The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted approval for the construction of a salt-cooled, high-temperature nuclear reactor in Tennessee on Tuesday, according to the Department of Energy (DOE).
Kairos Power will operate the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, facility, which is the first non-water-cooled reactor to receive regulatory approval from the NRC in more than five decades, according to the company. While Kairos will still need to apply for an operating license from the NRC, a DOE sub-agency, it expects the facility to begin operations as early as 2026, according to the DOE.
“Kairos Power is thrilled to have achieved this major regulatory milestone as we make final preparations to start construction at the Hermes site next year,” Kairos CEO and co-founder Mike Laufer said of the announcement. “We are excited for this next phase in the deployment of the Hermes reactor, and we remain committed to being a good community partner to our neighbors in Oak Ridge as we bring value to the region and build on its nuclear legacy.”
The reactor, known as Hermes, is notable because it uses molten salts as a coolant for nuclear energy production rather than water, which traditionally serves that function, according to the World Nuclear Association. The Hermes facility will serve as a demonstration reactor, meaning that the company will use it to prove that it can generate safe and affordable energy in the future with the technology it uses, according to Kairos.
New commercial nuclear power plants are rare in the contemporary history of the U.S., regardless of what materials are used as coolant. Key challenges to affordable nuclear development include regulatory uncertainty and high per-unit construction costs, according to the Institute for Energy Research.
The first commercial nuclear reactor built from scratch this century went online in July near Augusta, Georgia, years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
“This is a huge milestone for the nuclear energy sector,” Kathryn Huff, the assistant secretary for nuclear energy at the DOE, said of the announcement. “NRC’s approval of the first ever (construction permit application) granted to a Generation IV reactor charts a path forward for future design applications as we work toward deploying new reactor technologies. This accomplishment is a testament to the collaborative work among Kairos, the NRC, DOE and all stakeholders involved in the project.”
Oak Ridge served as the headquarters for the Manhattan Project, a covert World War II initiative to design the atomic weapons that ultimately ended the war.
Neither Kairos nor the DOE responded immediately to requests for comment.
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