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Can the Nuclear Industry Step Up to Drive Down Costs?

Kirsty Gogan's picture
Energy for Humanity

Kirsty is the Co-Founder of Energy for Humanity, and is an established expert in climate and energy communications with extensive experience as a senior advisor to UK Government, industry...

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  • Sep 18, 2017

In the same week that the offshore wind industry smashed expectations with astonishingly low prices – £57.50 per MWH for new build starting in 2022/23 – other low carbon technologies were playing catch up.

Emma Pinchbeck, director of Renewable UK had the good grace to point out that despite the offshore wind industry now clearly leading the pack on price “We still think nuclear can be part of the mix – but our industry has shown how to drive costs down, and now they need to do the same.”

I couldn’t agree more. Can the nuclear industry step up to drive down costs?

Decarbonisation represents a massive growth opportunity for the electricity sector. If we want to achieve the fastest, most cost-effective and feasible path to decarbonisation then we need a mix of technologies. Solving climate change can be boiled down to a simple strategy: clean up electricity generation and then electrify everything.

So, whilst we have a large enough challenge to replace our ageing fossil fuel infrastructure, and the focus often lands on power production, power only accounts for around 24% of total carbon emissions in the UK. The rest is transport, heat, buildings, industry and other sectors. We are likely to see electrification on a grand scale and the 21st century grid will be smarter and more flexible than that of our parents’ generation. Government plans to ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 in favour of electric vehicle development will drive more growth in clean electricity generation.

The Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) has modelled scenarios to show how the UK can achieve 2050 carbon reduction targets. ETI’s lowest cost scenario for decarbonisation, taking into account a wide range of economic, technical and social parameters is the ‘Clockwork’ scenario. In this scenario around 40 GWe of nuclear capacity is installed by 2050 as part of a balanced mix of energy technologies. However, the ETI concludes that in order to achieve 40 GWe of nuclear by 2050, confidence in the ability of the nuclear industry to deliver new nuclear plants is key.

Right now, it’s fair to say that confidence is low. In their report published this week: UK SMR: A National Endeavour, Rolls Royce rightly identify three major barriers to overcome. Firstly, financing very large capital projects is expensive. Secondly, conventional nuclear plants are large and complex, bringing very significant construction risks; and thirdly, low confidence that these projects can be delivered on time.

The nuclear industry therefore needs to undertake a radical transformation if it is to rebuild trust and credibility that it can deliver on time and on budget, provide certainty to investors, and confidence to support a political mandate as well as regaining public support.

There some green shoots of hope that nuclear energy can still step up to the challenge. Companies such as Rolls Royce, NuScale and others are pitching plans to build a fleet of new mini reactors priced at around £60 per MWh. Given the fact that one SMR can power a city the size of Leeds, or charge more than 62,000 electric cars, such high volume, reliable, yet flexible output at that price is not to be sniffed at.

To test such claims, a deep, independent analysis of contemporary cost claims by a range of innovative new nuclear companies was recently carried out by Energy Options Network in the United States. The report – “What Will Advanced Reactors Cost?” published by the non-profit Energy Innovation Reform Project, found that next generation reactors do offer the potential to achieve potentially ground-breaking cost reduction.

Advanced nuclear companies are forecasting cost targets at nearly half the cost of conventional nuclear plants. This would dramatically improve the value proposition of and, importantly, a highly cost‐competitive alternative to gas and coal.

The study found several common cost‐reduction strategies that the surveyed companies are pursuing to achieve these drastically reduced cost projections, including:

  • Simpler and standardized plant designs
  • Incorporation of factory‐ and shipyard‐based manufacturing
  • Modularization
  • Lower materials requirements
  • Reduced scope for engineering, procurement, and construction firms
  • Shorter construction time
  • Higher power density
  • Higher efficiency

The Carbon Trust illustrated very well the power of innovation, collaboration and drive to identify and demonstrate cost reduction in offshore wind across key areas including foundations, high voltage cables, electrical systems, access in high seas and wind measurement. No magic wand, just hard work paid off.

