The image of nuclear power plants–with big, bulbous towers spewing steam–may be a thing of the past. Miniature nuclear reactors are being developed that could roll off assembly lines, onto the back of trucks and power cities of 25,000 people or more during the next few years. The small modular nuclear reactors (sometimes called nuclear batteries for their portable, self-contained design) are being deployed in demonstration projects from South Carolina’s Savannah River Site to Oregon State University. The future of nuclear may not be in huge plants, but in small units that drive to where they’re needed. The future may also be incredibly dangerous.
Like most nuclear plants, these reactors operate as enriched-uranium steam machines: a core of radioactive material boils water used to distribute heat or drive turbines that crank out electricity. Only these tiny reactors are about six feet tall, can operate almost anywhere including remote and arid regions, and (at least in theory) cost only a fraction of the time and money to build than the massive multi-billion dollar outfits that now supply about 20% of the country’s energy mix.
To hear the companies tell it, there is no end of demand. Hyperion Power Generation–part of the emerging cottage industry for mini-nukes that also includes NuScale Power, Westinghouse, Babcock & Wilcox and others–claims it has more than 100 back orders for its reactors and is busy building manufacturing plants in the U.K., U.S. and Asia to ship its first units by 2013. Hyperion sees applications such as baseload on wind farms, steam generation for remote oil shale operations, and powering hospitals, government buildings, or even small cities. It estimates reactors will cost about $30 million (not including costs involved regulatory compliance and supporting infrastructure; building a new nuclear plant can run into the tens of billions), and supply electricity for less than 10 cents per kilowatt hour, favorable compared to electricity prices in more expensive parts of the United States.
The Federal Government is apparently on board. The U.S.’s Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, endorsed the small reactors, calling them “the new nuclear option,” and two designs are proposed for an approval process through the Nuclear Power 2021 Act that could lead to certified modular reactors (less than 300 megawatts) in less than a decade, fast by nuclear permitting standards. As the power industry faces the retirement of as much as 20% of its old coal power generating capacity in the coming decades, these new mini-nukes might give energy utilities the power they need while aiding clean energy and carbon emission targets.
But the Union of Concerned Scientists, calling itself “neither pro nor anti-nuclear power,” has sounded a more cautious note. During a hearing before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources this June, it suggested that the zeal for mini-reactors threatens to overshadow real safety and economic risks. Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the organization, argued for more stringent safety protocols in the legislation despite calls from the power industry to relax current regulations due to the new reactors’ allegedly safer design. He also cities studies calling the expected costs savings into question.
“One of the early lessons from Fukushima is that prevention of serious nuclear accidents requires significant margins of safety to protect against extreme events,” Lyman noted during the hearing. “After all, one can always reduce costs by cutting corners: the real research challenge is how to reduce cost without compromising safety.”