Dow goes nuclear: chemical firm will install reactors at US chemicals complex

Article by Adam Duckett

DOW will install advanced nuclear reactors at one of its Gulf Coast sites to provide low carbon power and process heat for its chemicals production.

Dow signed a letter of intent with reactor developer X-energy, and plans to buy a minority stake in the company. The plan is to deploy X-energy’s Xe-100 high-temperature gas-cooled reactor technology at one of Dow’s Gulf Coast complexes, with operations expected to begin by 2030.

"Advanced small modular nuclear technology is going to be a critical tool for Dow's path to zero-carbon emissions,” said Dow CEO Jim Fitterling. “This is a great opportunity for Dow to lead our industry in carbon neutral manufacturing by deploying next-generation nuclear energy."

The Xe-100 is an 80 MWe reactor design that is optimised to operate as a four-unit plant, delivering 320 MW of electric or 200 MW of heat. The pebble-bed reactor works like a gum-ball machine where new fuel pebbles the size of billiard balls are fed into the top of the reactor to refresh the older ones ejected from the bottom. Each pebble remains in the core for around three years and circulated through up to six times to achieve full burnup. Helium is cycled through the reactor to extract the heat into a steam generator.

The company says its Triso fuel pebbles, which each contain 18,000 particles of uranium, are coated in layers of carbon that will prevent the release of more than 99.99% of fission byproducts. X-energy says the fuel is its own containment vessel so will eliminate the need for large containment facilities and shrink the safety perimeters required around nuclear facilities. The US Department of Energy (DoE) says the technology would allow the plant to be constructed within 500 m of factories or urban areas.

Dow says it is the first manufacturer to announce plans to develop small modular reactor technology, and it will help it meet its target of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. A study published by the Royal Society in 2020 bemoaned the fact that around 65% of the energy generated by nuclear plants is lost as waste heat. It said the promise of the nuclear industry decarbonising other sectors lies in a new generation of small modular reactors that could be integrated into industrial networks to help match the temperature requirements of users on site and balance intermittent renewables.

More than 50 novel reactors designs are under development that use an array of coolants and designs that their developers say promise cheaper, safer and faster deployment compared to large conventional nuclear plants which often struggle with delays and rising costs. Though earlier this year a new study coming out of Stanford University raised a flag when it concluded that some of these smaller novel reactors may produce more complex streams of radioactive waste, and more of it. The authors recommended that industry, investors and regulators take a closer look at the back end of the fuel cycle to understand the waste implications of novel reactors.  

In 2020, the DoE awarded X-energy US$80m to support the demonstration of its reactor technology and has provided more than US$200m to support the development of its Triso fuel with construction of a fabrication facility in Tennessee set to begin this year and production expected around 2025.

Article by Adam Duckett

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