America's Atomic Folly
American politicians are falling over themselves to enact new energy legislation before the Gulf oil leak gets plugged. The sad fact is, the US is dragging its feet on the one proven source of reliable, emissions free power: nuclear energy. With some environmentalists likening the oil disaster to Three Mile Island—the nuclear accident that destroyed the US atomic energy industry—the Obama administration has given nuclear power little more than lip service in recent months. Now comes news that a New Mexico-based company that is doing pioneering work in miniature atomic power plants has signed a deal to manufacture small, modular nuclear reactors in China. Political indecision and agitation by green activists is once again conspiring to turn the US into a second rate technological nation.
On June 14, 2010, Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc. (AEHI) announced that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with New Mexico-based Hyperion Power Generation, Inc. The MOU is the beginning of a joint venture between the two companies to license, build and market Hyperion's refrigerator-sized modular nuclear reactors on a world-wide basis. According to AEHI CEO and Chairman, Don Gillispie:
I am extremely excited and honored to be a partner with Hyperion and its equally impressive 25 MWe Hyperion Power Module. It is one of the most innovative products I've seen in my 46 years in the nuclear industry. Because of its small size the power plant's applications are limitless and could fuel a huge variety of important facilities including: hospitals, desalinization plants, emergency facilities, industrial parks, factories, military bases, and even small towns for many years. Because of its innovative and exclusive design, Hyperion's technology can even open up applications that no other production reactor can perform. Our partnership will make it possible to market the product internationally, and to locate specific applications in the United States.
The fact that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not approved a new type of reactor for commercial development in 35 years is forcing this exciting new technology to look for more accommodating conditions in foreign lands. “We chose AEHI to assist us in this endeavor because the company is independently operated, has unprecedented connections in the international community, especially in China, and is headed up by some of the most well-known and respected individuals in the nuclear industry,” said John R. "Grizz" Deal, Hyperion CEO. What isn't mentioned is that repeated delays and red-tape from the American government is forcing Hyperion to look to China so they can bring their product to world markets.
A traditional large scale nuclear power plant.
This is nothing less than a national scandal at a time when reducing US dependence on oil and coal are being used to pass draconian new tax measures. Currently there are only four certified reactor designs that can be referenced in an application for a combined license (COL) to build and operate a nuclear power plant. They are:
- Advanced Boiling Water Reactor design by GE Nuclear Energy (May 1997);
- System 80+ design by Westinghouse (formerly ABB-Combustion Engineering) (May 1997);
- AP600 design by Westinghouse (December 1999); and
- AP1000 design by Westinghouse (January 2006).
These are all large, industrial scale power plant designs, capable of generation multiple gigawatts of electricity per reactor. Unlike these traditional reactors, Hyperion's small transportable reactors can be installed in a small vault, and can be stacked to provide exactly the amount of power needed. Imagine instead of hundreds of large power plants producing 4 or more gigawatts of power each, thousands of mini-reactors producing only 25-30 megawatts each, enough for ~25,000 homes. A single unit would cost 15% less per megawatt of capacity than the average full-scale atomic reactors now in on the drawing board, according to World Nuclear Association data. If Hyperion's vision comes true, small and self-sufficient nuclear reactors could well be providing cheap and efficient power around the world within the next five years.
Based on technology developed by US Department of Energy scientists working out of Los Alamos, New Mexico, Hyperion has licensed the mini-reactor design from the government. Hyperion power modules are about the size of a “hot tub”—approximately 5 ft. (1.5 m) wide. Hyperion power modules are buried far underground, out of sight and safe from threats. Like a power battery, Hyperion modules have no moving parts to wear down, and are delivered factory sealed. They are never opened on site.
Even if one were compromised, the material inside would not be appropriate for proliferation purposes. Further, due to the unique, yet proven science upon which this technology is based, it is impossible for the module to go supercritical, “melt down” or create any type of emergency situation. If opened, the very small amount of fuel that is enclosed would immediately cool. During operation no water is needed for cooling, easing fears of future water shortages. The recyclable waste produced after five years of operation is approximately the size of a softball.
Compare the size of the Hyperion reactor, shown below, with any of the traditional reactors mentioned earlier. The mini-reactors themselves are described as transportable, not portable. Each reactor weighs 15 to 20 tons, depending on whether measuring just the reactor itself or with the cask that it is shipped in. It is specifically designed to fit on the back of an 18-wheel truck with a flatbed because most customer sites are not expected to have rail access. Once delivered, they are buried in the ground where they stay for their working lives.
Power output is about 70 megawatts thermal and, depending on the steam cycle and generator technology used, a single unit will provide about 27 megawatts of electricity. This is more than five times the output of the largest wind turbines, which can measure 395 feet (120 m) in height with 200 ft (61.5 m) long rotor blades. An important advantage of the Hyperion reactor over most renewable power sources is that, unlike wind turbines or solar cells, it can supply electricity continuously even when the wind stops or when there is no sunshine. Thirty megawatts may seem tiny compared to traditional nuclear reactors and even coal plants, but is ideal for a distributed generation grid, remote locations or industrial uses—mining, heavy oil production and the like.
Inside, the reactor has a uranium hydride core, surrounded by hydrogen gas. The hydrogen acts as the moderator for the reactor, slowing down neutrons to promote a sustained chain reaction. As the reactor heats up the hydrogen gas expands and vents into a holding area, causing the nuclear reaction to diminish. This allows the reactor vessel, including its hydrogen, to cool, drawing hydrogen back into the reactor and increasing the nuclear reaction. The balance between heat generation and gas temperature makes the whole unit self-regulating—no need for computers or human operators to control things. Think of it as a nuclear battery.
