Built on Facts

Backyard Nuclear Reactors

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?

Comments

  1. #1 Kobra
    November 10, 2008

    The waste disposal is going to be a big problem. If you’re going deep underground anyway, why not just build more efficient geothermal power plants?

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    November 10, 2008

    The article mentions an estimated $2500 per household cost for a typical installation. That’s a lot of money by the standards of many third world countries, several times per capita GDP in some cases.

    Kobra asks a good question: what is the cost of these things relative to a comparable geothermal plant? The fact that they intend to mass produce the power plants helps (the real reason nuclear power has never taken off in the US is that in this country nuclear plants are essentially custom built, making the construction cost too high; in countries like France that are more heavily into nuclear power the plants are taken from standard designs, resulting in significantly lower construction costs). However, the geothermal plants could be mass produced, too. Given the inherent advantages of geothermal power (no waste products, minimal waste heat, no need to refuel), the nuclear plants would have to have a substantially lower cost per kilowatt to be viable.

  3. #3 Tom
    November 10, 2008

    What I’ve read is that these are 25 MWe and 70 MW thermal; the cost is touted as $250 per household per year for ~20,000 homes (or $500/yr for 10,000) over a 5-year period. Not sure how it would deal with peak loads larger than a ~1 kW per home – this would presumably provide baseline power, not peak power, which you’d get from elsewhere on the grid. But 8760 kWh at $500 is less than 6 cents per kWh.

    It appears to be a boiling-water reactor with a negative coefficient of reactivity: up to the rated limit, the power response would naturally follow the demand (more load gives a drop in temperature, which increases the fission rate, which heats it back up)

    What they don’t explain is if there are no moving parts, how do you turn it on/off? I assume this means no moving parts for normal operation.

  4. #4 rfguy
    November 10, 2008

    Hyperion’s website says they’re 70MW thermal, 25MW electric. Also “Enough power for 5+ years…After 5 years, removed & refueled at original factory”, so it looks like waste disposal would be dealt with at the factory, and not left to the customer. As for Kobra’s comment, not all areas have good geothermal potential, and I don’t think these reactors will be buried that far underground (geothermal energy typically requires drilling hundreds or thousands of meters down).
    -mark.

  5. #5 Mark Francis
    November 10, 2008

    This won’t be a solution for much of anything on a global scale unless production is way higher. Even with large nuclear plants, which obviously produce huge amounts of power, estimates are that we can’t build them fast enough to put a dent in global warming. I can’t see small ones doing better.

    With the units going back to the factory for re-fuelling, doesn’t that mean that the country hosting the factory is stuck dealing with the spent fuel? NIMBY is one thing, but having toxic pollution imported is quite another.

  6. #6 Pierce R. Butler
    November 10, 2008

    Future generations will for millennia be so grateful for the legacy of toxic radwaste distributed across the planet so that their ancestors could use blow-dryers instead of having to towel off their hair.

  7. #7 Aubrey
    November 10, 2008

    You should comment on those fusion reactors mentioned in the google tech talks….. Search “fusion talk” on video.google.com , there are 2 videos.

  8. #8 Uncle Al
    November 10, 2008

    TV, lights, air conditioning, stove, computer, laundry iron… charging the electric car. Gonna need about 10 kW-electrical/home at peak to cover butt and contingencies. That’s your 200 MW-electrical for 20,000 residences. Has somebody invented an electricity-producing nuclear reactor? Conversion efficiencies. BULLSHIT on the reactor. Average power consumption is meaningless.

    Like electing Marion Berry Mayor of urban Washington, DC (pre-convicted), I’d put the first one in Pripyat (in the former Ukrainian SSR).

  9. #9 Zifnab
    November 10, 2008

    I never understood the fascination with nuclear energy when solar energy always struck me as far more cheap and abundant. Where you can you put a nuclear reactor – even a small one – that you can’t put a solar panel? Or a wind turbine, for that matter? You don’t need a fuel source, much less something as questionably difficult to deal with as uranium. You don’t have the massive ecological mess potential. Solar and wind plants produce straight electricity, no need to dirty up water and push it through a turbine.

