Last Energy has raised $3 million to fight climate change using a very controversial tactic: new nuclear energy plants. The company is spinning out of research think tank the Energy Impact Center, which is making open-source designs for compact nuclear power plants that cost a lot less than versions from decades ago.
The project is the brainchild of Bret Kugelmass, a Silicon Valley technologist who went to Washington, D.C. to start the nonprofit Energy Impact Center (EIC), which hopes to use clean nuclear power to decarbonize the environment by 2040. First Round Capital led the funding for Last Energy, which will help create international development opportunities created by the platform called Open100 that provides what other companies need to make better nuclear power.
In an interview with VentureBeat, Kugelmass said he realizes nuclear power is controversial, as we all have fears of being irradiated. But he maintains that nuclear power is the only way to make a significant difference in global climate change. And his plan addresses a lot of problems, starting with simpler plants that cost $300 million to build, rather than the billions of dollars required in years past.
“The economics that we’re releasing show that it is possible to build and operate one of these new smaller nuclear plants [for less] than it would [cost] to continue to operate some of the dirty coal-fired plants, and certainly [less] than it would be to build a new one,” Kugelmass said.
Kugelmass said it’s not enough to clean the electricity sector and argues that future energy production must produce industrial heat, clean fuels, and also power the direct air capture of legacy emissions. In other words, it’s not enough to slow down the pollution that is producing climate change. We have to reverse the damage that’s already been done.
Kugelmass said nuclear energy is the only technology capable of generating the quantities of low-carbon electricity needed to meet the world’s growing energy demand while accounting for its own lifecycle carbon emissions. And he said we need 100 times more nuclear power than currently exists to achieve these goals. Only two nuclear power plants are currently under construction in the U.S., and perhaps 30 are underway in the rest of the world.
Doing the research
Kugelmass studied robotics at Stanford University and founded one of the early drone companies, Airphrame, which he sold in 2017.
“As I was figuring out what my next move was, we learned the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide had crossed 400 parts per million, which was a big moment for everybody,” he said. “It became clear that anyone who has the time should be focused on it. That’s what I did, starting the Energy Impact Center. We met with a bunch of climate scientists and drew up some early conclusions that we felt like weren’t in the sphere of what people talked about.”
To address the challenges, the EIC team conducted a review of the nuclear industry, completing over 1,500 interviews with experts across technology, industry, economics, policy, and more. Contrary to popular rhetoric, Kugelmass said he didn’t find an industry lacking in advanced technology or restrained by public opinion, but rather a sector that was ruined by cost overruns.
He added, “Everyone’s like, ‘Okay, let’s just get the zero emissions, then we can worry about negative emissions.’ But when we were talking to scientists and energy experts about this, we’re learning that negative emissions are going to require a ton of energy. And energy has a carbon footprint. So it is possible that it might not even be possible for it to go negative with other energy sources. We saw that nuclear was the only energy source that we could use to pull carbon from the air. We came to that conclusion in 2017, and so we spent two years exploring it as a solution.”
They figured that uranium produces 3 million times as much energy as coal, and there is more uranium than coal in the world.
“And yet the nuclear industry [has] just been suffering all these years and not … grown,” he said. “To make an impact, we decided we had to go beyond [the] research stage and actually bring a solution to the world based on what we find. And that brings us to today.”
Instead of building bigger or more complex projects, Kugelmass wants to save money by going back to a simpler, more streamlined process and adopting today’s best practices in construction — focusing on standardization and speed of delivery. And he notes that these plants can’t be used to make nuclear weapons. Their sole purpose would be to provide energy.
The plan for implementation
Over the past six months, the EIC engineering team has created a template for open source designs for building nuclear power plants. EIC favors standardized pressurized water reactor (PWR) power plants, which can produce 100MWe (megawatts electric) output to fit within project finance and timetable constraints. The plan is detailed enough for any utility to begin early site studies, plus or minus 20% cost predictability. And it’s abstract enough that site-specific engineering details can be added, with a $50 million budget allocated per plant for such efforts.
Going forward, the model will be continually refined and pressure-tested through EIC’s collaborations with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Laboratories and other international and industry partners. The company will work with international utilities providers so they can adopt the open source template to deploy more nuclear power plants. EIC is targeting utilities, equipment vendors, reactor designers, investors, and governments, and interested parties can license the designs from the for-profit Last Energy.
Last Energy aims to connect private capital with development opportunities around the world. The company currently has eight employees.
“Anyone can download these files and immediately start nuclear development projects across the world,” Kugelmass said. “And we’re also publishing all the economics along with that, to prove this really is the cheapest energy source and anyone can have it everywhere and decarbonize the grid in just a matter of a few years.”
Part of the problem with nuclear energy is that the power plants eventually have to be shut down, and then you have to contain the reactor and store the waste. But Kugelmass believes the latest designs will have a much longer lifespan than earlier plants. These simpler designs don’t carry as much technology risk, he said, and they can be built quickly enough to address the urgency of climate change.
“We can’t wait 10 years to start decarbonizing the globe,” he said. “And this technology is robust and works now. It can be built [cheaply].”