How I Launched a Nuclear Startup

The story of how I took America’s first Small Modular Reactor from concept to viable product.

Written by

NuScale Power

May 3, 2019

Growing up, science was always a big part of my life. I would spend hours in my basement laboratory surrounded by test tubes and bunsen-burners, mixing chemicals outlawed in chemistry sets available these days. My Dad was stationed at Port Canaveral where we watched Apollo launches from the deck of a Navy tracking ship. The roar of the rocket engines and fiery plumes made a lasting impression.

However, not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day I’d be the founder of a nuclear energy startup. And yet it happened. Here’s the story of how I got there.

The NuScale Power Plant

It all started when I was working as a faculty member at Oregon State’s School of Nuclear Science and Engineering. At that point, I’d already spent two fantastic decades working in nuclear energy — including at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) — but the most exciting project of my career was just about to begin. I started working with a team of researchers through a Department of Energy (DOE) and Oregon State University (OSU) partnership to develop a next-generation advanced nuclear reactor.

The reactor was based on a scaled-down, traditional reactor but with improved safety features such as the use of natural circulation, as well as a revolutionary modular design. We built a one-third scale electrically-heated version of the power module and in 2003 our team successfully completed the first safety tests in the world for this new type of self-protecting nuclear reactor. The funding for the project ended shortly afterward; but that was just the start of a new chapter.

In 2004, I took a sabbatical leave from OSU to work at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. Little did I know that this would be the eye-opening experience that would motivate me to move what we call our small modular reactor (SMR) from the lab to the market.

I met with nuclear engineers and scientists from all over the world who shared with me that they did not have the grid to support, nor could they afford, large nuclear power plants. They needed something much smaller. My “aha” moment came when I realized that what they needed was already sitting in my lab! It was this potential to revolutionize nuclear energy technology; making it more accessible to those who needed it, that led a group of us to restart our research in 2005.

Subsequent testing and analysis resulted in three patents, a product that was commercially viable, and a business model for a start-up company that was investment-ready. In 2007 we reached an agreement with OSU to obtain exclusive rights to the design, and NuScale Power was born.

Dr. Jose Reyes, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, NuScale Power

The Department of Energy’s research programs in the early 2000s had helped position the US as a global leader in SMRs against competitors like Russia and China. It was now up to NuScale Power to carry the project forward to commercialization.

By 2008, we had informed the NRC that NuScale Power intended to pursue Design Certification (DC) for the technology — something required before a new type of nuclear plant can be built in the US.

Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day I’d be the founder of a nuclear energy startup. And yet it happened
— Dr. Jose Reyes, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer, NuScale Power

It struck me that there was a massive need to address growing global energy demand while tackling what is arguably the greatest challenge facing our planet: climate change. We needed a reliable way to provide clean, safe, cost-efficient energy, both for on-grid and for remote locations. In the early years of NuScale, such a mandate sounded like a tall order for a single energy technology, but today I am more convinced than ever that we’ve found the answer.

I began to understand how SMR technology could completely upend how we think about our energy needs for residential, commercial and industrial purposes. Our new SMR design addressed public concerns about nuclear power by simplifying and streamlining earlier models. It also offered unparalleled reliability and safety without the financial burden and the imposing size and siting challenges of traditional nuclear facilities.

More than a decade of intensive research, testing and review later, NuScale’s SMR technology is the first and only SMR to undergo NRC design certification review and is now entering its final stages. With a smarter and simplified design, our NuScale reactor offers a new level of safety, economy and resilience in nuclear power, requiring fewer staff and having lower operating costs than designs that have come before. Not only that, but it is fully capable of integrating with variable renewables.

The NuScale story is one of innovation and perseverance.

America’s first SMR is set to go online in 2026 at the Idaho National Labs, where it will provide reliable, carbon-free electricity for Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems’ members across six western states.

The path from innovation to commercialization of this groundbreaking technology has been a long and challenging one, but I’m proud to share that NuScale Power, which started in a vacant bank building in downtown Corvallis, is on track to deliver.

The NuScale story is one of innovation and perseverance; a game-changing technology stemming from an exciting collaboration between academia, government and the private sector and now attracting aspiring customers on five different continents.

Our goal has always been simple — to change the power that changes the world. I’d say we’re well on our way.

Dr. Jose Reyes is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of NuScale Power. An internationally renowned nuclear energy expert, he has served as an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) technical expert on passive safety systems and worked nearly 10 years as a thermal hydraulics research engineer in the Reactor Safety Division of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He holds Ph.D. and Master of Science degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of Maryland, and a Bachelor of Science degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Florida. He is currently professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at Oregon State University, the Henry W. and Janice J. Schuette Endowed Chair in Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.


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