    Nuclear power always struck me as silly.

    That said, while $2500 (or $250, whichever the figure) is quite a bit of money for a third world household, my bet is that third world households aren’t using 200 megawatts of power a year anyway, so you could probably spread that sort of production out over a larger community. So if you did decide to drop one of these reactors in third world Africa, you could power whole cities simply because there just aren’t that many electronics to juice up.

  10. #10 Dunc
    November 10, 2008

    There are a few questions that immediately spring to mind…

    1. How many can you actually make, and how quickly?
    2. What’s the full-lifecycle EROEI?
    3. What does your upstream supply chain look like? Can it scale?
    4. “Nearly impossible to steal”? If you’ve got 25 million bucks worth of hardware lying around, somebody is going to figure out how to steal it. As it’s only got a 5 year service lifetime, it must be designed for easy installation and removal, so all you need is the right equipment… Anybody want to buy a slightly-used nuclear reactor at a knock-down price?

  11. #11 Kobra
    November 10, 2008

    @4: True; geothermal does require drilling much deeper. Do we have the technology to drill that far into the earth? If not, what’s stopping us?

    Another question that I’d like to find the answer to is, “How can we make geothermal power more efficient?”

  12. #12 Carl Brannen
    November 10, 2008

    Stealing one would be pretty tough. Even if the electric company was completely oblivious you’d still have 25,000 people wondering what happened to their electric power. How far can you get away before somebody notices?

    As far as nuclear waste, the ground near the plant eventually would become radioactive and need disposal. The stuff that is within the disposal necessity cannot connect to ground water. I would guess that they would dig a pit large enough to fully contain the irradiated material and then, eventually, dig it back up and dispose of it.

    The earth already has huge amounts of natural radioactivity. Adding a few hundred thousand of these type of units will not make an appreciable difference. What makes it dangerous is that it is concentrated radioactivity. But the flip side of concentrated is “limited in area”.

    This reminds me of the idiots who say that drilling for oil in Alaska will ruin the place. Alaska is about 1/3 the size of the Continental US. The US has about 510,000 oil wells but most people hardly ever see one. The earth is big, oil wells are small.

    The global warming fiasco will probably collapse over the next year or two. The “Cloud Collaboration” physicists at CERN (who include particle physicists much smarter than the people who major in “climate modeling”) are beginning experiments designed to show the relationship between climate and the sunspot cycle. They should have results fairly soon. Then global warming goes away, and with goes most of the publo’s respect for green “science”.

  13. #13 MikeB
    November 10, 2008

    Quite apart from the economics of the idea (when since did the nuclear industry come in on time or budget?), you have to ask why anyone would want more nuclear material scattered around the place? It really doesn’t matter if the material is weapons grade or not, someone is going want it, especially in areas where there is little central control and too little cash.

    It sounds a bit like those small nuke generators the Russians used to have. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find them all after the fall of central control, and (according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists some time ago)some guys ended up dead after they found one in a forest and tried to take it apart for scrap.

    I’m with Dunc and Zifnab – way too complicated, with too many downsides.

  14. #14 Matt Springer
    November 10, 2008

    “I never understood the fascination with nuclear energy when solar energy always struck me as far more cheap and abundant. Where you can you put a nuclear reactor – even a small one – that you can’t put a solar panel?”

    Anywhere you need power at night, for starters. Then there’s places with lots of cloud cover, or high latitudes, or places with high power density needs, or places you need large peak capacity, or places where you won’t want to cause the nearly same environmental damage as just paving the whole place over.

    The fundamental limitation is that in perfect conditions you have 1000W/m^2 available, max. Averaged out with cloud cover and night, that drops to under 200W/m^2 in most of the US. It’s less than that in most of Europe. And that’s assuming 100% conversion efficiency, which most panels don’t even remotely approach.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like solar too. I’d like to see it all over the place, especially in geographic locations with high insolation. But as the foundation of our energy supply, it’s not going to work for the foreseeable future.

