Small nuclear reactors may be coming to Texas, boosted by interest from Gov. Abbott

Operators peer into the reactor pool where Texas A&M Universitys Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics (TRIGA) nuclear research reactor emits a blue glow on March 11, 2024 in College Station. (Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune, Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune)

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This is the last of a three-part series on emerging energy sources and Texas' role in developing them. You can read part one, on hydrogen fuel, here, and part two, on geothermal energy, here.

Gov. Greg Abbott took the stage at the University of Texas at Austin last August to discuss building up an energy source in the state. Unlike the oil and gas industry that Abbott often promotes, this fuel could create reliable power without also pumping pollution into the air.

Abbott was there to talk about nuclear power — not big reactors like the ones that already operate in Texas, but a new generation of smaller nuclear reactors that companies are pitching as both safe and less financially risky than large nuclear power plants because they cost less.

Abbott joined a panel with the CEO of chemical and plastics manufacturer Dow and the head of a newer business, called X-energy, which plans to build small nuclear reactors for Dow. The reactors will produce steam and electricity for the company’s complex just up the coast from Corpus Christi.

“We’re going to be studying and evaluating the reliability, the safety of nuclear power,” Abbott announced to the crowd. “And, if it passes all the tests, we will be looking to dramatically expand nuclear power in the state of Texas.”

These downsized reactors offer a possible solution, in Abbott’s view, to the woes of the state’s main electric grid. The grid’s vulnerabilities were exposed during a 2021 winter storm when subfreezing temperatures knocked power plants offline; millions of people went without power or heat for days and at least 200 people died. The grid’s near collapse became a political nightmare for Abbott.

After that disaster, some energy industry experts said part of the state’s problem was that it lacked enough on-demand power — meaning power that can come on anytime. The state increasingly relies on solar farms that only work when the sun shines, and wind turbines that only turn when the wind blows. Companies have been building a lot of both in Texas over the past decade.

Texas legislators last year passed new incentives to try to get more gas-fueled power built to meet that desire for more on-demand electricity. Small nuclear power could fill the same role.

Nuclear power isn’t new to Texas, where four large reactors have fed the electric grid for decades. Two operate southwest of Fort Worth. Another pair runs southwest of Houston, near Matagorda Bay. The plants accounted for about 9% of electricity produced on the state’s main electric grid last year.

Early on, the economics of large reactors made them more appealing than small ones for powering electric grids, but a new one hasn’t been built in Texas in decades and is unlikely because of cost and public fears of a major accident.

A number of companies are now hoping to build reactors a fraction of the size, producing 300 megawatts of electricity or less, compared with existing reactors that in Texas generally produce around 1,200 megawatts.

Small reactors have been around for decades — they have powered submarines since the 1950s, for example — but the new generation of reactors under development are designed to power everything from industrial facilities to oilfield water desalination to the electric grid. They’ll need approval from federal regulators to go into operation.

The small reactors rely on the same process as large ones, splitting atoms to create heat. They’re generally designed so that their components can be made in factories and shipped on highways.

Engineers are experimenting with small reactors in two ways: They’re trying different fuels instead of the typical uranium-filled rods that power modern large reactors. And they’re using substances other than water to transfer the heat and keep the reactors cool.

X-energy, for example, is using uranium enclosed in graphite spheres for the fuel. The company says the spheres keep the radioactive waste contained when the fuel has been used up. Helium gas cools the reactor, which the company says cannot carry radioactive material if released like water can.

Small reactors could provide consistent power for data centers or ramp up and down as needed on the state’s ever-growing electric grid, said Jimmy Glotfelty, a state public utility commissioner who helps regulate electricity and who is leading a working group at Abbott’s request to pave the way for small nuclear reactors in Texas.

“These reactors have the potential to revolutionize the way power is generated in this state and provide stable, low-cost power for a long, long time here in Texas,” Glotfelty said.

Updated technology

The smaller reactors are the nuclear industry’s solution for building out the power resource at a time when large reactors face challenges that make them difficult to build.

To start, large nuclear power has a longstanding public trust problem. Some wrongly think the reactors can explode like nuclear weapons, even though the physics and chemistry of the systems don’t allow for that, said University of Texas at Austin nuclear and radiation engineering professor Derek Haas. Nuclear power plants have failed spectacularly because of accidents or natural disasters in Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island.

Pop culture hasn’t helped, Haas continued. The TV show The Simpsons takes place in a town with a violation-riddled nuclear plant, where Homer shirks his duties in the control room and a contaminated fish grows a third eye. An acclaimed 2019 HBO series chronicled the horrors of the deadly Chernobyl explosion.

Even Haas said he’s not immune to what he described as a barrage of information that characterizes it as dangerous because radioactive material can cause deadly radiation sickness or cancer. But Haas says that in reality nuclear power is much safer than pop culture represents it and the public generally understands it, calling it one of the safest forms of energy.

“I’m a researcher and expert in radiation, and when I work on highly radioactive things, I still sweat a little bit,” Haas said. “I analyze the procedure that we’re going to be doing. I do the math. I go and I do the work as safely, as quickly as we can to minimize my radiation dose. But I still sweat.”

