An atomic solution to the energy crisis
Great progress has been made over the decades since America built its last atomic power plant. These solutions arrive just in time to provide clean and relatively inexpensive energy as we convert from liquid fuels (oil, natural gas) after Peak Oil — sometime in the next ten years or so.
This is a brief update about the prospects for atomic power. For more information about new energy sources, see the FM reference page about Energy.
Small Nuclear Power Reactors
The World Nuclear Association has some excellent materials about small nukes, the cutting edge of the next atomic revolution. The following are excerpts from a July 2008 report.
- There is revival of interest in small and simpler units for generating electricity from nuclear power, and for process heat.
- The interest is driven both by a desire to reduce capital costs and to provide power away from main grid systems.
- The technologies involved are very diverse.
As nuclear power generation has become established since the 1950s, the size of reactor units has grown from 60 MWe to more than 1300 MWe, with corresponding economies of scale in operation. At the same time there have been many hundreds of smaller reactors built both for naval use (up to 190 MW thermal) and as neutron sources, yielding enormous expertise in the engineering of deliberately small units.
Today, due partly to the high capital cost of large power reactors generating electricity via the steam cycle and partly to consideration of public perception, there is a move to develop smaller units. These may be built independently or as modules in a larger complex, with capacity added incrementally as required – see final section of this paper. Economies of scale are provided by the numbers produced. There are also moves to develop small units for remote sites. The IAEA defines “small” as under 300 MWe.
The most prominent modular project is the South African-led consortium developing the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor of of 170 MWe. Chinergy is preparing to build a similar unit, the 195 MWe HTR-PM in China. A US-led group is developing another design with 285 MWe modules. Both drive gas turbines directly, using helium as a coolant and operating at very high temperatures. They build on the experience of several innovative reactors in the 1960s and 1970s.
Generally, modern small reactors for power generation are expected to have greater simplicity of design, economy of mass production, and reduced siting costs. Many are also designed for a high level of passive or inherent safety in the event of malfunction.
The aricle then provides an exhaustive list of small nuke development programs around the world. While Americans cower in fear at the thought of evil nukes, progress is rapid in other nations.
For a brief review of this, see “Neighborhood Nukes“, Forbes, 24 November 2008 – ”Nuclear plants are shrinking to the point where they could power remote towns or a factory at a time.”
Nuclear Batteries: the Hyperion
Small, self-contained atomic power sources. Like the Hyperion power generation system (website). (This is different from the traditional use of the term for devices which direct convert radiation into electricity (Wikipedia).)
“Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes“, The Guardian, 9 November 2008 — “£13m shed-size reactors will be delivered by lorry” Excerpt:
Nuclear power plants smaller than a garden shed and able to power 20,000 homes will be on sale within five years, say scientists at Los Alamos, the US government laboratory which developed the first atomic bomb. The miniature reactors will be factory-sealed, contain no weapons-grade material, have no moving parts and will be nearly impossible to steal because they will be encased in concrete and buried underground.
The US government has licensed the technology to Hyperion, a New Mexico-based company which said last week that it has taken its first firm orders and plans to start mass production within five years. ‘Our goal is to generate electricity for 10 cents a watt anywhere in the world,’ said John Deal, chief executive of Hyperion. ‘They will cost approximately $25m [£13m] each. For a community with 10,000 households, that is a very affordable $2,500 per home.’
Deal claims to have more than 100 firm orders, largely from the oil and electricity industries, but says the company is also targeting developing countries and isolated communities. ‘It’s leapfrog technology,’ he said.
The company plans to set up three factories to produce 4,000 plants between 2013 and 2023. ‘We already have a pipeline for 100 reactors, and we are taking our time to tool up to mass-produce this reactor.”
The Hyperion reactor is a variant of the TRIGA. From Wikipedia:
TRIGA is a class of small nuclear reactor designed and manufactured by General Atomics of the USA. TRIGA is an acronym of “Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics”. The design team for TRIGA was led by the physicist Freeman Dyson.
The TRIGA and Hyperion are broadly similar but the reactor cores are different. The TRIGA has fuel rods in a water pool type reactor; the Hyperion uses a liquid metal reactor (Uranium Hydride).
