There’s been an article in the Guardian that’s been circulating around various science blogs recently. There’s a proposal to make what small autonomous nuclear reactors, install them underground, and let them power local areas.
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.
I’m about as big of a nuclear power booster as you’ll meet, and I like the idea in concept. I’m not sure it’ll be practical. Thousands of unsupervised reactors are not going to go down well with the public. In fact, this has been a large focus of the online commentary. Federal regulatory hurdles, local NIMBYism, panicky anti-nuclear activists, you name it. This doesn’t have a chance.
Or at least that’s the consensus. What people forget is that the US isn’t the world. The US, Europe, and the rest of the first world can afford to be picky about their power. Lots of other countries can’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if this technology – should it turn out to be viable – meets with widespread adoption in the developing world. It apparently doesn’t pose a proliferation risk and so presumably there won’t be any too many worries from the international powers that be.
And if it works and the developing world finds itself with cheap energy produced in an essentially emissions-free way, the developed world might just take a second look. Indeed this seems to be what’s happening already:
The first confirmed order came from TES, a Czech infrastructure company specialising in water plants and power plants. ‘They ordered six units and optioned a further 12. We are very sure of their capability to purchase,’ said Deal. The first one, he said, would be installed in Romania. ‘We now have a six-year waiting list. We are in talks with developers in the Cayman Islands, Panama and the Bahamas.’
A potential problem will be waste disposal of course, but I also wonder how these reactors offload their waste heat. Power plants have efficiencies which are usually pretty low, and I can’t imagine a reactor with no moving parts will do much better. 200MW of power could well mean gigawatts of waste heat. Buried at a reasonable depth I suppose it could possibly diffuse adequately, but it seems like there might still be local environmental issues.
So I don’t really know what to think about this technology. I like the idea and I hope it works, but I’m not sure it will. Thoughts?