Sunday, November 09, 2008

Nukes Buried in Your Backyard?

I have commented previously on the idea of "mobile" nuclear reactors, that could be fuelled by uranium or by thorium, and delivered on the back of a lorry to wherever they are needed. The reality of such power-plants, "smaller than a garden shed", has been endorsed by the Los Alamos government lab. which also developed the first atom-bomb. Each unit is expected to provide electricity for 20,000 homes, and they are safe! The small-scale reactors will be sealed at source, will not contain any weapons-grade uranium, have no moving parts and since they will be incarcerated in concrete and buried underground, impossible to steal.

The US government has issued a license to a company, Hyperion, based in New Mexico, which has already taken its initial orders and aims to begin mass-production within five years. Hyperion's intention is to produce electricity at a price of 10 cents per Watt "anywhere in the world". The cost is anticipated to be $25 million per unit, and for a community of 10,000 homes, that amounts to a competitive $2500 per household.

Hyperion, in Greek mythology, was one of the Titans - sons and daughters of Uranus (sky-god) and Gaia (Earth-goddess) - who lost the war with the Olympians ("The War of the Titans") and were subjugated by them. Their despair at this fate was the subject of a poem by John Keates:

"These crystalline pavilions, and pure fanes,
Of all my lucent empire? It is left
Deserted, void, nor any haunt of mine.
The blaze, the splendour, and the symmetry,
I cannot see – but darkness, death and darkness." ...cheery stuff, isn't it?

The first 100 definite orders are mostly from oil and electricity companies, but Hyperion is also focussing its marketing toward developing countries and isolated ("off-grid") communities. The company plans to build three factories which their business-plan holds will manufacture some 4,000 "mini-nukes" between 2013 and 2023. A Czech company, TES has "ordered six units and optioned a further twelve", of which the first would be sited in Romania. There are additional talks underway with the Caymen Islands, Panama and the Bahamas.

The mini-nukes are said to be "only a few metres in diameter", and will be delivered by lorry, needing to be refuelled every 7 - 10 years. There are no design-safety issues expected because the type of reactor has been used "by students" for 50 years without incident. An application to go ahead is expected to be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2010.

John Deal, the CEO of Hyperion, said:

"You could never have a Chernobyl-type event - there are no moving parts. You would need nation-state resources in order to enrich our uranium. Temperature-wise, it's too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with you bare hands."

Toshiba has been exploring the utility of 200 kW reactors of dimension six metres by two metres, which are intended to power smaller numbers of homes over a more extended time-period, and it is thought they could power a single building for 40 years. Clearly, if this mini-nuke technology does go ahead it is potentially a competitive business.

Related Reading.
"Mini nuclear power plants to power 20,000 homes." By John Vidal.


Anonymous said...

What will the be the end result, I wonder? I'm trying to find out more, like can they replace the uranium with thorium in the matrix? If they can, we might be able to bridge the power gap with these things, for 20 or 30 years until advanced solar and/or fusion can be brought into play.

Thanks for the post.


Anonymous said...

Peak oil, schmeak oil, if these reactors can be produced cheaply and in bulk. Who cares what the ERoEI of oil sands and shale is when you have a dirt cheap source of process heat.

If nuclear power can truly "step up" in the way Hyperion promises, we may be on the verge of a paradigm shift from fashionable neo-luddite doomerism to an age of optimism in technological progress.


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Clarence,

I', not yet sure exactly how this technology works. I saw an item last night about new British nuclear-powered submarines that "don't need refuelling", so it claimed. Sounds similar to Hyperion?

There may indeed be possibilities here, just the remaining question of how quickly and on what scale can they be introduced?



Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I see what you're saying Mark, but again I am wondering how many of them and fast they can be produced and installed to crack oil sands or shale. I imagine the engineering would be considerable.

Water supplies are an issue too for both these processes.

There are also issues of what kind of nuclear fuel to use... maybe thorium could come into its own here? My feeling is that it's some way off as a technology whereas schmeak oil isn't.