Sunday, April 5, 2009

Micro Nuclear Power Plants A Dream

A question came up on WUWT, about the small nuclear power plants (around 20 to 50 MW).  

“. . . a bit ago there was a mention of micro-nuclear power plants. is there anything more for or against that you could recommend? or I am I just making too much of popular reporting.”

My reply:
Any micro-nuclear power plant must be approved and receive a license for construction and operation from the NRC. From NRC’s website,
“The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was created as an independent agency by Congress in 1974 to enable the nation to safely use radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while ensuring that people and the environment are protected. The NRC regulates commercial nuclear power plants and other uses of nuclear materials, such as in nuclear medicine, through licensing, inspection and enforcement of its requirements.”
“The Atomic Energy Act of 1954, as amended, requires that civilian uses of nuclear materials and facilities be licensed, and it empowers the NRC to establish by rule or order, and to enforce, such standards to govern these uses as “the Commission may deem necessary or desirable in order to protect health and safety and minimize danger to life or property.” ”
Getting a micro-nuke design approved and licensed would take years, if such approval were ever issued, and ensuring the public safety from one of those would pose serious problems. To me, about the only good thing about a 1200 MW nuclear power plant is that it is huge, heavy, all in one place, and can be guarded fairly easily. The suitcase-sized micro-nukes are likely never to meet the NRC standards for protection of public health and safety, and danger to life or property, and as such are very likely just a dream. I may be proven wrong, but nuclear fissionable materials are just too dangerous to ever be allowed to proliferate as micro-nuclear proponents would like.

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.


Rod Adams said...

Roger - While it is true that the NRC will have to license small nuclear power plants, your characterization of them as a dream is a bit dated.

I have regular contact with the entrepreneurs at Hyperion and NuScale and I have also been in touch with small reactor project managers and potential customers at several much larger companies including PBMR, Toshiba, and one more large company that has not yet released the NDAs.

There is a huge energy market out there that need reliable, emission free power and there is a wide spectrum of needs that fall somewhere between "suitcase" sized and plants powerful enough to supply a city of a million people.

NuScale's reactor, for example, is designed to be just barely transportable using barges and rail. Its units will weigh approximately 300 tons not including fuel. With a power output of 45 MWe, it would be sufficient to provide all of the electricity for the city that I live in. It is not a "large" city, but it is big enough to be the state capital and to house two rather famous colleges.

Hyperion's little heating unit is a bit smaller, but it will also require the services of a large transporter even when not fueled. The lead and concrete shielding weigh 50-100 tons, even when the system is only several meters in diameter and several meters tall.

Toshiba's 4S unit is also much smaller than traditional central station power plants, but its installation will require an excavation that is about 50 -80 feet deep - the core of that plant will be at the bottom of the core pressure vessel and have tens of feet worth of protective sodium on top of it along with the earth barriers and pressure vessel.

There have been smaller reactors operating all around the world for more than 60 years. The time has come to acknowledge that they can be made safe and secure at a cost that still enables them to produce power and heat that is affordable.

Just think - a 45 MWe power plant operating at 70% capacity factor selling power in a market where the going rate for electrical power is 15 cents per kilowatt hour can produce revenue of $41 million per year. If the fuel costs are similar to existing light water reactors, it would cost less than $1 million per year. That leaves a big margin for loan repayment, operator salaries, plant maintenance and security.

Heck - just think what a plant like that could do for a refinery that is finally being made to pay for the use of our common atmosphere as a waste dump. Instead of burning waste oil and coke for the heat needed for petroleum processing, it could park a moderately sized fission plant at the refinery site - where there is already a secure boundary and security force in place (I hope) - and use it to provide the required heat.

If you think this is far fetched, please explain why both Dow Chemical and Chevron have recently joined the NGNP program that is aimed at producing generation IV high temperature reactors.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Adams,

Perhaps the micro-nuclear power plants can reverse the economy of scale, and produce power for under 30 cents per kwh. Perhaps not.

As for their use in oil refineries, those same refineries that have made modern society possible and contribute infinitely to the health and welfare of the world, their role would be very limited.

Perhaps the NRC will agree to license micro-nukes, and you will enjoy success. Perhaps not.

There are far better and safer ways to make electricity and provide process heat where it is needed. Better ways that do not produce plutonium and other radioactive byproducts subject to theft, sabotage, and being made into dirty bombs.

I do not understand your desire to poison the planet and destroy the future enjoyment of billions of people, most yet unborn, by proliferating the most dangerous and toxic form of energy man has ever devised.