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Weekend edition January 26, 2024 | Tom Ballard

New environmental cleanup partnership spotlighted in Oak Ridge

The initiative that will utilize Strontium-90 to fuel Zeno Power’s initial full-scale radioisotope power systems for national security and space exploration missions.

Cleaning up the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Oak Ridge sites for new and expanded missions is a really important goal for the community and its prime contractors, and an announcement Friday morning celebrated another milestone in that important work.

In fact, it was so significant that Zeno Power Systems Inc. memorialized its new public-private partnership with DOE’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM) by minting a commemorative coin to honor the initiative that will utilize Strontium-90 (Sr-90) material from Oak Ridge to fuel the company’s initial full-scale radioisotope power systems (RPSs) for national security and space exploration missions.

“We are taking a taxpayer liability and turning it into an asset,” Tyler Bernstein, Zeno’s Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), said at the event held in the United Cleanup Oak Ridge (UCOR) Meet + Train facility. Dozens of civic, governmental, and business leaders attended the announcement which also featured presentations by representatives from DOE Headquarters, DOE’s OREM, UCOR, Department of Defense (DoD), and NASA.

Working with UCOR, Zeno recently transported a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) containing Strontium-90 to an out-of-state commercial nuclear facility. The machine, a Byproduct Utilization Program (BUP) 500-watt RTG, had been stored at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for four decades and would have remained there for another 30 years without the partnership.

It will now provide a source for Strontium-90 that can be recycled and used to power Zeno’s novel RPS. That will allow the company to deliver on its contracts with DoD and broadly commercialize its RPS technology by 2026. Zeno is also developing RPS technology with NASA and other leading lunar industry companies to enable long-term lunar applications.

So, what are RPSs? They are compact devices that convert heat from the decay of radioisotopes into a persistent and reliable supply of clean energy. According to Zeno’s news release, RPSs can open up many new opportunities – space, the Arctic, and the seabed – that are increasingly strategic domains in the wake of renewed great power competition. Access to reliable power is a primary constraint to operating in these regions.

Being a person who advocates for building alliances and has done so through three careers, I was particularly impressed with every speaker talking about how valuable collaborating and working together were to achieve the results. That was best exemplified by the fact that there was one person qualified to drive the RTG to the out-of-state facility, and he will be honored later.

UCOR President and CEO Ken Rueter expressed it best in his concluding comments.

“There’s an inclusiveness (here) that results in a broader outcome,” he said. “When the nation makes a call to Oak Ridge, you see outcomes like this. Cherish the partnerships we have . . . and never let anyone take it away from us.”

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