Learning from the success of the offshore wind industry: collaboration; cost and risk sharing between Catapults, supply chains and developers will be critical in realising the strategic priorities for the nuclear sector: to tackle construction delay; cost over-runs; slow build rate; and high financing costs. The future lies in modular build and shipyard assembly of mass-produced units that can be manufactured and shipped to sites for installation rather than custom-built, thereby speeding up construction times and lowering direct and financing costs. Technological innovation must be coupled with a laser-like focus on accelerating commercialization of climate solutions, at scale, within mid-century timescales.

Photo Credit: IAEA Imagebank via Flickr

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 19, 2017

Kirsty, though standardized parts/processes will minimize construction headaches with SMRs, using more reactors to generate the same amount of energy has its own set of drawbacks. Duplication of security, labor, maintenance, and regulatory requirements comes at a cost, as do losses in efficiencies of scale for energy, economics, and land use.

Whether one large power plant is safer than multiple smaller ones is a problem with which commercial aircraft designers have been grappling since the 1950s. If one SMR fails and is responsible for a radioactive release, it’s doubtful the public would be comforted by the knowledge its capacity was 40MW vs. 2000MW. So unless we can assume SMRs are 50x safer than their predecessors, we’re multiplying the potential for an accident and a corresponding loss of public confidence.

As in all engineering challenges, creating a successful nuclear design will require successfully balancing reliability and cost, and I suspect over time the trend will gravitate back toward multi-gigawatt plants. Nuclear’s front-loaded economics have led to the perception it’s expensive; what we can never do is let it get too cheap. With power, comes responsibility.

Off-topic: be sure to check out director David Schumacher’s documentary The New Fire, introducing the young, talented engineers in nuclear energy and the new wave of Gen-4 reactor designs. The film premieres in late October at the Cambridge Film Festival.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Sep 20, 2017

Whether one large power plant is safer than multiple smaller ones … public would be comforted …

Some proponents of SMRs are predicting much smaller emergency planning zones around smaller nuclear plants (perhaps limited to the plant boundary). That sort of quantitative improvement should definitely reassure the public.

Also, given that the Fukushima accident was a melt-down caused by station blackout, reactor designs that don’t melt-down in response to station blackout, regardless of duration, should also be very comforting (e.g. NuScale, PRMR, LFTR, etc).

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Sep 20, 2017

In an article about the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee, I was surprised to learn that 2000 people work there.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 20, 2017

Nathan, if the size of emergency planning zones is being proposed by the company which makes them, they will likely be smaller than they should be. That’s not a quiddity of nuclear, coal, or any other technology, but capitalism.

The probability of an SMR catching fire is greater than zero, and it will be correspondingly larger than its manufacturer estimates. If one does, there is little possibility radioactive materials will be contained, and no possibility the public will be comforted by the knowledge radiation outside plant boundaries is limited to “.2µSv/hour” (or any other number, for that matter).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 20, 2017

Hops, Vermont Yankee had 625 employees when it closed in 2013. 243 still work there.

Colin Megson's picture
Colin Megson on Sep 24, 2017

“…I couldn’t agree more. Can the nuclear industry step up to drive down costs…”

Kirsty Grogan, Michael Schellenberger – the two most prominent nuclear power aficionados and our best communicators – what do they do, for all to see? Moan, moan, moan about the cost of nuclear.

Price a 440 MW Rolls-Royce Small Modular Reactor [SMR], using cost formulae constructed by the UK’s top nuclear authority, the National Nuclear Laboratory [NNL], and it works out at £2,200 million.

EDPR/ENGIE are sinking £1,800 million of their cash into the 950 MW Moray East Offshore Windfarm. They have no compunction – backed up by Emma Pinchbeck – in lying about the performance of this windfarm. On average, over its 25 year lifespan, it will deliver [intermittent] electricity to 795,000 UK homes and not the 950,000 headlined. A [near] mere 20% over-representation of the truth.

