manufacture hundreds of these a year because in essence, they are the same small, two meter-by-one meter core.

Yu: There is even 3D-printing potential.

MW: New government energy subsidies, in the Inflation Reduction Act, for instance, have been tied to sourcing U.S.-generated raw inputs, U.S. manufacturing components and using U.S. labor. Does that impact you?

Yu: Yes. And we have worked with this in mind. Our manufacturing is U.S.-based. But the biggest issue is sourcing nuclear fuel: uranium. Other interests face the same challenge -- Bill Gates-backed and [South Korea's] SK Group-backed TerraPower, for instance. No fuel can mean big delays.

Right now, we're in Washington in support of the National Defense Authorization Act.

[Editor's note: Introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat of West Virginia and Sen. John Barrasso, the Republican of Wyoming, and just passed in the full Senate, the NDAA, among other aims, establishes a domestic nuclear fuel program to improve access to enriched uranium, key to existing nuclear plants and advanced nuclear projects, and ending U.S. reliance on Russia, its proponents say. Another bill under consideration is the Civil Nuclear Export Act, which would expand authority and capacity at the Export-Import Bank to support nuclear export projects.]

But, perhaps our biggest move is to establish our own fuel fabrication facility, which we call HALEU Energy Fuel, Inc. It will be a future domestic source for a High-Assay Low-Enriched Uranium (HALEU). We are vertically integrated.

MW: So major disasters not withstanding, nuclear energy has a long track record, with no incidents, or built-in safety moves, and I'm talking about traditional fission plants, shutting down part of a reactor, for instance. For mobile reactors, how does safety work?

Walker: It's actually even safer and the reason for that is that because you're generating so much less power with these gigawatt generators. So imagine, hypothetically, in a large civil reactor, if you were to get overheating, you'll get core melt. It's pretty much the worst thing I think that can happen in a nuclear disaster. Nobody's gonna die, but it's going to be a very messy cleanup. Let's say in some sort of worse-case hypothetical with our reactor, every single working part breaks simultaneously in a freak accident, there's no such thing as core melt. It goes into just passively cooling, in which the heat, and it's only heat, radiates out.

There just are far fewer moving parts and mechanical pieces. And the technology is just far simpler. And so it is a lot safer than the nuclear industry already is. And, listen, I challenge anyone to put the worker safety record of nuclear up against wind and solar.

MW: Do you get any pushback on the climate footprint of the trucks themselves?

Yu: We are looking into electric vehicles as part of our fleet. If people are very serious about electrifying the grid and completely moving away from fossil fuel vehicles, then they must think about charging in remote areas, too. So, add the chargers, and charge the reactor trucks using the nuclear power that the reactor itself creates. Very circular.

MW: What about labor? Who runs the little reactor? Is it all software? Are you training people at the reactor site?

Yu: The labor to maintain the reactor is almost nothing. I mean, we're not going to do this, but technically you could have nobody there. We will have people there and they will be NANO personnel who will install and operate this. We've identified that the best business model will involve a central hub where all the behaviors and transient behaviors of the reactor can be monitored at all times by a centralized group that operates everything.

MW: Are we able to talk about cost to the customer at this point in development? Say compared to a traditional plant even?

Walker: We do know those sort of numbers on a manufacturing basis, but what the price of the final reactor will be has not been properly modeled yet. We've got an idea of the costs, the raw material costs, labor, but there's going to be additional capital costs that need to be incorporated into that, as well as operational.

Yu: Let's just say you can't buy one for $10 million right now. Hopefully in the future.

MW: But surely, means for financing -- bond issuance or whatever -- or promoting the subsidies to your customers. You've thought of customers having the means to buy...

Yu: I'm not at all worried about that. Maybe a certain customer leases our reactors, a 10-year contract and the price you pay is per megawatt. There could be several ways in.

I don't think we can emphasize enough the motivation to make costs and availability work. Think of the opportunities in Africa, portable reactors for a whole continent operating this long without even nationwide electrical grids. Think of spotty U.S. coverage and vulnerabilities that need an answer.

Capitol Hill is on our side. I'd argue Hollywood is on our side. And, as our reactor names tell you, Norse gods are on our side.

-Rachel Koning Beals

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08-05-23 1008ET