Low-power nuclear demonstration reactor ‘Hermes’ coming to Oak Ridge

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OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (WATE) — State officials announced Friday that a low-power demonstration reactor called “Hermes” will be established in the East Tennessee Technology Park. Gov. Bill Lee’s office along with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bob Rolfe released the details of the upcoming reactor.

The company behind Hermes is the privately-funded advanced nuclear engineering company Kairos Power, which says the reactor is “a scaled version” of its fluoride salt-cooled high temperature reactor (KP-FHR), which is defined as an advanced reactor technology that aims to be cost-competitive with natural gas in the U.S. electricity market in order to provide carbon-free, affordable and safe energy. The project will be a redevelopment of a site at the Heritage Center, a former U.S. Department of Energy site complex.

State Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) said with Kairos Powers using the former K-25 site to build the demonstrator reactor is making a full circle.

“There was something called the Aircraft Reactor Project, and they were seeing if they could build a nuclear reactor small enough to power an aircraft. And in fact, molten salt reactors were experimented with,” Ragan said.

Ragan said that project was being experimented on in the 1950s. He said at that time, the molten salts worked for their purpose, but the surrounding technology wasn’t adequate yet.

Mike Laufer, CEO and co-founder of Kairos Power, said with years of science from universities, ORNL and more, Kairos Power now has that technology.

He said in fact, ORNL helped produced some of the technology being used outside of the molten salts coolant.

“The way to think about it is this is the most robust nuclear fuel that’s ever been developed. And when we combine it with the salt coolant, we have an extremely robust and forensic safety characteristics for the reactor,” Laufer said.

Laufer said part of his company’s goal is to make safe energy. He said the molten salt technology would create a safer environment compared to the nuclear power sources we have now. Ragan agreed.

“In fact, such a power plant will not have a meltdown if it has an accident. It would have a freeze up. Which, while it would destroy the reactor, it wouldn’t be a big particularly problem for those around it,” Ragan said.

Laufer said Hermes is a prototype to what they hope is to come in the future, and because it’s a prototype and demonstrator, the plant won’t actually output power to the community. It’s more to prove the technology works.

“The Hermes reactor will not generate electricity. It will just be to demonstrate our ability to generate affordable nuclear heat, and then there are a variety of applications for that heat,” Laufer said.

Laufer said they chose Oak Ridge for several reasons to set up shop, and the history is one.

“It’s the ability to kind of access the skilled local labor and the workforce there, which has a rich history in nuclear technology and nuclear development, the ability to collaborate with the local partners and all of the great people who work at Oak Ridge National Laboratories and TVA,” Laufer said.

“Oak Ridge continues to lead the nation in groundbreaking technology, and we recognize Kairos Power for joining this effort,” Gov. Lee stated in a press release Friday. “I’m proud of the energy development happening in Tennessee that will positively impact the U.S. and the world. We thank Kairos Power for choosing to develop their test reactor here in Tennessee to support their mission of developing innovative nuclear technology that will move the U.S. forward.”

Tennessee Valley Authority is also partnering in the project.

Hermes is scheduled to be operational in 2026. Kairos Power is investing $100 million and create 55 jobs to deploy the low-power demonstration reactor.

Ragan believes the build will actually create hundreds of jobs in the community. Laufer said once the facility it built, it would create 55 operational jobs.

Kairos Power also received $303 million in funding from the DOE and Office of Nuclear Energy’s program for risk reduction projects to support the design, licensing and construction of the demonstration reactor. Kairos Power says Hermes is intended to lead to the development of the Kairos Power KP-X, a commercial-scale KP-FHR.

“We are thrilled to join the Oak Ridge community and to build on the rich technological heritage of the East Tennessee Technology Park. The opportunity to demonstrate Kairos Power’s advanced nuclear technology in Tennessee is a major milestone on the path to a clean and affordable energy system in the United States,” Laufer said. “We are grateful for the support from our partners at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee Valley Authority, City of Oak Ridge, the East Tennessee Economic Council, Oak Ridge Industrial Development Board and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and we look forward to continued growth and engagement in Tennessee.” 

However, not all are excited about the new reactor. Stephen A. Smith, Executive Director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy says the small modular reactor technology is “unproven and is a high financial risk to TVA ratepayers.”

“There are other technologies that are more cost-effective and proven, and that TVA has the capacity to develop much quicker and with better results,: Smith said. “We believe that TVA continues to lag behind in renewable energy development, particularly solar power and wind power, and they are failing to be serious about energy efficiency. We believe that these renewable energy technologies will come in as more cost-effective, will come in faster, and with better financial and environmental performance.”

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