795,000 x 25 years – 19,875,000

A 440 MW SMR installation will deliver an unvarying amount of of [24/7] electricity to 1,050,000 UK homes – and it will do that for 60 years.

1,050,000 x 60 years – 63,000,000.

That’s 3.17X more [24/7], low-carbon electricity for an investment of £2,200 million, against £1,800 million.

Is it just me who thinks it would be easy to sell to investment fund managers and the investing public that 3.17X more income will result from investing just 22% more capital?

Is it just me who thinks it would be easy to sell to carbon-target motivated politicians that they should be striving to lubricate the way for easy investment and public acceptance of SMRs, on the premiss that we get 3.17X more low-carbon electricity for our money?

Is it just me who thinks we should be communicating to the general public that they will be saving bucket loads of money on their electricity bills if they support SMRs over windfarms. That SMR technology is an order of magnitude safer than ‘big nuclear’. That really high class, secure jobs in abundance can be brought to local communities?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 25, 2017

Is it just me who thinks we should be communicating to the general public that…SMR technology is an order of magnitude safer than ‘big nuclear’…

prismsuk, what’s the basis for this claim?

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Sep 25, 2017

The NuScale reactor/containment unit is held underwater.  The likelihood of one catching fire is as close to zero as can be.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Sep 25, 2017

I largely concur with the idea that (in the developed world) at least, small modular reactors (SMRs) are probably the only option left, given how large reactor projects are going. There is a lot of merit to the approach of building large numbers of small units, getting good at it, and then steadily bringing down cost. After all, that’s what the renewables industry has done. This would greatly reduce financial risks.

The fact of the matter is that there is not enough demand (or demand growth) in the developed world to require a sufficient number of large nuclear units for the industry to ever get good at building them. It’s not even clear if the developing world has enough demand (or stomach for the financial risks). On top of this is the fact that building large numbers of reactor modules at a centralized assembly line factory, with experienced, dedicated staff, will be far better than building individual reactors on site, with different local workforces each time.

That said, I’m not sure that this will be enough to render SMRs economically competitive, given the loss of economy of scale. In addition to the above factors, what’s needed is a fundamental rethink of nuclear regulations and fab QA requirements for SMRs, so that the requirements are in proportion to the (vastly reduced) hazards involved. These excessive requirements (standards of perfection) are the primary reason for nuclear’s high and ever-escalating costs. Basically, SMRs will need to “take credit” for their inherent safety levels, with respect to regulations and requirements, if they are to be competitive.

The probability of meltdown for most SMRs is several orders of magnitude smaller than those of large reactors, largely due to the fact that they can go indefinitely w/o active cooling or electric power. Some SMR developers are questioning or denying if meltdowns are even possible. Even more important is the fact that, even if a meltdown were to somehow occur, the maximum possible release would be a tiny fraction (on the order of 1%) of the possible release for large reactors (due to the much smaller isotope inventory and lower release *fractions* due to the fact that the fuel cannot get nearly as hot). Thus, some SMR developers are saying that, even in the event of a hypothetical (non-mechanistic) worst-case meltdown, dose rates well above the natural range (which would require evacuation) would not occur anywhere outside the site boundary. SMR developers have also stated that even if every component fails, no meltdown or significant release would occur.

Bluntly put, SMRs are simply incapable of inflicting any significant public harm, and they should be regulated accordingly. Fukushima caused few if any deaths. Given that, how is a reactor that is only capable of releasing ~1% of what Fukushima did be considered a threat to public health and safety?

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Sep 26, 2017

According to the NuScale website, their core damage (meltdown) frequency is a factor of 1000 lower than that of today’s reactors”

This is largely due to the fact that, due to the small size and larger surface-area-to-volume-ratio, they can go indefinitely w/o active cooling (i.e., external power supply) thus removing the largest source of meltdown risk (that is what happened at Fukushima).

I find it hard to accept that the amount of release would not matter. It certainly should to the responsible people, and also should to the public. As for the airline industry, how is it that routine crashes (many per year), each killing hundreds of people, is acceptable whereas with nuclear having one release in ~50 years, which kills few if any people is not?

