NANO Energy looks to mining as key market for microreactors
Portable micro Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) developed by NANO Nuclear Energy Inc. will be able to provide carbon-free energy to power remote mining operations — "one of the most prolific end users" of its technology, according to nuclear physicist James Walker, NANO's chief executive officer and head of nuclear reactor development
NANO has targeted remote mining operations run by diesel fuel in locations where the logistics of providing a constant source of fuel “may be a challenge,” the CEO said.
The company’s microreactors could also expand mining opportunities to more new locations. “It can make thousands of potential mines economic and come online, whereas before, they weren’t economic enough to be commissioned,” Walker said.
While licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to come in 2030, the company is already “in discussions with a major mining company that wants to install reactors to decarbonize their operation,” the CEO said.
NANO expects to begin the feasibility analysis for a mining installation for the unnamed mining company next year.
Once the analysis is completed, NANO will conduct demonstration projects that “mimic power mining grids” in 2025 and 2026, Walker said.
NANO was founded in 2021 to design and deploy modular nuclear reactors that are portable, with the goal of leasing them to remote mining operators, according to Jay Jiang Yu, chairman and president of NANO.
To compete against diesel fuel, NANO set out to design microreactors that were “easy to produce, transport, maintain and keep safe,” Yu told Fastmarkets.
NANO also focused on reliability and ease of operations. “With microreactors, you can put it down and, apart from some maintenance work, you don’t need to refuel it for ten years,” Yu said.
NANO has identified potential locations that are likely mining locations for operating its microreactors.
Northern Canada, for example, could be a perfect match for NANO, according to Walker. “It is actually not very well connected to infrastructure, so all of the mines run on diesel. You can replace all of those systems with portable modular reactors.”
Remote locations in Africa also offer attractive possibilities that “could unlock enormous mineral wealth,” Walker said.
“There are enormous tracts of land [in Africa] that are not connected to a national infrastructure grids or to any grids at all. And that means you’ve cut off enormous amounts of mineral resources from being exploited,” Walker said.
Walker identified two additional early “prolific end user markets” for its microreactors: the maritime industry, to power shipping vessels, and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.
Potential markets, however, need not be remote, Walker said, naming the steel industry as one potential target to provide with operational thermal power, as well as electric power.
“In the steel industry, obviously they need to generate quite a lot of heat [and] our own reactor actually generates enormous thermal power – enough so they could run their operations,” Walker said.
A steelmaker “could substitute out their fossil fuels for a microreactor for their operational needs, and chances are they will reduce their energy costs while operating with zero carbon emissions,” the CEO said.
Microreactors could also power remote habitations, military bases and disaster relief areas. “Microreactors could introduce the desalination of potable water and provide energy systems for hospitals in remote areas,” Walker said.
NANO had a meeting with national energy companies in Thailand earlier this year to discuss the potential of microreactors “to power a whole island” at a lower cost than diesel, Walker said.
Zeus and Odin
Pre-fabricated modules for a microreactor are designed to be built in a factory, with modules to be combined on site to generate power.
“They run all of those islands on diesel, but they’re looking to try to stop that as it is flimsy and expensive,” Walker said.
While stationary nuclear reactors have been built since the 1950s, and generate anywhere between 60-1,600 megawatts of electric power (MWe), SMRs are defined as those that generate 300 MWe or less, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
NANO has two microreactor designs – Zeus and Odin.
The size of a truck, Zeus was NANO’s first microreactor model. It has a fully solid core and can fit in a standard International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO) intermodal shipping container.
“Zeus is expected to output approximately 4 megawatts of thermal energy (MWt), converting it to approximately 1.5 MWe,” Walker told Fastmarkets.
The Zeus design requires minimal maintenance, since its heat is removed through thermal conduction and does not require coolant or pumps, according to Walker.
Odin is a much smaller microreactor, about 2 ft x 3 ft, and was introduced in February. It is expected to produce 5 MWt, and 1.5 MWe, the same output as the larger Zeus, Walker said.
Odin is designed to use conventional sintered pellet uranium dioxide (UO2) fuel, with up to 20% uranium-235 enrichment.
“Both of these designs are being optimized currently, with the expectation that both will produce higher thermal megawatt outputs,” Walker said.
NANO expects to begin a demonstration project next year for its Zeus microreactor, “to provide information” for the licensing process.
The path to regulatory approval moved forward in April, when NANO signed a strategic partnership project agreement with Idaho National Laboratory to provide an expert design review panel of the Zeus microreactor.
NANO says it will use a reactivity control system design that minimizes the number of moving parts, uses natural convection of coolant for heat transfer, and will operate at higher-than-conventional water-cooled reactor temperatures.
The Idaho National Laboratory will conduct a technical review of the company’s reactor design, siting, fuel and decommission strategy.
A review will be organized to provide recommendations on the current design and outline a path for further design and collaborations between the laboratory and NANO, according to Yu.
In August NANO filed a proposal for an integrated fuel fabrication facility to be built with the assistance of Idaho National Laboratory.
NANO’s subsidiary, HALEU Energy Fuel Inc., will work with Idaho National Laboratory to develop and manufacture high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) for NANO’s microreactors, as well as for other SMR manufacturers.
Like other contenders in the SMR space, NANO will require enriched uranium to fabricate the fuel for its microreactors.
Earlier SMR demonstration efforts have been stymied by the lack of enriched uranium fuel cells to power the reactors, according to the Department of Energy.
The US has 93 operating nuclear reactors across 54 nuclear power plants, which generated 47% of US carbon-free electricity in 2022, according to the Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy.