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Small reactors may save us yet.
Griz Deal had been Entrepreneur in Residence at the Los Alamos Laboratory for only six months when he saw something he liked.
“I had been thinking in terms of taking some technology for sterilizing food with radiation,” he says, sitting in his corporate offices in New Mexico. “There seemed to be a niche market in that. Then I went into John Peterson’s office and saw a reactor he had designed that was about the size of two hot tubs. He said he thought they might be able to use it in the tar sand fields of Canada. I knew immediately it could have wider application. It was so obvious it seemed amazing no one had ever thought of it before.”
Six weeks later, Hyperion Power Systems was incorporated and Deal was out marketing the 125-megawatt reactor, big enough to power a town of about 20,000 people. At first customers hesitated because there seemed no chance that Hyperion would ever get the design through the glacially slow licensing procedures at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Washington bureaucracy that controls all things nuclear in the United States. But in August Hyperion signed a memorandum of understanding to build a prototype of the Hyperion at the Savannah River Site, a weapons-producing installation in South Carolina that lies outside the NRC’s jurisdiction. Then, in November, Hyperion entered an agreement with several European countries to start exploring the possibility of powering ocean-going oil tankers and transport carriers with nuclear engines. Contrary to all expectations, it appears that American companies may be able to participate in the nuclear renaissance that is sweeping the rest of the globe after all.
That America is going to miss the revival of nuclear power that is reaching into the remotest corners of the globe is now almost a foregone conclusion. While the rest of the world is discovering what will undoubtedly be the principal source of power by the end of the 21st century, Americans are preoccupied with how many picocuries of tritium are leaking out of Vermont Yankee or whether we’ll ever get around to deciding what to do with Yucca Mountain. There are 60 new reactors under construction around the world in countries as diverse as Brazil, Argentina, Lithuania, India, and Sri Lanka. Twenty are being built in China alone. Kenya, Indonesia, Morocco, Bangladesh — all have entered into agreements with one provider nation or another to begin plans on their own nuclear program.
Thirty years ago, the big three American companies — General Electric, Westinghouse, and Babcock & Wilcox — dominated the international market, building reactors in Europe and Asia. Today the field is completely dominated by foreign giants. Areva, 80 percent owned by the French government, is building in China, India, and Finland. Westinghouse, bought by Toshiba in 2008, has projects all around the globe. General Electric, still in the field but running in last place, recently partnered with Hitachi in the hope of reviving its fortunes. Russia’s Rosatom has deals with Vietnam, India, Egypt, Brazil, and Venezuela. The biggest shock came when the United Arab Emirates put out bids to build four reactors in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Areva and Westinghouse figured to be the contenders but both were upended by Korea, which only started building its own reactors five years ago. The Koreans won a $20 billion contract in late 2009, the largest international construction job in history. Yet all this will change once again when China enters the international market with its own design (reverse-engineered from Westinghouse) somewhere around 2013. France, which prides itself on being 80 percent nuclear, is already fearful that it will be closed out of the market by the rising Asian competition.
So how can America possibly fit into the highly competitive race to provide what is surely going to be the dominant energy source of the 21st century? Believe it or not, we still have a chance — with small reactors.
LAST MARCH, in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he praised small modular reactors (SMRs) as “America’s New Nuclear Option,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu acknowledged that America is in danger of falling behind other countries. “Our choice is clear,” he wrote. “Develop these technologies today or import them tomorrow.” In fact, America is the only major nuclear country that does not even have the capacity to forge the three-story steel vessel heads at the heart of large reactors and will have to import them as well. But Chu saw an opportunity in the new small designs. “If we can develop this technology in the U.S. and build these reactors with American workers, we will have a key competitive edge.”
Bite-sized reactors offer a whole spectrum of advantages. First, in terms of safety, they are much easier to handle. Temperatures do not reach the same level so there is minimal chance of overheating. Huge containment structures do not have to be built — and in fact some are being designed with a built-in containment. Modular reactors can actually be buried, which more or less eliminates the possibility that even the worst-case accident could have any serious widespread consequences.
Modular units can be built at the factory and then shipped to the site by rail for final assembly — a huge cost saving. Moreover, they can be added in small increments. One of the great disadvantages of contemporary 1,700-megawatt reactors is that they represent a colossal investment — upwards of $10 billion — and may take the better part of a decade to complete. For a country like the United Arab Emirates building its first reactor, this makes sense. But American utilities are facing an uncertain future and are incurring almost unacceptable risks by undertaking such long-term projects. Reactors in the 50-to-150-megawatt range will allow utilities to add power as needed at acceptable costs.
The construction of modular reactors presents the possibility that smaller nuclear “batteries” can be distributed across the electric grid, tucked into factories and urban locations, so that transmission costs can be minimized and efficient co-generation uses designed. One of the main criticisms of power plants in general is that they convert only about one-third of the energy input into useful electricity. The process of boiling steam to turn an electric turbine means that two-thirds of the energy escapes as waste heat. If the steam can be captured and routed to heating or industrial purposes, however, energy use can become almost twice as efficient. This is difficult when the power plant is located on an isolated compound miles from the nearest city. But if people can overcome their fears and tolerate small reactors in their neighborhood, the possibilities become enormous. “Everybody talks about electricity but we’re an enormous consumer of industrial steam,” says Doug May, vice president for energy at Dow Chemical. “We see small reactors as a game changer.”
Finally, there is the possibility that nuclear “batteries” can bring power to remote locations that are difficult or impossible to serve by other means. Because of the extraordinary fuel density of uranium — approximately 2,000 times the output per pound as coal — small modular reactors can essentially be stocked with fuel rods and then run without interruption for five years. This would be invaluable in the tar sands of Saskatchewan, where huge amounts of natural gas are now being consumed in order to distill the heavy hydrocarbons into usable fractions. Several remote villages in Alaska are being courted by SMR manufacturers. A reactor buried in the basement of a single building could power a town of 20,000 without ever being noticed.
A HOST OF COMPANIES have already jumped into the field with innovative ideas. NuStart, a company founded by Paul Lorenzini, a former Los Alamos scientist, has a 150-MW reactor designed to fit into utility sites. It runs for five years and then the manufacturer hauls it away for refueling. Lorenzini places the costs at $700 million — chicken feed for electric utilities.
Babcock & Wilcox, which has not built a reactor since the ill-fated Three Mile Island, has introduced mPower, a 175-MW reactor that is cooled by air and can be located anywhere. The company hopes to have a completed design by 2011 and is making plans to build an experimental model with the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Radix, a small Long Island start-up, has a design for a reactor of only 5 megawatts that is intended to run forward base operations for the U.S. Army. “We looked at the requirements and realized that nothing else works nearly as well,” says Dr. Paul Farrell, a nuclear scientist who founded the company. “Anything involving liquid fuels involves a whole vulnerable supply chain and renewables like solar and wind just don’t provide enough power. But our reactor can fit on a truck and support an encampment of 100 people.”
In fact, the whole idea of using small reactors has been accepted by the military for decades. Nuclear submarines are powered by 50-MW reactors that sit a few feet away from crew members and run for five years without refueling. Admiral Hyman Rickover operated the Nuclear Navy on impeccable standards and there has never been an accident or a life lost due to radiation exposure. Since the 1990s, nuclear reactors now power aircraft carriers as well. The reactors aboard Nimitz class carriers are slightly bigger — 194 megawatts — and supply electricity for what amounts to a small floating city of 2,000 people. Again, there has never been an accident.
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H/T to National Review Online