I think that NuScale should be asking what requirements (regulations, QA) can be relaxed while keeping the meltdown frequency about equal to that of the current generation (i.e., one every few decades, especially given the tiny release). If we insist on the same old standards of perfection, despite SMRs’ vastly greater fundamental safety, they will be too expensive and will not be used. That in turn (i.e. using fossil fuels instead of nuclear) would greatly *increase* public health risks.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Sep 26, 2017

“Smaller than it should be?”

This is all nailed down. The EPZ requirements are clear and documented. NuScale does not have the power to change the public dose requirements, and they were not proposing to. The reason for the small zones is that their calculations show that public doses over the (established) limits occur over a much smaller area. The only thing that could “go wrong” is that NRC will disagree with their analysis during the licensing process.

Your assertions about the public’s level of innumeracy and general cluelessness are frustrating to say the least, and I can’t even say that they are wrong. However, govt. agencies, etc.., are responsible for the reactions to such events. It is up to them to ensure that such reactions are justified and scientifically valid.

I believe that a lot of the public’s reaction, to Fukushima, etc.., were based not on dose numbers (which don’t mean anything to them anyway), but on the responses to the event, as dictated by govt. agencies. Most notably are the large, long-term evacuations required by the govt. That’s what instills the notion of Fukushima being an unprecedented, “unacceptable” tragedy.

If a NuScale module melted down, but the govt. did not order any evacuations (short or long term) for any population centers, or perhaps even for anyone at all living around the plant (outside the site boundary), I think it would affect the public’s perceptions. They would recognize that the event was therefore much less serious, and nothing like Fukushima. I think/hope that they would conclude that it is a sign of how much safer these reactor modules are. A lot of this will depend on the public communications (as well as the actual reactions), by both govt. and the press.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Sep 26, 2017

Still an excessive amount for a single small plant. I’ve heard that such plants had staffing levels of less than ~100, back in the ’70s and before the massive escalations of regulations and requirements.

Did those old plant ever release any significant pollution or hurt anyone? No. Meanwhile, US coal was busy killing tens of thousands annually, and causing global warming.

And we wonder why nuclear has gotten so expensive…

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 26, 2017

James, typically one-third of a nuke plant’s staff are security. The ~500-strong security force at Diablo Canyon serves many different functions, including maintaining an onsite automatic weapons firing range. It gets used.
Safety and environmental monitoring requires a significant investment in O&M, but costs for a nuke plant are not out of line compared to fossil fuel refineries and other facilities which work with potentially hazardous materials.
Whether those old plants ever released any significant pollution is a question we may never be able to answer. I live a couple of miles from an EPA Superfund site – the old Lockheed “Skunk Works” – which never released any significant pollution, until significant pollution started showing up in groundwater, Then, they “did”.
I suggest a tour of a nuke plant, if you haven’t taken one. No one is sitting on their hands.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 26, 2017

James, the isotope “inventory” in spent fuel is a soup which (according to IFR developer Charles Till) includes, in some unknown quantity, every possible isotope of every possible element. When you bomb atomic nuclei with neutrons you can never be sure with what you’ll end up.

On what are you basing your claim that SMR fuel ‘cannot get nearly as hot’ as that in large reactors?

There’s no small irony in SMR developers denying meltdowns are even possible, then investigating a hypothetical, worst-case meltdown. Perhaps they should wait until one has been built – though NuScale plans to have an operational prototype by 2022, it currently only exists as a software model,

Bluntly put, the idea some kind of inverse linear correlation exists between a nuclear plant’s output and safety has no basis, nor do statements like “SMRs are simply incapable of inflicting any significant public harm.”

