LeadCold is a research company that develops the fuel-efficient and secure nuclear power solutions of the future. Thanks to new investments and a revolutionary aluminum-alloyed steel, the company is now taking steps to construct a lead-cooled demonstration reactor in the Canadian Arctic.

”Now, we actually have the means to build the first reactor for commercial power production. Our aim is to have a demonstration reactor up and running by 2025”, says Janne Wallenius, CEO of LeadCold Reactors and Professor in reactor physics at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

Janne Wallenius, CEO, in Rankin Inlet in the Canadian Arctic. The company is preparing to construct a lead-cooled reactor that will replace diesel-electric generators for off-grid electricity production. Photo: LeadCold Reactors.

In October 2016, the India-based investment company Essel Group signed a financing agreement with LeadCold for 150 MSEK – an investment that was increased to 200 MUSD in January 2017. This injection of funds will allow LeadCold to license and construct the world’s first privately funded lead-cooled nuclear power plant. This is a reactor type of the fourth generation, where fuel efficiency is improved over current nuclear power plants.

An off-grid alternative to diesel

There are many communitites and mining operations in Canada that are powered by diesel-electric generators. LeadCold’s first priority is to establish an alternative for power production in such far-off locations:

“These remote locations in the Canadian Arctic are not connected to the power grid, because of the sheer distance. So we would be able to replace these diesel generators with small lead-cooled reactors, and at the same time establish a proof-of-concept for commercial power production”, Janne Wallenius says.

Three percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to diesel-electric generators, so this application alone offers a considerable environmental advantage. In these locations, electricity cost is high. Thus, the barrier to entry is not as steep as in other markets, and the new technology is commercially viable from the start. Following the investment agreement with Essel Group, LeadCold will be able to complete the licensing process, finalize a detailed engineering design and construct a full scale 3 MW demonstration reactor in Canada:

“Three megawatts approximately covers the energy consumption of a village with 2 000-3 000 people. There are about 50 such communities in Canada, and we have identified ten of those where our reactor would be a good alternative. The next step could be to supply local mining operations with electricity.”

The company is looking at a six-year-long review process before a license to build the reactor can be obtained. Nevertheless, Janne Wallenius considers Canada to be a particularly suitable jurisdiction:

“The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has established a well-defined procedure, unique in the world. The exact steps required to obtain a license are known beforehand, as well as the associated cost. It is also adjusted for the safety gains you get when you build smaller reactors. No other country’s regulation takes that into account.”

Making nuclear waste recyclable

Eventually, the company hopes that the technology will move beyond niche applications and become a serious option for energy production around the world:

“It offers a possibility to recycle large amounts of existing nuclear waste. The idea is to recycle dangerous and long-lived radioactive elements, such as plutonium, americium and curium. When we have proven the concept, we can scale up the technology and for instance use it to recycle the Swedish radioactive waste. It would be reasonable to accept a slightly higher cost in order to achieve that”, Wallenius says.

Maintenance-free underground units

The lead-cooled reactor design is called Sealer – Swedish Advanced Lead Reactor. By recycling the nuclear fuel, the fuel resources increase by two orders of magnitude compared to the nuclear power of today.

LeadCold’s concept is based on a small, modular reactor design called Sealer – Swedish Advanced Lead Reactor. By recycling the nuclear fuel, the fuel resources increase by two orders of magnitude compared to the nuclear power of today. Unlike conventional reactors, that usually are water-cooled, Sealer uses lead as coolant – and as a safety feature:

“Lead-cooled reactors are considered to be more safe. Since lead is a coolant with very high boiling temperature, the risk for loss of coolant is greatly reduced. Lead also provides inherent shielding. In case of meltdown, the fission products released would be chemically retained by the lead, and radiological exposure would not reach levels where there would be need for evacuation”, Janne Wallenius asserts.

The reactors will be small, six times three meters, and more or less maintenance free. The rate of electricity production may vary between 3 to 10 MW. For up to 30 full power years, no refueling is necessary. The units will be buried 25 meters under ground, to be excavated and transported to a recycling facility only when the fuel is spent. This is a solution that requires materials with special properties:

“Lead-cooled reactors have been used in Soviet military submarines in the 70s and 80s, so the technology is proven. The difference, compared to a commercial reactor, is that a submarine’s reactor operates in full power only a small part of the time. Having a lead-cooled reactor in full power all year round, 24/7, would put a lot of stress on the steel. To combat corrosion attacks and fretting, the reactor has to be built from new kinds of corrosion resistant steels”, Wallenius says.

A successful collaboration with the steel industry

In collaboration with Swedish steel industry, LeadCold materials experts have developed an aluminium alloyed steel (Fe-10Cr-4Al-Zr) which exhibits perfect corrosion resistance during exposure to lead for more than 19 000 hours. Corrosion resistance has been the major technological hurdle, and the new corrosion proof alloy is an important step towards commercial power production:

“The alloyed steel is definitely a break-through innovation, and we have now shown that it can handle at least two years of lead exposure at the required temperature. At the end of the experiment, it is still shiny!”, Wallenius says.

The next generation of nuclear power is not only safer and more energy efficient – according to Wallenius, it will be essential if we are to replace fossil fuels entirely:

“If we are going to make the Swedish transportation system carbon neutral, then we need to produce more electricity. We are going to need both more nuclear and more wind.”

The company estimates that they will be able to produce electricity at a cost of 0.70–0.80 SEK/kWh:

”More expensive than wind. But nuclear power can give baseload power to the entire world.”

The article was published in April 2017.