The problem being solved: In the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Oak Ridge community in Tennessee came together to launch the Heritage Center and the Horizon Center. These two modern industrial parks reside on the former site of the Manhattan Project’s nuclear complex. Where the focus had once been on developing nuclear weapons, now there is the opportunity to develop the economy and support the use of nuclear energy, a proven technology that provides one-tenth of global electricity without producing carbon emissions. Because traditional nuclear power plants are very costly to build and frequently overshoot budget and scheduling expectations, an opportunity exists for nuclear industry innovators to create alternative approaches that are safer and more economical.
The technology solution: A regional partnership that includes Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, and the Community Reuse Organization of East Tennessee began outreach in 2018 to re-envision Oak Ridge as a global designation for nuclear innovation. As a result of the team’s teamwork and diligence, four companies have committed to establish their innovative nuclear operations in East Tennessee: General Fusion, Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC), Kairos Power, and TRISO-X, a subsidiary of X-energy.
The technology transfer mechanism: ORNL negotiated an exclusive licensing agreement with USNC for inventions resulting from DOE’s Transformational Challenge Reactor Program—a 3D-printing technology and an advanced nuclear fuel technology—to be part of a new method for refractory heat exchange that greatly improves thermal efficiency in reactors. ORNL also facilitated an entrepreneurial leave process for the some of the technology’s inventors, so they could temporarily join USNC to lead the commercialization effort.
The impact: Collectively, the four companies will add more than $400 million into the local economy and create nearly 550 highly skilled jobs. USNC, which opened its Pilot Fuel Manufacturing Operation in Oak Ridge in summer 2022, has hired 30 employees. General Fusion, which made Oak Ridge the site of its U.S. headquarters in November 2021, plans to hire up to 50 technical staff. Kairos Power will invest $100 million and create 55 jobs to deploy its low-power Hermes demonstration reactor, scheduled to be operational in 2026. And TRISO-X, slated to debut a reactor fuel fabrication facility in 2025, is bringing 400 jobs and $300 million to Oak Ridge. Access to ORNL, the Y-12 National Security Complex, and a skilled talent pool have supported this accelerated growth.
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