The Potential of Nuclear Reactor Technology to Treat Produced/Brackish Water for Oil & Gas Applications
Journal of Energy Research and Reviews,
A merger of two mature technologies (the nuclear and petroleum industries) has the potential to process water produced from oil and gas operations to drinking quality standards at a reasonable price of $0.30 to $0.40 per 42-gallon barrel. This “RO” process treats the produced water with the process heat from a small nuclear reactor with ~125 MW of power. This process also improves the efficiency of hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling, plus significantly reduces the volume of disposed water into formations while at the same time it increases public safety by reducing the probability of earthquakes .
For at least most of the past 10 years, the oil and gas industry in the United States has struggled to manage the ever-increasing costs of disposing and handling produced-water and other wastewater from oil and gas production in the Permian Basin and the US. This includes trying to develop and maintain the required high-quality fresh water supplies for both horizontal drilling, and new production techniques such as hydraulic fracturing. In fact, the current cost of water management for oil and gas production in the region has risen to the point where it has arguably become the industry’s most important cost issue. A successful approach to water management will maximize profit by promoting higher operational efficiency, leading to reduced costs.
The nuclear energy industry is well known for being a capable generator of electricity in the US. In the past 10 years, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory (INL) has verified an innovative nuclear reactor design that has been constructed and tested in the US to treat any water source to “drinking water” quality, plus a “waste” stream.” According to DOE/INL Reports, this can be accomplished in the cost range of ~$0.38 per 42-gallon “barrel” (or less than a half a cent per gallon) .
This would improve the efficiency of the Oil & Gas production industry through the utilization of “clean” water sources, plus also potentially re-establish the freshwater resources (e.g., the Ogallala Aquifer) that have been both depleted and polluted by both the petroleum industry and agriculture over the past 75 years or so.
The “process heat” required to treat this produced water to “drinking water” quality would be supplied by a 25 MW(thermal) “High-Temperature, Gas-cooled (nuclear) Reactor” (HTGR) that would be operated at temperatures up to 1700o F and cooled by the inert gas Helium (He). Further, this facility will never have to be "turned off" for refueling for ~70 years (the estimated life of the facility) since, in this reactor design, that process is automatic, and driven simply by gravity as described below.
The nuclear fuel is contained in thousands of small fuel-bearing microspheres that are ~1 mm in diameter and also made of graphite. The fuel-bearing microspheres are then mixed with more graphite and placed in thousands of graphite “pebbles” that are approximately the size of a tennis ball. These tennis ball sized pebbles are then placed in the reactor core in a manner analogous to a moving “gum-ball” machine. They enter the core at the top and start their travel to the core bottom. When these tennis-ball sized pebbles reach the bottom, via gravity, the fuel is completely used and they automatically fall out of the reactor core bottom for disposal. When this occurs, space is made at the top of the reactor core for a new fuel pebble to start its journey to the bottom of the core.
The cost of a “first” commercial plant with this design, constructed and privately financed in west Texas by the US private nuclear reactor engineering, design, and construction company named X-Energy, is estimated to be ~$1-2 billion. However, this cost is expected to be significantly reduced if X-Energy is 1) successful in financing this facility with municipal bonds and other non-governmental sources, plus 2) also working with the Trump administration in streamlining the “construction approval and licensing process” performed by the USNRC (United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission).
It is X-energy’s belief that the current cost estimates by the federal government are inflated, and that by using engineering, design and construction processes currently required and used by other governments around the world, the total cost will be significantly reduced by up to 50%. In addition, this X-Energy facility will be the very first nuclear facility that will be constructed in the US using entirely private equity funds and financing which should also lower costs!
And in fact, the Trump administration is currently reviewing other projects such as this, and X-Energy believes that the secret to lowering the facility costs of nuclear reactors in the US is to drastically streamline the regulatory process for the facility design, engineering and construction of all reactors.
The attractive economic projections for this facility indicate both, a significant cost reduction of treating “produced water” from Oil & Gas Operations, and also provide a good path to both clean up and recharge existing fresh-water aquifers that have been polluted by agriculture and/or the petroleum industry. This marriage of technologies in the Petroleum and Nuclear industries can truly “make a difference” in improving the quality of drinking water in West Texas and also lead to a significant increase in profit for the oil and gas industry.
It is also important to emphasize that the proposed nuclear reactor design that will be used for these applications have been proven to be “intrinsically safe” throughout the world. In this case, “intrinsically safe” is defined as “if this reactor starts to have any potentially catastrophic problem (generally caused by fuel “failure”), it will automatically and without human intervention shut itself down” This ability is due to the unique design of the fuel system.
The concepts presented in this paper are transformational since this facility will utilize the technologies and experience of two gigantic and effective energy-producing entities in addressing and developing true “energy security” for the US and the world.