Downsizing Nuclear: Difficulties With Big Plants Spur Interest in Mini Reactors

By now, we've all heard plenty about the "nuclear renaissance," or revival, or whatever it's being called. The Obama administration wants $54 billion in loan guarantees to build new reactors, and various states around the country are ramping up efforts to overturn moratoria and bring in those government dollars. It remains unclear, though, if the relatively sudden momentum will actually yield a bevy of new reactors, or if it will be stopped in its tracks.

In Georgia, where the first of those loan guarantees was headed, a judge ruled that the certification process for the new reactors was illegal, setting back the construction process. An attempt in the Illinois legislature to overturn a longstanding moratorium on new nuclear construction in the industry's flagship state failed to make it past the House. Earlier similar attempts in a number of states, including Minnesota, Hawaii and Kentucky, have also run aground. Perhaps appetites for decade-long construction and costs that routinely jump up by the billion are thinner than they appeared.

Some companies, though, have an alternative to the large-scale, 1,200 megawatt-and-up monsters that are running into such opposition. The small modular reactor, delivering only 25 MW of power for eight or 10 years before being replaced, could come before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval this year. The output will be enough to power about 20,000 homes.

Hyperion Power Generation is one such company, having revealed last year the design for its Hyperion Power Module. Using a liquid metal cooling design (specifically, lead-bismuth eutectic), the 1.5 meter wide and 2.5 meter high reactor would be shipped to customers fully sealed, and shipped back in the same state a decade later, not requiring any refueling or storing of nuclear waste. Of course, if they really start delivering on the reported 150-plus purchase agreements already in place, that means a whole lot of nuclear material being shipped around the country, even in small and supposedly sealed amounts.

Other nuclear players are also reportedly getting in on the act, from french company Areva to Toshiba and its subsidiary Westinghouse. The small reactors, intended for hard-to-reach locales, military bases, factories or anything else that might not get connected to the traditional power grid easily, will come with substantially reduced price tags compared to traditional nuclear projects. Instead of, say, a $3 billion estimate that likely gets bumped up by a factor of two or three by the time it is completed, Hyperion will ask $50 million.

Even if the immense construction difficulties that big nuclear runs into may not be in play, the regulatory hurdles companies must leap are largely the same. The NRC licensing process can take years, and concerns over leaking material and the potential for terrorism remain in spite of company assurances. And environmentalists who feel that the many billions spent on nuclear power would be better directed toward adoption of renewable energy sources like wind and solar likely won't find comfort in the small nuclear designs. After all, even if they do come in at $50 million, 150 of those comes out to $7.5 billion and the electricity output of about three big nuclear reactors. Progress?

Photo via Hyperion Power Generation

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