“Update on Hyperion Power Generation mini-nuclear reactor“, The Next Big Future, 8 November 2008 — This site is one of the best to keep posted on cutting-edge technology. This article provides an excellent background on the Hyperion product, plus valuable links to additional information. Perhaps most important is this discussion about risks:
If you were going to blow it up, it would take a lot of explosives -like blowing up a 15-20 ton buried bank vault. A lot of explosives to penetrate the concrete cask and then more to blow through however many feet of dirt it is buried under. It would not add much to the cost to have sensors and digital video camera security to these things. So extreme tunneling, attempts to move it or blow it up should be easily detectable and action taken.
For the amount of effort and explosives it would take then just take those explosives and add radioactive material (available in mines and in less secure facilities and sources) and then put your dirty bomb anywhere. Thus there is no incremental risk.
The nuclear material is tougher to turn into nuclear bombs than using raw uranium, which a terrorist could get from natural sources (mines etc…). Again no incremental risk (we are adding no new risk as there is an easier existing path).
Let’s not get too excited about this. While the technology is both promising and largely proven, the Hyperion is just “vaporware” at this point (borrowing a term from software engineering).
It is innovative. That means its cost and operating parameters at this point are only guesses. Educated guesses, but still guesses. Hundreds of TRIGA reactors have been built, many with long operating histories. But the Hyperion is, in the words of CEO John Deal, is “employing proven science and engineering, but in a whole new way to achieve a power source that’s safe, secure, and transportable.”
Esp since there are no lab prototypes. No pilot plant. No demonstration plant. No first commercial facility. The company’s press releases are vague about its actual state of development. Is it an idea? A set of plans? Are there table-top lab testbeds?
It has a long way to go before cost and performance are known. New technology can “work” without being commercially feasible. As usual with developers, they say it will be so wonderful that it can skip most of these steps. Hence, mass production will start in a few years.
Other similar nukes
While the Hyperion has received the most publicity lately, there are other small nukes under development — many by large global firms. Such as (from Wikipedia)
The Toshiba 4S (Super Safe, Small and Simple) is a “nuclear battery” reactor design. It requires only minimal staffing.
The plant design is offered by a partnership that includes Toshiba and the Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry (CRIEPI) of Japan. The reactor is located in a sealed, cylindrical vault 30 m (98 ft) underground, while the building above ground would be 22 x 16 x 11 m in size. This power plant is designed to provide 10 Megawatts of power.
The 4S uses neutron reflector panels around the perimeter to maintain neutron density. These reflector panels replace complicated control rods, yet keep the ability to shut down the nuclear reaction in case of an emergency. Additionally, the Toshiba 4S utilizes liquid sodium as a coolant, allowing the reactor to operate 200 degrees hotter than if it used water. This means that the reactor is depressurized, as water at this temperature would run at thousands of pounds per square inch.
The reactor is expected to provide electric energy for between 5 and 13 cents/kWh, factoring in only operating costs. On paper, it has been determined that the reactor could run for 30 years without being refueled. The Toshiba 4S Nuclear Battery is being proposed as the power source for the Galena Nuclear Power Plant in Galena, Alaska.
If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below. You may find answers to your questions in these.
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For more information from the FM site
To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:
Selected FM posts about energy issues
- Links to articles and presentations of some A-team energy experts , 11 November 2007
- Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead , 10 February 2008
- Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war) , 4 May 2008
- An urban legend to comfort America: crash programs will solve Peak Oil, 5 September 2008
- An urban legend to comfort America: alternative energy will save us, 16 September 2008
- A long-shot project for fusion power: the Polywell, 30 September 2008
For more information about atomic power from other sources
- “The Future of Nuclear Power“, MIT, 29 June 2003 — An interdisciplinary MIT study.
- “The Economics of Investment in New Nuclear Power Plants in the US“, Paul L. Joskow (MIT), EIA, 12 April 2005 — PDF, 19 slides.
- “Nuclear power will be added faster than wind power“, posted at Next Big Future, 25 August 2008 — List of nukes under construction.
- “Breeder Reactors, Uranium from Phosphate and Near Term Thorium usage“, posted at Next Big Future, 22 September 2008