  15. #15 Eric Lund
    November 10, 2008

    The groundwater issue mentioned in #12 reminds me that there are quite a few places where these power plants should not be installed. Any place with a water table close to ground level is a worry if the waste products escape–it’s not just the radioactivity but the fact that a significant fraction of the waste is in the form of heavy metals, which you definitely *don’t* want in your water supply. Also, the waste heat problem rules out areas with permafrost, which would melt, causing damage to buildings and roads in the vicinity as the newly thawed ground shifts (this is the same phenomenon which produces frost heaves on roads in places like New England).

    As for stealing one of these things: Yes, it’s hard, but certainly not impossible. Bribing the watchmen would almost certainly be part of the scheme. And if power in the area were unreliable (or in the opposite limit, when a given reactor is providing what is normally spare capacity), the customers might not notice right away that something unusual is happening.

  16. #16 Ron
    November 10, 2008

    Color me extremely skeptical about the cost, reliability, safety, and even the ability to manufacture any new, untested technology, promised by a new company I’ve never heard of, which is taking orders and presumably still seeking funding. (When has a new company ever given the public a realistic engineering assessment of the risks of their venture?) While miles ahead of the likes of Blacklight Power in that their promises do not outright break the laws of physics, they seem awfully close to what folks in software call vaporware. I’ll believe it when I see it delivered working on time and budget.

  17. #17 Zifnab
    November 10, 2008

    Anywhere you need power at night, for starters. Then there’s places with lots of cloud cover, or high latitudes, or places with high power density needs, or places you need large peak capacity, or places where you won’t want to cause the nearly same environmental damage as just paving the whole place over.

    We’ve got respectable enough battery technology that we can pick up power in the morning and draw it back out at night. Even nukes have a supply / demand problem, although its usually the reverse – high supply when no one is using electricity that can result in a meltdown – but there are a number of techniques for storing excess nuclear capacity and discharging it during peak hours. I think the classic and arguably one of the most efficient just involves pumping water up a hill and letting it drain back down through a turbine later on.

    Modern nuclear reactors are also typically positioned fairly far off from major urban centers. We have a reactor about a hundred miles outside of Houston based in Victoria, for instance. We just pipe in the electricity with wires, no problem. No reason you could have large wind farms or solar collection fields that do the same thing.

    The fundamental limitation is that in perfect conditions you have 1000W/m^2 available, max. Averaged out with cloud cover and night, that drops to under 200W/m^2 in most of the US. It’s less than that in most of Europe. And that’s assuming 100% conversion efficiency, which most panels don’t even remotely approach.

    This is one of the bigger hurdles and its being tackled aggressively. Just check out Nano-solar or LDK Solar or any of the myriad other solar power start-ups. That said, assuming you get a mere 200W/m^2, converting your roof to solar cells (assuming a 100 m^2 living space) still gets you 20kw a day.

    http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_much_electricity_does_the_average_American_household_use

    The average American uses about 938 kW hours a month or roughly 31 kw hours a day. So, without wasting a square inch of someone else’s real estate, you pay for 2/3rds of your energy bill. You’re never going to achieve that level of finesse with a nuclear reactor.

    Assuming you go out and build a fancy smancy photovoltaic plant in the middle of Arizona, how much juice could you pump out to Phoenix or Flagstaff?

    I just don’t see the pay off in the long run. Solar arrays come out in sheets. Nuclear reactors sit in giant concrete blocks. Solar cells can fit in your wrist watch or cover an entire office building. Nuclear reactors have to be contained in remote locations (far below the earth, deep in the wilderness, NIMBY) and monitored by skilled technicians.

    I just don’t see the viability in the long run.

  18. #18 CCPhysicist
    November 10, 2008

    I don’t have time to read all of the comments to see if this has been mentioned, but anything capable of powering 20,000 homes is not going to be in your “backyard”. It is going to be at your friendly neighborhood substation, because it will need all of that infrastructure to connect it to the grid that serves those 20,000 homes. That means electrocution by high voltage will be the first line of defense for the installation.

