Helen and Steady Energy co-operate on SMR deployment

6 October 2023

Finnish energy firm Helen has signed a letter of intent (LOI) with Steady Energy in order to facilitate investment in a small-scale nuclear power plant for the production of district heating. Steady Energy, spun out from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland earlier this year, aims to build the world's first district heating plant based on its LDR-50 small modular reactor (SMR) by 2030. The LDR-50 has been in development at VTT since 2020. The 50 MW reactor is designed to operate at around 150 degrees Celsius and below 10 bar (145 psi). Steady Energy says its operating conditions are less demanding than those of traditional reactors, simplifying the technical solutions needed to meet the high safety standards of the nuclear industry.

VTT is a state-owned and controlled non-profit limited liability company under the Ministry of Economic Affairs & Employment.

The project has been part of VTT LaunchPad, a science-based spin-off incubator, where VTT researchers and technology are brought together with business leaders and investors to renew industries. VTT LaunchPad supports incubator teams to develop VTT-owned intellectual property rights into fundable spin-off companies.

The LDR-50 reactor module comprises two nested pressure vessels, with their intermediate space partially filled with water. When heat removal through the primary heat exchangers is compromised, water in the intermediate space begins to boil, forming an efficient passive heat transfer route into the reactor pool. The system does not rely on electricity or any mechanical moving parts, which could fail and prevent the cooling function. The innovation was awarded a patent in 2021.

According to the LOI, Helen and Steady Energy will launch a planning process for a pre-investment agreement concerning nuclear heat production within the next six months. The agreement will be valid from 2024 to 2027 and would include promoting the reform of the Finnish Nuclear Energy Act, applying for a siting licence and a technological permit, and fixing the contract price of the plant. It would also enable Helen to procure up to ten reactor units with an output of 50 MW from Steady Energy.

Steady Energy has raised €2m in seed funding led by VTT, Yes VC and Lifeline Ventures. The company will use the raised funding for research and development work to demonstrate the functionality of its LDR-50 plant by building a 1:1 scale mock-up powered by electric heat.

Helen CEO Olli Sirkka said the LOI is “Helen's first tangible step towards small-scale nuclear power”. He noted: "We want to be involved in introducing nuclear heat production in Finland and building the prerequisites for such production in cooperation with Steady Energy and other energy industry operators, decision-makers and authorities. District heating produced with SMR plants is a particularly interesting solution for Helen as its district heating network, spanning 1400 kilometres, is one of the longest in the Nordic countries. Decarbonising the entire network would be a significant climate action on a national scale."

Helen, which produces heat, electricity and cooling in power plants and heating plants in different parts of Helsinki, is aiming for carbon-neutral energy production by 2030. In November 2022, it announced a joint study with Finnish utility Fortum – operator of the Loviisa nuclear power plant – to explore possible collaboration in new nuclear power, especially SMRs. The companies formed a study group to explore possible synergy benefits for the two firms.

Steady Energy CEO Tommi Nyman said the LOI is an important milestone for Steady Energy. "It sets us up to implement Finnish technology in the 2020s with the potential to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of Finland by 8%, as district heating would no longer be produced by burning. Our goal is to launch a new clean-energy export product and enter the global heating market, where the emission reduction potential is even more significant, even gigatons. We are proud to have Helen join us in this important work for Finland and for the prevention of climate catastrophe."

He added that nuclear energy is already a major source of low-carbon electricity, and SMRs represent a pathway to expand the use of the technology to other energy sectors in addition to heating. “On top of being safer than traditional reactors, SMRs are more affordable. We’re setting up a demonstration plant for district heating purposes ideally in Finland, but our long-term plan is to have several plants operating around the world, producing carbon-neutral heat to homes, offices and for various industrial applications. We will bring to market the world's best nuclear energy technology optimized for the heating sector,” he noted.

The two partners acknowledge that the legislative work in Finland concerning SMRs remains unfinished and requires cooperation between various authorities. The Finnish government is committed to promoting the implementation of heat-producing SMRs, and Helen and Steady Energy together with other energy companies offer "a tangible path" to achieving the targets set out in the government programme.

Image: Helsinki, Finland (courtesy of Helen)

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