Think Small!

Just for a moment let’s consider, in quick bullet fashion, some of the energy problems we face:

  • We continue to need increasing amounts of energy. Increased energy means increased prosperity. Simple as that.
  • Much of our energy is currently produced by burning fossil fuels, e.g. coal, oil, or natural gas.
  • We’re importing an increasing proportion of our oil from parts of the world that are unstable, unfriendly, or both.
  • Whether global warming presents the imminent danger of which some climate scientists, politicians, and activists warn, releasing ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere can’t be a good thing.
  • Lots of people are afraid, rationally or irrationally, of nuclear reactors in their neighborhoods.
  • The legal and regulatory environments in the United States don’t favor building new nuclear power plants.
  • An AP1000 type nuclear power plant costs between $5 billion and $10 billion and five years or more to build.
  • Wind and solar power tend to be most effective where they’re needed least.
  • We’ve probably already potentialized hydroelectric power in the United States.
  • The stagnant water that accumulates behind hydroelectric dams produces lots of methane, i.e. it isn’t enormously cleaner than generating power from fossil fuels and under certain circumstances may even be worse.
  • There are lots of promising new technologies for power generation and/or power storage coming up, e.g. cellulosic ethanol and producing fuel via biological activity, but they remain tantalizingly in the future.

There is a technology for which orders are being taken now for delivery beginning in 2013 that has the potential to solve a significant number of these problems: small scale nuclear power generation.

Imagine a self-contained nuclear power plant about the size of a minivan, buried underground, requiring no maintenance. One example of the technology is the modular “nuclear battery” being produced by Hyperion Power Generation. There’s a good article on these devices here.

A device of this type sidesteps most of the complaints about nuclear power generation. It’s inherently safe and secure, it’s buried underground and, consequently, invisible, its modular structure presents a nominal construction lead time, and, importantly, with its $25 million price tag, it’s a lot easier to finance than what we usually think of as a nuclear power station. Among other things that means that its potential customer base is a lot larger.

This approach is not without problems. For example, there may be a bottleneck in the production of its uranium hydride fuel. The more important problem will probably be regulatory—the plan is still awaiting approval and I suspect that Westinghouses of the nuclear energy world may throw up what roadblocks they can to prevent new kids from poaching in their neighborhood.

I doubt that waste disposal will be the problem with this approach that it is with old technology nuclear power generation since the spent fuel is most likely to be reprocessed into new uranium hydride. I also think that’s why its designers and developers think of it as a nuclear battery rather than as conventional nuclear power generation.

Small, discrete, modular nuclear power generation has many advantages over our current system. Beyond the advantages I’ve listed above it lends itself better to redundancy and would be more resilient to attack or disaster than the old large scale nuclear technology. We have a model for such a dispersed, redundant, resilient system, the Internet, and a new power system could be implemented the same way the Internet has been: piecemeal.

I continue to think that the energy future will be a more diverse one than the energy past, dominated by coal, oil, hydroelectric, and nuclear has been. The old technologies must be augmented and, where appropriate, supplanted by wind, solar, geothermal, and other approaches. And in that new, diverse energy future small scale nuclear power generation may plan an important role.

14 comments… add one
  • malthus

    The quick way to make life better in Amerika is to stop the financial support of breeding and return tax dollars to producers. The plants, animals and atmosphere would be happier, as would all those who slave away to pay for all the youth mis-educated at great expense by sinecured unionized god-awful teachers.

  • A device of this type sidesteps most of the complaints about nuclear power generation. It’s inherently safe and secure, it’s buried underground and, consequently, invisible, its modular structure presents a nominal construction lead time, and, importantly, with its $25 million price tag, it’s a lot easier to finance than what we usually think of as a nuclear power station. Among other things that means that its potential customer base is a lot larger.

    Not sure about the power output, but I’d bet that you’d have a more distributed generation system as well, that could result in savings in terms of distribution/transmission systems. One reactor serving 5,000 households within a given radius wont require the transmission lines to bring in the power form 45 miles away. You’ll also have less line losses as well.

    The more important problem will probably be regulatory—the plan is still awaiting approval and I suspect that Westinghouses of the nuclear energy world may throw up what roadblocks they can to prevent new kids from poaching in their neighborhood.

    Well as you’ve been saying “rent seeking is the new growth industry”. And I’ll take this opportunity to point out the naivete of the liberal progressives one more time.

    Small, discrete, modular nuclear power generation has many advantages over our current system. Beyond the advantages I’ve listed above it lends itself better to redundancy and would be more resilient to attack or disaster than the old large scale nuclear technology.

    Not so much redundancy, but since generation would be distributed it would be harder to take out all power generation with a single strike. Typically in something like this you aren’t going to get much redundancy since that tends to raise costs. This was one of the problems with California when it deregulated. The system was built with least cost in mind given that there was enough generation capacity and transmission/distribution to meet peak demand needs and that was it.

  • Brett

    Interesting post, Dave. I do have one question after reading that article – wouldn’t it require a steady supply of water to turn into steam if you want it to generate electricity? They never discussed that in the article. I doubt it would be a major problem, considering the smaller size of the reactor, but if I’m wrong on this let me know (I know there are designs out there for nuclear plants that don’t use water steam to drive turbines for electrical power, but I don’t know if this design is among them). The whole “sealed, underground” bit made me initially wonder if it was a giant RTG instead of an actual reactor.

    And I’ll take this opportunity to point out the naivete of the liberal progressives one more time.

    You’re confusing Progressives with the combination of NIMBYs and environmentalist “small is beautiful” type of people that usually block these improvements.

  • Sam

    Brett:
    There is a condenser so it appears the water is a closed circuit system.

  • You’re confusing Progressives with the combination of NIMBYs and environmentalist “small is beautiful” type of people that usually block these improvements.

    No I’m not, I’m pointing out that progressives either lack an appreciation for how this can gum of the works of government or simply ignore it. If you give a representative democratic government increased power why should we assume that power will be used for good? That is where liberal progressives fall down, IMO. The fall for the wise-leader fallacy, and when somebody like Bush gets elected they go temporarily insane.

  • steve

    Having read some on this, I tend to think this is an economically feasible alternative. I suspect the Westinghouses will buy it up if they come on line. Also, arent there Thorium alternatives planned? The remaining issue is security. It would prevent a lot of targets.

    Steve

  • I think that thorium has real potential but it’s still a few more years down the road.

  • tejas

    Nice idea, but there’s a problem with one of your bullet points…..

    “Whether global warming presents the imminent danger of which some climate scientists, politicians, and activists warn, releasing ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere can’t be a good thing.”

    Yes it can be a good thing. Stop buying into the CO2 is evil BS.
    CO2 absorbs only a certain wavelengths of light, and its close to saturation already. Doubling the the amount of CO2 wouldn’t double the effect.
    The only thing evil about CO2 is increased plant growth… oh wait, that’s a good thing.

    http://www.heartland.org/books/SkepticsHandbook.html

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