    Cost is mentioned in #2, but have you looked at the cost of installing 1 kWe of solar electric power? It’s not $2500, particularly if it is going to store what is needed to get 1 kWe at night.

  19. #19 scanner
    November 10, 2008

    lol These are slowpoke reactors – I would bet a weeks cheetos. the only reactor ever licensed to run unsupervised (Safe Low-Power Kritical Experiment)
    “In the early 1980′s AECL developed a higher-power variant of this technology, called SLOWPOKE-3, which could act as a district heating source for remote communities. Such locations are often heated with networked hot-water systems that require a constant fossil-fuel supply. The SLOWPOKE-3 is similar in many ways to SLOWPOKE-2, but bigger. It operates in the range of 2-10 MW (100 times the power of SLOWPOKE-2), uses more fuel in a slightly larger core, sits in a deeper pool, and incorporates heat exchangers that remove the heat for external applications. Coolant circulation is still by natural convection in the pool, and the system was designed, like SLOWPOKE-2, to operate unattended for periods of time. The fuel in SLOWPOKE-3 consists of 5% enriched Zircaloy-clad UO-2 elements, and at 10 MW operation, needs to be replaced every three years.”
    From http://www.nuclearfaq.ca/cnf_sectionH.htm#g3
    The Toshiba varient uses sodium for heat transfer and generates 40 MW, but because of the heat transfer system must be run with supervision. The original Slowpoke 1 generated 5000 watts (teakettle).

  20. #20 Carl Brannen
    November 10, 2008

    That people would think these would get stolen is risible. The heavy metal problem at one of these would be fully contained in the vessel and not much of a problem.

    On the other hand, if everyone has their private solar and battery installation in their house, you will find that huge amounts of heavy metals will be released into the air and ground every time someone’s house burns down. Batteries use lead.

    A lot of people seem to ignore the problems for every way of making power other than green. As soon as some method of generating power in a green way becomes viable, the greenies will turn against it. This was done with ethanol beginning earlier this year. As other technologies come on line, the same people will have the same objections to them. What they want is not something that is attainable. The end result will be that more and more coal will be burned, if not here, than in other parts of the world.

    By the way, did you notice that the US now has 200 billion barrels of oil in North Dakota and that it’s now being pumped? This is an oil field 8x larger than the largest in Saudi Arabia. Some people are saying it will eliminate US oil imports. Do a search for Bakken+oil.

  21. #21 Matt Springer
    November 10, 2008

    “As soon as some method of generating power in a green way becomes viable, the greenies will turn against it.”

    I have noticed this, and I think it’s unfortunate. Senator Kennedy in particular is notorious in this regard.

  22. #22 Notkieran
    November 11, 2008

    If it’s pebble-bed reactors (article doesn’t say), then there should be less radiation leakage from them than from downstream of your average coal-fired plant.

    Why the fascination with nuclear power? Because nuclear power simply _concentrates_ a lot of power into a tiny volume- far smaller than solar or wind or any other “renewable” energy source. And it’s portable. And the supplies far outstrip any other non-renewable source, especially if you allow u-238 to be bred to Pu-139.

    And if you keep it running at all times to charge batteries and ultracapacitors, the heat loss might not be a problem, especially if the secondary coolant coil is kept running at all times, so that any heat that isn’t used for conversion purposes.

    Why _not_ nuclear power? Just arguing that other sources are available is not good enough; there has to be clear and definite reasons why _not_ nuclear power.

  23. #23 Bexley
    November 11, 2008

    @ Carl

    “As soon as some method of generating power in a green way becomes viable, the greenies will turn against it. This was done with ethanol beginning earlier this year.”

    Dont think you picked the right one there. Currently turning food into ethanol into electricity seems a bad idea. I don’t have any massive objections to expanding nuclear though (so long as someone tells me what they’re planning with waste – in the UK right now there isnt much clear thinking on this).

  24. #24 Dunc
    November 11, 2008

    As soon as some method of generating power in a green way becomes viable, the greenies will turn against it.