Where the nuclear power goes on the grid at STP Nuclear Operating Company which provides power to CPS San Antonio, Austin Energy, and NRG, in Wadsworth, TX, December 6, 2013. The South Texas Project Electric Generating Station, is a nuclear power station southwest of Bay City, Texas, United States. STP occupies a 12,200-acre site west of the Colorado River about 90 miles southwest of Houston.

The South Texas Project Electric Generating Station is a nuclear power plant about 90 miles southwest of Houston. Credit: Jennifer Whitney for The Texas Tribune

Even if a company can get past the strict safety regulation and public fear to build a new mega-reactor, there remains significant financial risk. The projects are big and costly. One nuclear project in Georgia is expected to be fully commercially operational this year, seven years later than expected and at a cost more than double the original $14 billion estimate.

Add to that widespread concern about where to put nuclear waste, and building another large reactor starts to look impossible. Used fuel rods can remain radioactive for thousands of years. Abbott four years ago joined residents, environmentalists and oil companies to oppose a federal license for a company that wanted to store spent nuclear fuel in West Texas.

But academic and environmental critics say the design changes in the smaller reactors don’t significantly alter what they see as a failed technology.

Decades ago, engineers built small nuclear reactors to begin with and had to increase their size to make the economics work, said M.V. Ramana, a professor in the school of public policy and global affairs at the University of British Columbia.

“When you go back to smaller reactors, you are going to lose out on those economies of scale, and so it’s going to be more expensive, right?” Ramana said. “The other thing to remember is that these are nuclear reactors, and so they have all of the problems that are traditionally associated with nuclear power plants, including the risk of accidents, including the fact that they produce radioactive waste.”

Groups such as Beyond Nuclear don’t trust the safety of nuclear power regardless of the size of a reactor. Fort Worth-area residents have protested the extension of a federal license for the nearby large reactors because they’re worried about safety. Beyond Nuclear says small reactors will still have waste that has nowhere to be permanently stored.

“Nobody wants this stuff,” said Paul Gunter, director of the reactor oversight project for Beyond Nuclear. “We don’t know what to do with the first cupful of high-level nuclear waste … You have to biologically isolate it for hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of years.”

The new small reactors are “modular,” meaning parts can be mass-produced. But Dan O’Brien, a senior analyst at the think tank Energy Innovation, said reducing costs is still an issue. The price won’t plummet like it did for solar and wind, O’Brien said, because small reactors are still specialized.

“Every hot new technology seems like a silver bullet on the climate front but it never is,” O’Brien said. “There’s value in all these new technologies, but it’s just a matter of figuring out what that value is.”

Nuclear power grows in Texas

X-energy CEO J. Clay Sell is an Amarillo native who studied accounting at Texas Tech University and law at the University of Texas at Austin. He spent 14 years working for elected officials in Washington, D.C., arriving in the aftermath of the Cold War with a fascination for nuclear power. He served as deputy energy secretary under George W. Bush, then joined Hunt Energy Horizons in Dallas to work on renewables.

X-energy’s founder, billionaire Kam Ghaffarian, made his fortune as an engineering contractor for NASA. He learned about a reactor under development in South Africa, and, when the government canceled the project, Ghaffarian hired some of the staff for his new company based in Maryland. The company is exploring using nuclear power to support life on the moon.

J. Clay Sell, CEO of X-energy, holds a billiards ball-sized model of a uranium

J. Clay Sell, CEO of X-energy, holds a billiards ball-sized model of a uranium "pebble," capable of fueling small nuclear reactors, in Austin on March 10, 2024. Credit: John Jordan/The Texas Tribune


Models of nuclear "pebbles" — uranium fuel encased in a graphite sphere. Credit: John Jordan/The Texas Tribune

X-energy brought over Sell, who still lives in Dallas, in 2019. The company has raised more than $400 million privately and received $1.5 billion in government funding. Sell said it is on track to request the construction permit for the Dow project later this year, and have the reactors running there by 2030.

“Nuclear technology is part of that long tradition that Texas takes great pride in, in always leading the way on energy,” Sell said in an interview. “If it’s energy, Texas wants to lead the way.”

Other companies are taking different approaches. There’s Washington-based TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates, which uses liquid metal as the coolant for their main design. California-based Kairos Power uses molten salt as a coolant, as does a startup in Abilene called Natura Resources. The molten salt can’t get hot enough to turn into steam because the metal reactor would melt first, and the salt would basically harden and spill like candle wax onto the floor, according to the company’s founder.

NuScale Power, which uses water to cool its reactor like the large ones that operate today, appeared to be leading the pack in developing a next-generation small nuclear reactor until last year. It was the first such design to be federally licensed. The company scrapped its plans to build a project in Idaho because costs rose and it couldn’t get enough utilities to sign on, Canary Media reported. Its stock price tumbled.

At Abilene Christian University, some 200 miles west of Dallas, the research center is ready where Natura Resources plans to install its test reactor. The university filed a construction permit application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which Natura expects to get approved this summer.

