Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes.

Here’s a nice little article from The Guardian, discussing the small-scale nuclear energy technology of Hyperion Power Generation.

(Another link…)

“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.

‘Our goal is to generate electricity for 10 cents a watt anywhere in the world,’ said John Deal, chief executive of Hyperion. ‘They will cost approximately $25m [£13m] each. For a community with 10,000 households, that is a very affordable $250 per home.’

Deal claims to have more than 100 firm orders, largely from the oil and electricity industries, but says the company is also targeting developing countries and isolated communities. ‘It’s leapfrog technology,’ he said.

The company plans to set up three factories to produce 4,000 plants between 2013 and 2023. ‘We already have a pipeline for 100 reactors, and we are taking our time to tool up to mass-produce this reactor.’

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.’

The reactors, only a few metres in diameter, will be delivered on the back of a lorry to be buried underground. They must be refuelled every 7 to 10 years.

Because the reactor is based on a 50-year-old design that has proved safe for students to use, few countries are expected to object to plants on their territory.

The “50-year-old design that has proved safe for students to use” that they’re referring to is General Atomics’ famous TRIGA research reactor, designed and first implemented in the 1950s by such notable figures as Freeman Dyson and Edward Teller, with scores being sold to research institutions and universities all over the world.

The uranium hydride fuel of the Hyperion reactor has a strong prompt negative temperature coefficient of reactivity, just as does the uranium zirconium hydride fuel of the TRIGA reactors.

(In plain language, what that means is that the nuclear fuel itself intrinsically can not overheat or melt in practice; the physics of the fuel itself just make it intrinsically impossible for it to produce any significant amount of energy for a sustained period of time, because as it gets hotter, the amount of energy produced decreases rapidly.)

Incidentally, this year is the 50th anniversary of the deployment of the first Mk. I TRIGA research reactor – a great piece of nuclear engineering, of which many examples remain in useful, productive, safe use to this day, with new ones still being built. The very first TRIGA Mk. I prototype operated usefully for 39 years, before it was finally shut down.

An application to build the plants will be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next year.

‘You could never have a Chernobyl-type event – there are no moving parts,’ said Deal. ‘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 your bare hands.’

Other companies are known to be designing micro-reactors. Toshiba has been testing 200KW reactors measuring roughly six metres by two metres. Designed to fuel smaller numbers of homes for longer, they could power a single building for up to 40 years.

Nifty, isn’t it? It’s not widespread knowledge that it’s perfectly practical to build relatively very small (25 MW of electricity per unit, in this case) nuclear energy systems, as opposed to 1000 MW (or larger) reactors. Small-scale, decentralised, transportable, modular nuclear energy brings to mind useful applications – not just supplying the electricity grid.

The existence of small, easily deployable, decentralised nuclear energy systems does undermine many arguments that are put forward in favour of wind or solar and against nuclear energy. (e.g. that if you only want a small amount of power for a remote town, you can build wind or solar, to get just a small amount of decentralised energy generation, which you can’t do with a 2000 MW nuclear power plant.)

Nuclear reactors themselves typically don’t really have many moving parts in any case.
Of course, they’re talking about the nuclear reactor itself, and not the steam turbines and generators, which are fairly conventional technology.

These are some other groups who are interested in developing and marketing small scale, decentralised nuclear energy; they have lots of interesting information on the issue if you’re interested.

NuScale Power

Adams Atomic Engines


Current cost projections for Hyperion’s 25 MWe generators are extremely promising. 25 million dollars for 25 MWe is the equivalent of a two-billion-dollar price tag for a conventionally sized nuclear power plant, with two 1000 MW LWRs. Current cost projections for construction of typical new LWR plants of that size are significantly greater than that, making Hyperion’s systems (and those of other small-nuclear suppliers) look to have great potential.

As with solar energy or wind energy, the up-front capital cost of the plant technology dominates the cost of nuclear power.

The concentrating-solar-photovoltaic power station under construction in Victoria, which is receiving government support (i.e. money) for its development, costs 420 million dollars and will generate 270 GWh per year. If it operates for 50 years at that level of energy output, then that corresponds to a capital cost of $31.11 per MWh.

The Portland Wind Project, currently under construction, costs 330 million dollars and is estimated to generate up to about 670 GWh per year. If it operates for 50 years at that level of energy output, then that corresponds to a capital cost of $9.85 per MWh.

If you have a Hyperion system which costs $25 million, generates 25 MWe with a capacity factor of 90%, and operates for 50 years, then that corresponds to a capital cost of $2.54 per MWh.

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