    While that’s not entirely true, it’s also not entirely unreasonable – it’s only once things actually turn out to be viable and you start scaling them up that you realise where the problems are. Would you prefer an approach that simply ignored new data?

  25. #25 Tim G
    November 11, 2008

    At least one article stated $25 million for 25 MWe capacity. That’s $1000 per kilowatt capacity. Post #2 cited $2500 per home as being too much for third world nations, but that figure assumed a 2.5 kilowatt capacity per home, which would address current needs of typical U.S. households. Of course, there will be other costs as well but the initial $1000 per kilowatt capacity doesn’t seem like a bad start.

    I wonder how well these could be adapted to submarines be they for a third world navies or for research.

    Many folks think more by way of association than real analysis. Nuclear technology is still considered inhuman by humanists. Still, as global temperatures continue to rise steadily, a second look at fission will be tolerated. I think more fission plants, research into photovoltaics and fusion is warranted. More efficient energy use is also part of the solution. Hybrid cards, LED lighting, etc will help along those lines.

  26. #26 CS
    November 11, 2008

    We’ve got respectable enough battery technology that we can pick up power in the morning and draw it back out at night.

    Those large batteries in hybrid vehicles that cost thousands of dollars hold about 1 kWh of energy. That is enough to run a single lightbulb overnight. Your average home is going to require 5-10 of these batteries to handle typical electrical loads. In other words, using the latest large scale battery technology, expect to pay at minimum $10,000 (likely much more) per household to store solar energy for use overnight. And those batteries need to be replaced after about 10 years or so. We do NOT have respectable enough battery technology for something such as large scale grid energy storage. Never mind the fact that the 1000′s of tons of batteries needed to store the energy are primarily composed of toxic or dangerous chemicals.

    There are other options, such as pumping water up to high elevations using excess power during the day and use the water to drive a turbine at night. That is far more efficient, cheaper, and less dangerous than batteries. However, it is still cheaper to build new power plants than trying to implementing something such as this. It is much easier and cheaper to produce power when it is needed than it is to store energy for later use.

  27. #27 CS
    November 11, 2008

    While these things could potentially be stolen, I think it is very unlikely bringing in digging equipment and a crane necessary to remove this from deep in the ground is going to go unnoticed. That is not exactly something that could be done in 20 minutes. It might take days to unbury, disconnect, and remove one of these.

    Also, a reactor kicking off a few MW of heat just MIGHT be visible to any thermal imaging cameras on the police helicopters following the low-speed chase as the semi carrying one of these things tries to escape….

  28. #28 spudbeach
    November 11, 2008

    #6: Yep, I agree. Why use electricity now when we don’t want _any_ impact on the future? How about the two of us start a trend: Why don’t you shut off your computer first? Oh, and food preparation too — that oven uses lots of power. Don’t forget heat and transportation — gotta stop those too.

    Moron.

    I hate it when people say “You — stop using your electricity while I keep using mine!” The greatest growth in power usage in the next decade / century will come in the third world, those countries that have been using animal dung to heat their houses. Until you go back to picking up dung to keep warm at night, don’t make it impossible for other people to use electricity.

  29. #29 MikeB
    November 11, 2008

    If the Third World is going to be the growth area for electricity (rather than animal dung), just how are they going to afford to buy these things and hook them up to a grid capable of delivering the juice to those that both need and can pay for it?
    The reason why there is no widespread power grid in sub-Saharan Africa is because the economics suck. Simply putting a notionally cheap nuke at the end of this non-existent grid wont help them.

    Think ‘appropriate technology’. Which means efficiency, micro-power, solar.

  30. #30 Tulse
    November 12, 2008

    Color me extremely skeptical about the cost, reliability, safety, and even the ability to manufacture any new, untested technology, promised by a new company I’ve never heard of

    The technology was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the design is based on the small TRIGA reactors that have been used for fifty years worldwide in universities and other research facilities for non-power generation uses. One features of these type of reactors is that, due to the fuel they use (uranium hydride) they are self-moderating — as they heat up, the nuclear reaction is slowed, preventing meltdown. The design is claimed to be “walk-away safe”, or in other words, without any attending whatsoever the reactor will simply shut down on its own. As far as I know there is no recorded safety incident with a TRIGA reactor.