Environmentalists are concerned the small reactors would pose the same risk of leaking radioactive materials as their larger counterparts, or that one could be hijacked and turned into a dirty bomb. Deal rejects those concerns, noting his units are designed to fit in the same canisters used to transport nuclear fuel for bigger plants around the world. The power-producing core of Hyperion’s reactor comes in multiple sealed chambers, which would contain any leak. The entire unit would be installed in an underground vault to protect it from tampering and natural threats, the company says.
Using this technology, every small city or industrial plant could have their own power supply, decentralizing power generation and reducing vulnerability to terrorist attack. The only thing standing in the way is red-tape and green hysteria. But this is not the only “new” nuclear technology that the US helped to develop, but is now being left behind on.
Reactors without Uranium
One of the problems with conventional nuclear power technology is that it is based on enriched uranium. The proportion of 235U to 238U must be increased to promote nuclear chain reactions within a power reactor, a process analogous to raising the octane of gasoline to make it burn better. The catch is that the same enrichment process used to make nuclear fuel can be used to produce highly enriched uranium from which nuclear explosives can be built. What if reactors could be built that did not require uranium, bringing no prospect of turning a peaceful technology into a destructive one? As it turns out, just such a fuel exists.
Thorium (Th) is a naturally occurring, slightly radioactive metal that is the 90th element in the periodic table. Thorium is estimated to be about three to four times more abundant than uranium in the Earth's crust. Naturally occurring thorium is composed mainly of the isotope thorium-232 (232Th). Although not fissile itself, 232Th will absorb slow neutrons to produce uranium-233 (233U), which is fissile. Advocates of the use of thorium as the fuel source for nuclear reactors state that they can be built to operate significantly cleaner than uranium-based power plants as the waste products are much easier to handle.
A major potential application for conventional pressurized water reactors (PWRs) involves fuel assemblies arranged so that a blanket of thorium fuel rods surrounds a more enriched seed element containing 235U, which supplies neutrons to the sub-critical blanket. The 233U is burned within the blanket as it is produced. This is the Light Water Breeder Reactor concept which was successfully demonstrated in the US during the 1970s.
Currently, thorium-based reactors are being developed to be deliberately proliferation-resistant. In one such design, the central seed region of each fuel assembly contains uranium enriched to 20% 235U. The surrounding blanket is thorium with some 238U, which means that any uranium chemically separated from it is not usable for weapons. The Spent blanket fuel would also contain 232U, which decays rapidly and emits a lot of gamma radiation, creating significant problems in handling the bred 233U and hence, conferring proliferation resistance. Additionally, plutonium produced in the seed would have a high proportion of 238Pu, generating a lot of heat. The combination of high radiation and heat make the reaction products even more unsuitable for weapons than normal reactor-grade Pu.
Thorium has been successfully used as an alternative nuclear fuel in the molten-salt reactor experiment (MSR) from 1964 to 1969, as well as in several light-water reactors using fuel composed of a mixture of 232Th and 233U, including the Shippingport Atomic Power Station that was in operation starting in 1977, until it was decommissioned in 1982. Currently, officials in the Republic of India are advocating a thorium-based nuclear program, and a seed-and-blanket fuel utilizing thorium is undergoing irradiation testing at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow. By adding thorium to the nuclear fuel stockpile, nuclear energy could power the world for thousands of years.
Richard K. Lester, Professor and Head of the of Nuclear Science and Engineering department at MIT, talked about his energy views in a Wall Street Journal article: “Operating a power grid reliably and economically with intermittent solar and wind resources generating 40% of the electricity cannot be done today. Carbon capture and storage has yet to be demonstrated on a large scale. Meanwhile, a still vocal group of environmentalists remains adamantly opposed to nuclear energy—even though it is the only low-carbon energy source that is both scaleable and already generating large amounts of electricity.”
In point of fact, it was opposition to nuclear power by green neo-Luddites that let to increased use of oil and coal, in turn setting the stage to the CO2 based global warming panic. I will repeat what I have said before—know nothing greens, acting with great conviction and profound ignorance, have made things worse by forcing governments into policies based on ideology and not science. What most eco-activists do not realize is that nuclear power is totally natural. I grew up hiking and skiing in Alaska, and have gone scuba diving all around the world—I have always loved nature. What I cannot abide is zealotry, green or otherwise.
Meanwhile, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has stated that it has no plans to review the Hyperion design in the near future, although the NRC and Hyperion have had preliminary talks. Because the Hyperion design is unique, the NRC expects that it will take significant time to ensure safety requirements. And, as mentioned above, America's only Thorium fueled reactor has long been decommissioned. If the US is as serious about energy independence and curbing greenhouse gas emissions as Japan, the EU and others around the world, a fire needs to be lit under its legions of bureaucrats.
President Obama is fond of mentioning that his Energy Secretary is a Nobel Prize winning physicist. In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Energy Secretary Steve Chu expressed his support for the small modular reactors. “One of the most promising areas is small modular reactors (SMRs),” Chu stated. “ If we can develop this technology in the U.S. and build these reactors with American workers, we will have a key competitive edge.” If bureaucrat-in-chief Barrack Obama wants to prove he is serious about solving America's looming energy problems, he needs to heed the advice of his Energy Secretary and instruct the NRC to fast-track new reactor technology.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.
[ Much of this article was taken from Chapter 12 of our new book, The Energy Gap. It is now available at Amazon.com. ]