The project’s origin story goes back to 2004, when then-Gov. Rick Perry appointed third generation oil-and-gas man Doug Robison to an energy planning council. The council found that nuclear energy was the one energy source that could replace natural gas and coal to provide around-the-clock electricity, he recalled. But that idea didn’t go anywhere. The country felt no pressure to decarbonize.

Zoom ahead to 2017, and Robison was eyeing retirement from a nearly 40-year career in the oil-and-gas-rich Permian Basin. He attended a presentation at Abilene Christian, which he financially supports. A researcher spoke about molten salt reactors. Robison found the professor afterward in the back of the room and ended up donating $3 million to see what could happen.

“We’ve become one of the leading projects in the country, and the only project located in Texas,” Robison said. “Most of the advanced nuclear work was happening on the East Coast and West Coast, so we were glad to get Texas involved. Now, we've seen a ramp-up of activity in Texas since then, but, at that point, Texas was kind of out of the game.”

No fear of nuclear power here

At Texas A&M University in College Station, a research reactor runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days in a concrete building, watched by students. It allows a rare peek at the technology, which is beautiful in an alien way. Ninety-two rods of uranium, zirconium and hydrogen clad in stainless steel arranged like a cube glow with an eerie blue light. They sit suspended from an aluminum frame in a 33-foot-deep pool. The fuel is around 650 degrees. The crystal-clear pool is room temperature.

Texas A&M University’s Nuclear Science Center is seen Monday, March 11, 2024 in College Station. The center contains a Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics (TRIGA) nuclear research reactor which is used for academic research and training.

Texas A&M University’s Nuclear Science Center in College Station. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Nuclear engineering professor Cable Kurwitz, 53, gets why people fear the energy source: Nuclear reactors are little understood and tightly guarded. At this one, visitors enter through a gate only after promising they don’t have firearms. Visitors wear devices that monitor for radiation and walk through what looks like a metal detector to check for contamination when they leave.

Kurwitz watched the logging industry die as he grew up in Northern California, and figured he better do something else. Nuclear power, with its challenging math and science, seemed cool. The Chernobyl disaster only strengthened his commitment to the pursuit. He was 16 when the radiation reached from Ukraine to California, he said. His dad, hearing it might poison cows and their milk, dumped their carton into the lawn.

Level-headed Kurwitz asked his dad why he did that. Now the contaminated dairy was in the yard.

Kurwitz’s daughter Abby, 28, grew up around labs and nuclear experts, wishing she could make a kitten glow.

Texas A&M University Nuclear Engineering instructional professor Cable Kurwitz diagrams a simple explanation for the process of nuclear fission Monday, March 11, 2024 in College Station.

Texas A&M University Nuclear Engineering Instructional Professor Cable Kurwitz diagrams the process of nuclear fission on March 11, 2024 in College Station. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

Texas A&M University reactor operator Thomas Freyman stands in a scanner to measure accumulated contaminates after working in the university’s Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics (TRIGA) nuclear research reactor control building Monday, March 11, 2024 in College Station.

Texas A&M University reactor operator Thomas Freyman stands in a scanner to measure accumulated contaminates after working in the university’s Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics (TRIGA) nuclear research reactor control building Monday, March 11, 2024 in College Station. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

From left, Texas A&M University reactor operators Sean Yeatts, Alexander Smith and Harley Rex monitor reactor readings from the university’s Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics (TRIGA) nuclear research reactor Monday, March 11, 2024 in College Station.

Texas A&M University reactor operator Thomas Freyman stands in a scanner to measure accumulated contaminates after working in the university’s Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics (TRIGA) nuclear research reactor control building Monday, March 11, 2024 in College Station. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

First: Texas A&M University reactor operator Thomas Freyman is scanned for contamination after working in the university’s Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics (TRIGA) nuclear research reactor control building. Last: From left, Texas A&M University reactor operators Sean Yeatts, Alexander Smith and Harley Rex monitor reactor readings. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

She studied health physics and now works at the reactor facility as the radiation safety officer to make it even safer. She finds the reactor’s glow soothing, like the shine of a jellyfish, like witnessing a secret.

“I grew up in it, so it was very normal for me,” the younger Kurwitz said. “I was safe. Obviously if I could be down in the basement and in these labs, then I was safe. We license these things, and we regulate these things to be so safe.”

In the control room for the A&M reactor, students watch for problems: the water level of the pool that keeps the reactor operating safely could get low or the radiation alarm could trigger. There’s a red button to stop the nuclear chain reaction. But students working there in T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts and jeans don’t seem too afraid.

“The kids coming in now, because of some public outreach from the industry, plus what’s out on YouTube … they don’t just think of Chernobyl and Fukushima first thing when they hear ‘nuclear,’ ” said Thomas Freyman, 27, a Ph.D student. “Kids show up now and they know about nuclear and are very interested in it.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Correction, : This story has been updated after a source initially provided inaccurate information about which entity applied for a construction permit with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a test reactor in Abilene. Abilene Christian University filed the permit application.

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