    Those worried about safety and proliferation concerns from the Hyperion reactors should recognize that, as mentioned above, there are a large number of similarly-sized reactors (of the TRIGA and SLOWPOKE design, among others) in universities and private research facilities around the world. These reactors are not buried underground encased in full concrete sheaths, but in buildings accessible to undergrads. (For example, the University of Toronto, in the middle of 5.5 million people, runs a SLOWPOKE reactor. The university even provides potential terrorists with handy transit directions.)

  31. #31 Zifnab
    November 12, 2008

    I have noticed this, and I think it’s unfortunate. Senator Kennedy in particular is notorious in this regard.

    Kennedy is a notorious wanker and can die in a fire.

    That said, environmentalism is a progressive endeavor. Burning coal is significantly more environmentally friendly than burning wood. Electric cars are friendlier than gas guzzlers. Pump sprays are nicer than aerosol.

    But once you’ve crossed a threshold, you can’t just walk away. You’ve got to recycle your empty pump spray bottles, properly dispose of your old electric car batteries, and eventually move on from coal once natural gas or wind or solar become available.

    Because we’re a messy civilization. We make big steaming piles of crap and dump them across the four corners of the earth. And its gross. And its toxic. And its generally bad for the long term health of ourselves and our progeny.

    Don’t expect the environmental movement to be “satisfied” in your lifetime. So long as we have smog days and fish kills and endangered species and shrinking rain forests we’ll have people fighting to clean the air, save the water, preserve the world’s ecological diversity, and maintain the last refuges of nature. I’m not sure what to say to those people who bitch and moan at the Green Movement. We – as a civilization – are so deep in the hole, we shouldn’t be surprised at how much work we need to do to climb out.

  32. #32 Carl Brannen
    November 12, 2008

    “Currently turning food into ethanol into electricity seems a bad idea.”

    The problem is that it “seems” a bad idea, on the face of it. In actual fact, the corn used by an ethanol plant is field corn and is not generally used for human consumption. Instead, it is fed to cattle. An ethanol plant converts the starch in that corn to alcohol but leaves the proteins, oils and fiber unchanged. And a substantial percentage of the starch is converted to “brewer’s yeast” which is also nutritious. The result, called “distiller’s grains”, is fed to cattle to replace the corn. As it turns out, cattle are not terribly compatible with starch and the whole thing is a very efficient way of modifying animal feed.

    What happened in the press is that the southern hemisphere had bad weather and couldn’t produce enough rice. This resulted in high rice prices and there were riots. Oil intrests saw this as an opportunity to attack ethanol (which accounts for almost all the renewable fuel manufactured world-wide) and funded greenies to say bad things about ethanol.

    Deep greenies are against “factory farming” which is where corn (and most of the world’s diet) comes from. They see the ethanol issue as one of land use. They would rather see the land left fallow than used to make corn. The greenies have no love of poor people and widely expect them to die off from starvation. They regularly talk about depopulation being a wonderful thing. They scare me far more than Al Qaeda.

  33. #33 spudbeach
    November 12, 2008

    #29:

    I don’t buy it. The one resource the third world has is people. People make great workers at factories, assembling all the junk we use. But it’s kind of hard to have factories without electricity, of the kind that micro-hydro, rooftop solar, etc. can provide.

    But even beyond factories, what about cities and small towns? The demand for electricity from the people who have enough money to pay for it is there, but the kind of decentralized diesel generators that serve extremely local areas just doesn’t cut it. By cost, safety, green concerns, whatever, micro-power / appropriate technologies just don’t / won’t work.

    Case in point: Galena Alaska, where they pay (in 2005) 28 cents per kWh, generated entirely from diesel fuel. Kind of hard to use hydro or solar that close to the arctic circle. What about other towns in Canada? Heck, what about Juneau Alaska, that had a power shortage last winter when they lost a power line? And, let us not forget Kyrgyzstan, in which people in the cities literally froze to death in their homes and apartments last winter (and with reports of only 12 hours of electricity already this year, they’ll likely freeze again this year).

