My brother sent me this, thinking it would be cool to get one at the cabin:

Mini nuclear plant…

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.

The US government has licensed the technology to Hyperion, a New Mexico-based company which said last week that it has taken its first firm orders and plans to start mass production within five years….


When I say “out of sync” I don’t mean so much technology as the development and marketing. An uncritically pro-nuke Bush Administration obviously put this in motion, and now this hapless nuclear power generator manufacturing company is bound to get hung out to dry.

Unless they don’t.


  1. #1 Mike O'Risal
    November 9, 2008

    I can’t wait for the first recall on one of these babies.

  2. #2 Pierce R. Butler
    November 9, 2008

    Let’s hope this Hyperion craters before it makes a single sale or installation – and that it’s not a front for GE or Mitsubishi or…

  3. #3 aaron
    November 9, 2008

    I hope you’re wrong, if Obama does something to scuttle this than I’m gonna be royally pissed off at him.

    Cheap emission free power, now that’s a fix to global warming that even the neo-cons will get on board with!

  4. #4 Phil
    November 9, 2008

    Sounds great to me. Where do I throw my nuclear waste? Flush it down the toilet?
    Better still can I use it to power my Batmobile?

  5. #5 Brad
    November 9, 2008

    A little bit of hyperbole in that article, and a few unanswered questions. If this is the whole system, how does it generate electricity with no moving parts? If this is just the reactor, you are relying on piping, external generators and steam loops to complete the system. What will the total system cost be?

    With the energy density implied in the article, a cooling failure would soon have your reactor approaching the temperature and surface radiance of the sun just from decay of short-lived isotopes.

    And if they are that simple, good and cheap, why aren’t utilities buying them by the hundreds?

  6. #6 Azkyroth
    November 9, 2008

    If this is the whole system, how does it generate electricity with no moving parts?

    Thermoelectric effects?

  7. #7 Hank Roberts
    November 9, 2008

    > impossible to steal because they will be encased in
    > concrete and buried underground.

    And protected against terrorists who might buy one, or a building equipped with one, and sneak in a well-drilling rig and some thermite, by … um … hold on …

    We’ll get back to you on this. Maybe insurance will cover it.
    After all, what could go wrong?

  8. #8 greg laden
    November 9, 2008

    Brad Brad Brad, don’t worry, man! There is going to be a little red box with a window on it and a little hammer on a chain hanging next to the box. Inside the box will be a microscopic black hole (supplied from CERN’S LHC). If anything goes wrong you just break the glass, take out the black hole and throw it at the reactor.

  9. #9 Johnny Vector
    November 9, 2008

    …aaaand, for a small fee, we can install this little blue button to get you down!

  10. #10 travc
    November 9, 2008

    A bit more seriously, this sounds a lot like an adaptation of the basic design of reactors from nuclear naval vessels. Not necessarily a horrible idea, but not something to put in your backyard and forget about. I could see them being used for power intensive industrial applications though.

    The business model would have to be something along the lines of a lease plus service contract. Maybe even more along the lines of a contract where the ‘buyer’ just buys power at a fixed rate and provides a site and the supplier is responsible for not just installation, but regular inspection and maintenance as well as the ‘end of life’ issues. Not going to be cheap though.

  11. #11 Azkyroth
    November 9, 2008

    I can imagine them doing this with radioactive isotopes that not only aren’t chain-reaction-sustaining but can’t readily be converted to ones that are…but how they’d protect against the material being used for “dirty bombs” is beyond me.

  12. #12 GrayGaffer
    November 10, 2008

    Probably more like the technology launched in the Cassini spacecraft. IIRC, thermo-electric direct from the hot core, switching power supplies from there on to the power busses in the craft. For household power, think inverters like you plug into you car for your laptop.

    Also, sealed so well it could fall from orbit (? maybe aborted launch only?) and survive the landing intact.

    dirty bombs: actually, if you follow the math for the damage radius of something that could be carried around in a car, not so large. Inverse square law dilutes it pretty rapidly. Would not want to be beside one, no, but IIRC the math showed maybe hundreds in a dense city with health threatening exposure? I am far more worried crossing the road than about that.

  13. #13 Ian
    November 10, 2008

    And this beats wind, hydrodynamic, geothermal, and solar power how, exactly?

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    November 10, 2008

    Because it glows in the dark?

  15. #15 Paul W.
    November 10, 2008

    The reactor with “no mechanical parts” is just the reactor, i.e., a nuclear heater. It’s supposed to be buried deep underground, hooked up to a steam turbine, and guarded by on-site security people.

    The reactor may be small, but I’m guessing you need a fairly large cooling system as well as a steam turbine to make an actual power system out of it. Anything that produces enough heat to drive a steam turbine to generate power for 20K homes is going to produce a lot of waste heat as well.

    (If it were thermoelectric it would produce even more waste heat; thermoelectric systems aren’t the most efficient.)

    Their marketing wants you to think of it as “a big battery,” but I don’t think of batteries as requiring steam turbines and cooling towers/ponds/whatever to generate electricity.

  16. #16 aaron
    November 13, 2008

    @Ian “And this beats wind, hydrodynamic, geothermal, and solar power how, exactly?”

    Cheaper and a proven technology.

    It will work during windless or cloudy days.

    Not to mention the fact you’d probably be a lot safer living on top of one of these than next to a wind mill.