Lightbridge to prioritise SMR fuel development

25 March 2021

Lightbridge Corporation has decided to prioritise developing fuel for future small modular reactors rather than fuel for large reactor designs, President and CEO Seth Grae said in a business update ahead of a webcast and conference call to discuss the company's financial results. The company is also contemplating a zirconium-plutonium version of its fuel.

(Image: Lightbridge)

Reston, Virginia-based Lightbridge has over the course of the past year taken steps to reduce many of the risks associated with its business, he said. These include the recently announced settlement agreement with Framatome terminating their Enfission joint venture, allowing Lightbridge now to pursue "various promising opportunities" unencumbered by any constraints on the Lightbridge Fuel technology platform, Grae said.

In the webcast, Grae said the company had initially focused on large pressurised water reactors (PWRs). However, it now expects that Chinese and Russian companies will account for most of the net worldwide growth in large reactors in the period to 2050.

"We believe that what we are seeing is an overall shift from government and private sector, from large pressurised water reactors to SMRs and advanced technologies," he said. "We understand that the Biden Administration will prioritise advanced nuclear technologies - including advanced fuels and SMRs - as part of its nuclear energy policy."

"Finally, we have taken the critical step of prioritising our fuel development programme towards powering small modular reactors of the future. SMRs are expected to have much lower capital costs per module than larger reactor designs, making their deployment easier to finance and support by private and government sectors. In addition, we expect SMR plants with Lightbridge Fuel to have the ability to load follow renewables, helping to expand markets for renewables and SMRs together as countries seek to decarbonise energy generation. We believe that Lightbridge Fuel’s most significant economic benefit to SMRs will be to provide a 30% power uprate that will allow SMRs greater flexibility in power levels.

"We want to position Lightbridge as an essential company for the world to meet its climate goals. While existing large reactors can present an additional market opportunity for Lightbridge Fuel, we do not expect significant future growth in the number of these large reactors, so they will not move the needle on climate change. Lightbridge is going where the industry is heading, along with the significant government funding opportunities we expect to go toward SMRs in the coming years, and we remain focused on our pursuit of full-scale commercialisation of Lightbridge Fuel as quickly as possible."

Enfission was launched in January 2018 to develop, license and sell nuclear fuel assemblies based on Lightbridge's innovative metallic nuclear fuel technology, which focuses on metallic fuel rods that offer economic and safety benefits over traditional fuel. The joint venture was to produce Lightbridge fuel assemblies initially for operators of US commercial nuclear power plants, followed with production of Lightbridge fuel assemblies for other types of reactors and for markets around the world.

Grae said the company was not "abandoning" existing light water reactors in its strategy, adding that the R&D work it is doing remains applicable to existing reactors as well as shorter-length fuel for SMRs.

Plutonium opportunity

Lightbridge "understands" that the Biden Administration will seek to use a recent agreement between the presidents of Russia and the USA to extend the New START arms limitation treaty to begin negotiations on further arms reductions, and to eliminate plutonium from dismantled weapons, Grae said.

"Recently, the presidents of the U.S. and Russia agreed to extend the New START treaty for an additional five years. The New START treaty will prevent an increase in the number of certain types of nuclear weapons in the US and Russian arsenals. We understand that the Biden Administration may seek to use this opportunity to enter into negotiations with Russia, and perhaps China, to reduce the number of weapons and eliminate plutonium from the weapons that would be dismantled, making it harder to replace the weapons in the future. While there would still be careful analysis ahead of us, we believe that a zirconium-plutonium version of Lightbridge Fuel could be an ideal solution in disposing of the plutonium from weapons, using it to generate energy"

It could also be used, he added, for disposing of reactor-grade plutonium arising from reprocessing of civil nuclear fuel. "Our patent portfolio includes zirconium-plutonium fuel. We will explore these opportunities over the coming months for potential government interest and funding support."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News