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on Sep 26, 2017

Recent study of electricity generation costs per MWh in Finland, including nuclear, when new plants are built. Extract from the English abstract:

The calculations are carried out by using the annuity method with a real interest rate
of 5 % per annum and prices relevant to Finland with a fixed price level as of March
2017. With the annual peak load utilization time of 8000 hours the production costs
would be for nuclear electricity 42,4 €/MWh, for natural gas based electricity 68,9
€/MWh, condensing peat based electricity 75,7 €/MWh and for coal based electricity
with CCS 75,9 €/MWh, when using a price of 15 €/tonCO2 for the carbon dioxide
emission trading. Of renewable electricity condensing wood based electricity the
production cost is 76,2 €/MWh, that of land based wind electricity (2860 h/a) is 41,4
€/MWh, sea based (3875 h/a) 68,9 €/MWh and solar based (982 h/a) is 99,6 €/MWh.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on Sep 26, 2017

In case anyone is wondering on which case the nuclear price of 42,4 euros is based, it is Olkiluoto 3 EPR costs.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 26, 2017

EP, if it was that easy every reactor would be held underwater.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Sep 26, 2017

Bob, the claim is based on the difference in surface/volume and radioisotope inventory of the SMR compared to GW-scale reactors.  We have existence proofs in naval reactors, several of which have been lost (and of course lost cooling) but none of which have melted down.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 26, 2017

EP, why would total output be dependent on surface/volume of individual fuel elements?

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Sep 26, 2017

Ceteris paribus, total output scales as volume, heat-dissipating area scales as volume to the 2/3 power.  The issue isn’t the individual elements but getting their heat production out of the reactor vessel.  If you can do this passively through the vessel wall, you have no problem.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Sep 27, 2017

if it was that easy every reactor would be held underwater.

Or provide for some other method of cooling.  Ever looked at the S-PRISM design?  The sodium pool is passively air-cooled by convection chimneys.

I’m sure you could tweak old LWR designs to use convection radiators outside the containment to condense steam and return the condensate, making them passively safe also.  The problem isn’t doing these things so much as putting them in as design criteria right at the beginning.

For instance, take the Fukushima BWRs.  Fukushima Daiichi Unit 3 was rated at 2381 MW(th).  After a SCRAM following prolonged output at full power, the heat output drops to about 1% of full within a few seconds.  That’s about 24 megawatts, at a steam temperature of perhaps 300°C.

How hard is it to get rid of 24 MW at 300°C?  At a temperature rise of 200°C, you can get rid of almost 250 kJ of heat to 1 cubic meter of (inlet) air at ambient.  100 square meters of radiator area with air flowing through at 10 m/sec and you’ve handled your 24 MW and then some.  If you’ve heated your air up by 200°C it’s going to be awfully buoyant, so a tall enough chimney should suffice to get your required airflow.

If you want to make the radiators smaller and chimneys shorter, you can use forced airflow.  In the absence of electric power, I believe there are these things called “steam engines” that you could use to run fans given that you’ve got high-pressure steam available.  The same steam engines could run backup generators to keep the plant instrumentation and systems running.  If you need 200 kW of fan and instrumentation power and you can get 5% efficiency from your steam engine, that takes 4 MW of your 24 MW of heat you’re dissipating.  That doesn’t look too hard.  Enthalpy of saturated steam at 450 psia is 1205.6 BTU/lbm, entropy is 1.4746 BTU/lbm-R.  Entropy of saturated steam at 212 F is 1.7567 BTU/lbm-R, entropy of evaporation is 1.4446, outlet steam quality for isentropic expansion is 80%, enthalpy is 960.1 BTU/lbm, isentropic work is 244.6 BTU/lbm, theoretical efficiency about 24% (I’m assuming a condenser at 100 C to keep the size down).  If you can get 15% in reality, you can generate 1 MW of output power using just 6.7 MW of your 24 MW of decay heat.  Pushing 1250 kg/sec of air at 10 m/sec only dissipates 62.5 kW as lost kinetic energy, so it appears you’ve got plenty of margin to play with.

If you’re going for natural convection, how buoyant is that air?  Air at ~20 C and sea-level pressure is about 1.225 kg/m³.  Heat it to 250 C and that falls to about 0.69 kg/m³.  Over a column of air 30 meters high that’s a difference of 16 kg per square meter, about 3.3 pounds per square foot.  That’s the dynamic pressure of about a 35 MPH wind.