    The point is, we can’t afford to be picky about our power. There are people out there suffering more than wet hair. We need power, we need it now, and we need more power, sooner, and more reliably than we can get with anything other than nuclear.

  34. #34 MikeB
    November 12, 2008

    #33 – ‘we can’t afford to be picky about our power’. True. But we do have to be realistic. The economics of these units is yet to be proven, and will have limited appeal in countries where the cost of transmitting power will simply be too expensive for local consumers. It is the case that Kyrgyzstan will be short of power (partially due to the limits of their hydro-power), and both they and Juneau may benefit from these units, but they are not a universal panacea.

    For much of the world, they will be too expensive, be too difficult to secure and will entail the construction of a grid which is impractical, expensive and unnecessary.

    If you look at Africa, the explosion in telecommunications has come about through relatively cheap mobile phone technology, using (often solar powered) stand alone base stations. The widespread use of expensive land-lines simply never happened. For much of the developing world, that’s how its going to be for power as well. Micro-power, using wind, solar and and hydro will be the way forward, with all these technologies falling in price as production increases.

    I suppose these are ‘micro-power’ of sorts (at least by the standard of most nukes), but like all nukes, it will be interesting to see whether the economics in reality match up to the hype.

  35. #35 Tulse
    November 13, 2008

    they are not a universal panacea

    They’re not being marketed as such, but instead as inexpensive, safe, reliable power primarily for remote locations or other situations where standard grid power is too expensive or unavailable.

  36. #36 John
    November 17, 2008

    Mini nuclear reactors have been available since 1969.

    They are called Slowpoke research reactors and were designed and built by Canada’s AECL. They range in sizes from 5 KW to 3.5 MW and are the only nuclear reactors in the world licensed for unattended operation. Granted they were designed as Cyclotron replacements to bombard samples with neutrons but they produce heated water at 50 Celsius (135 Fahrenheit), any hotter and the bubbles interrupt the chain reaction shutting the reactor down hence it’s inherent safety. The heated water can then be used to generate electricity via Stirling Engines.

    Sales of the Slowpoke reactor were undermined by a Chinese knock-off of the design.

    Canada’s nuclear program is worth a closer look, it’s the only nuclear program that is not tied to a weapons program. There are many half built Candu reactors around the world as various governments discover that they can’t make nuclear weapons with them. The Candu reactor can run on natural uranium hence the spent fuel does not need special storage or disposal. The Candu reactor can also run on the spent fuel rods of other nations designs though then the waste would need special storage. If you want clean safe nuclear energy, just pick up the phone, call AECL and order out of the catalog.

  37. #37 andyb
    November 19, 2008

    Terrorists simply blowing one of these things up with conventional explosives is risk. The had-to-source part of a dirty bomb is left lying around for all comers. It would not need to be stolen. Simply excavate and vapourise in-situ.

  38. #38 stephenb
    November 19, 2008

    I’m for renewable energy myself: breeder reactors!

  39. #39 Neil Craig
    November 20, 2008

    The waste heat question is an interesting one. O would suggest that putting it in a tank & having water from a stream flowing into it & then coming back out as hot water would not only keep the temperature reasonable but provide heat for locals.

    The thing about this scheme is that we are seeing the economies of mas production. If the world & particularly those allegedly concerned about CO2 were to encourage mass production of generators of a more conventional scale (eg 1 new 1000mw reactor out of the factory door every day) we could give the entire world western levels of power & do it profitably. To get it going somebody (G8, IMF, World Bank) would only have to guarantee purchase of say 2 years worth – say 700 x $0.5 billion – I very much doubt they would be called on to pay the guarantee since customers would be queueing up but such bottom line protection would reassure investors.

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    February 27, 2012

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  41. #41 afrika mangosu
    March 5, 2012

    The thing about this scheme is that we are seeing the economies of mas production.

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