New partnerships further radioisotope power plans

30 January 2024

Zeno Power's first full-scale radioisotope power systems will be fuelled by strontium-90 (Sr-90) material recycled from a legacy radioisotope generator under a new public-private partnership with the US Department of Energy Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM). The company has also announced a partnership with Westinghouse to fabricate the heat sources for its systems.

BUP-500 is unloaded after being transported from storage at ORNL (Image: OREM)

Radioisotope power systems (RPSs) use the heat from radioisotope decay to generate power, and can be used to supply clean energy for applications in off-grid environments. The use of Sr-90 in RPSs is not new - but historical systems were heavy, which limited their applications. Zeno, established in 2018, says its key innovation is a novel design that increases the specific power of Sr-90 heat sources, enabling broad use of its RPSs in space and terrestrially.

The company demonstrated its first Sr-90 heat source at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in October 2023, and aims to commercialise its technology by 2026. It intends to use the Sr-90 from the legacy equipment to deliver on contracts with the US Department of Defense (DOD).

The partnership with OREM will see Zeno use Sr-90 recovered from BUP-500 - short for Byproduct Utilisation Program - a 500-watt radioisotope thermal generator which was built in the mid-1980s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The equipment was never deployed and had remained in storage at the Tennessee site. Prior to this new partnership, OREM had expected that it would remain in storage for another 30 years before it could be disposed of.

OREM and environmental cleanup contractor United Cleanup Oak Ridge (UCOR) recently transported the BUP-500 generator from the Tennessee lab to an out-of-state commercial nuclear facility for processing. The transfer will accelerate the demolition of the facility where it was previously stored, avoids the costs associated with disposal, and significantly reduces liability at ORNL, OREM said.

"This is a win-win scenario that's removing a significant source of radioactivity at a savings to taxpayers, while also supporting nuclear innovation," OREM Manager Jay Mullis said.

Zeno co-founder and CEO Tyler Bernstein said: "This public-private partnership enables us to transform legacy radioactive material into clean energy, enabling future national security and scientific missions. We appreciate the commitment and support of so many officials from DOE, OREM, and UCOR who made this partnership a reality."

The company says it has to date been awarded more than USD40 million in contracts from the DOD and NASA to deliver RPSs that will enable critical operations on the seabed, on orbit, and the surface of the Moon.

Westinghouse to fabricate heat sources

The partnership announcement came days after Zeno said it has selected Westinghouse Electric Company to process radioisotopes to fabricate the heat sources for its RPSs in an agreement Zeno described as a "significant milestone" for the commercialisation of its technology.

Bernstein (on the left) and Sumner mark the agreement between Zeno and Westinghouse (Image: Zeno Power)

"Working with Westinghouse, we will build the nuclear hardware for our RPSs to provide reliable power in the most critical domains of the 21st century - from the depths of the oceans to the surface of the Moon," Bernstein said.

"Westinghouse has a long history of building innovative nuclear technologies that provide safe, reliable and carbon-free power. Our relationship with Zeno Power aligns with our vision to expand the use of nuclear into new markets," Dan Sumner, President of Westinghouse Operating Plant Services, said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News