Small Is Beautiful Nuclear Industry Pins Hopes on Mini-Reactors
The nuclear energy industry hopes to secure its future through miniature nuclear reactors. The small underground plants will supposedly be safer than large plants, and would lower the cost of electricity from nuclear power. But critics say that the electricity the plants produce will be too expensive and warn of the risk of proliferation.
In Galena, a town in icy central Alaska, energy is indispensable -- but expensive. Although diesel generators provide plenty of electricity, the town's roughly 600 residents regularly receive monthly electric bills in the hundreds of dollars.
But the future could soon arrive in this tiny town on the Yukon River. "Super-Safe, Small and Simple," or "4S," is the name of a machine that could soon be buried 30 meters (98 feet) below the icy soil and placed into service.
The hot core of the device, developed by the Japanese company Toshiba, measures only 2 meters by 0.7 meters (6 feet 7 inches by 2 feet 4 inches). But despite its diminutive size, it is expected to deliver 10 megawatts of electricity. "4S" is a nuclear reactor, and Galena could become a test case for a new kind of electricity generation.
The nuclear power industry hopes to secure its future with miniature reactors for civilian use. The concept of mini nukes that could produce up to 300 megawatts of electricity has been remarkably well received, particularly in the United States. Nine designs are competing for the attention of electric utilities and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the government agency that regulates nuclear power plants.
The Nuclear PR Machine
Critics, like physicist Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, are convinced that the projects are all in the "stage of fantasy." Jim Riccio, a nuclear expert with the environmental organization Greenpeace, blames the "hype" on the "well-oiled PR machine of the nuclear industry."
But the movement has prominent supporters. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, for example, has invested in a company called TerraPower, which plans to build innovative small reactors. US President Barack Obama has pledged to provide $54 billion (40 billion) in loan guarantees for the nuclear industry.
And for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who is a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, it goes without saying that a portion of these loan guarantees will be available for miniature reactors of what he calls the "plug and play" variety. Small modular reactors are "one of the most promising areas" in the nuclear industry, Chu wrote recently in an enthusiastic opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
Proponents of nuclear power present the following arguments in favor of the idea:
- Small reactors could become available in the future at bargain prices of less than $600 million, and they would only take two to three years to build. By comparison, reactors in the gigawatt range cost more than $5 billion, and financing is often a challenge. Some projects, such as the current construction of a new reactor in Olkiluoto, Finland, are years behind schedule and vastly over budget.
- Because they are delivered pre-assembled, mini-reactors could also be used in countries without domestic nuclear experts. The plants produce about as much energy as gas or coal power plants and could therefore simply replace them. Existing power grids and turbines could still be used.
- The miniature reactors unleash their fissile power from locations deep underground, which would make it difficult for terrorists to steal fissile material.
"Small nuclear reactors are cheaper, safer and more flexible," raves Tom Sanders, president of the American Nuclear Society. Sanders wants to mass-produce nuclear power plants, just as Henry Ford did with cars in his time, and make them available around the world, particularly in developing countries.
"There is certainly a global interest in these kinds of systems," says Chris Mowry of Babcock & Wilcox, a producer of nuclear power plants based in Lynchburg, Virginia. In the past, the company earned much of its revenue with reactors that power nuclear submarines, but now it has developed one of the most promising mini-reactors for civilian energy use.
The mPower reactor is a conventional, 125-megawatt pressurized water reactor. Once it has been buried underground, it is expected to continue producing electricity for 60 years. One of the device's most appealing features is that spent fuel assemblies are stored in the reactor shell, making them virtually inaccessible. The steam generator is also integrated into the unit.
"All key components can be manufactured in one single factory," Mowry says enthusiastically. Three large US electric utilities have shown interest in the technology. The utilities are particularly attracted to the idea of building nuclear power plants in modular fashion in the future. When one reactor has run its course, the next one can be ordered. However, the mPower reactor has yet to obtain NRC approval, which could take years.
A consortium led by US nuclear power producer Westinghouse is pursuing a similar approach. Its Iris reactor would produce 335 megawatts of power and is one of the leading candidates for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP).
- Part 1: Nuclear Industry Pins Hopes on Mini-Reactors
- Part 2: Old Reactors Returned Like Empty Deposit Bottles