It looks like there are a bunch of ways to prevent meltdowns caused by station blackouts, all powered by the decay heat of the reactors themselves.  The problem is nobody designed for that.

tl;dr It’s my opinion that the Fukushima meltdowns were caused by a failure of imagination, and a bit of creativity in the right places would have made the problem go away.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 27, 2017

I have looked at the S-PRISM design, it’s basically a re-packaged IFR and (to me) is the most practical from the standpoints of efficiency of heat transfer, and mechanical economy.

You are obviously well-versed in the physics of heat transfer, and I have no reason to doubt your math. I look at NuScale’s sixty-foot metal cylinder suspended in water then buried underground, using uranium oxide instead of non-expansive metallic uranium fuel, using pressurized steam and plumbing like any PWR but without pumps (big deal). Over time, water + pressure + steel, without access to maintain and inspect it, is a nightmare waiting to happen. A crack in the pool of water (seismicitiy? corrosion? both?) and there will be first steam, then smoke, pouring out of the reactor’s silo in a matter of minutes – and no way to stop it.

Now multiply the places water could leak by a factor of twenty – because that’s how many SMRs utilities will need to duplicate the output of a 1GW “mainframe” reactor. Doesn’t make any sense to me, but by 2022 I have a feeling it won’t make much sense to NuScale either.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 27, 2017

James, all NuScale can do is calculate probabilities. Things are about as nailed down for how an anticipated meltdown would play out as how an anticipated iceberg event would have played out for the Titanic: “Not very.”

Agreed, that the government’s response compounded problems at Fukushima. Public outreach, with facts in hand, will be critical for dealing with inevitable radioactive releases of the future.

Last year I asked Lenka Kollar, NuScale’s Director of Marketing, if there were plans to take her company’s design out in a big desert somewhere and try to force it to melt down – to put its claimed passive safety to the test. She was noncommittal, but admitted it might be the best way to garner the public support NuScale’s design will need going forward.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Sep 27, 2017

using uranium oxide instead of non-expansive metallic uranium fuel

Metallic fuels expand due to irradiation.  Do you think that turning 1 atom into 2, one of which can be a gas, doesn’t increase the volume?  The EBR-II used a sodium bond between the metal fuel and stainless cladding to accomodate swelling.

A crack in the pool of water (seismicitiy? corrosion? both?) and there will be first steam, then smoke, pouring out of the reactor’s silo in a matter of minutes – and no way to stop it.

Except for one thing:  the silo has enough water for 30 days, and 30 days after shutdown the heat production in the reactor core is low enough that air-cooling is sufficient.

The entire reactor/containment can is pulled from the silo for refueling, so draining, inspection and repair of the silo won’t be an issue.  Damaged cans can just be replaced.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Sep 28, 2017

EP, uranium oxide expands too, and reacts with sodium (in the IFR producing Na3(PuU)O4). If there is a cladding breach at the end of a fuel cycle, it not only contaminates the primary coolant loop but introduces the possibility of contaminants plugging cooling channels.

In NuScale’s design, there is little tolerance for expansion – fuel must contact cladding to transfer heat. If cladding breaches, the interaction of superheated uranium oxide with water will create hydrogen and the possibility of hydrogen explosions (Fukushima). Once their fancy silo has filled up with hydrogen a spark of static electricity will cause 30 days of water to disappear in a flash, and make inspection/maintenance moot.

So many good reasons not to go down this path.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Sep 28, 2017

NuScale’s literature says they use standard PWR fuel bundles, reduced to half-length.  Since the NuScale is a PWR there’s no reason for them to do any of the things you’re claiming.  Fuel pellet swelling is a solved problem; there’s a limit to how many MW-days/ton the fuel can take before the fuel pellets impact the cladding, and that’s when you have to change the fuel.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Sep 28, 2017

In NuScale’s design, there is little tolerance for expansion – fuel must contact cladding to transfer heat.

World Nuclear Association says that the heat-transferring fill gas is helium.

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