If you come home and find all the lights at your neighbors house are on, the front door is wide open and depending on the time of year his heating or air conditioning running full blast, it may not be that he has just been burgled, it could be he has installed one of Hyperion Power Generations mini nuclear power stations in his garden shed. Well not in his shed exactly, more likely 6ft underground (unpleasant connotation that the metric has) because Hyperion is one of dozens of companies working on mini nuclear power stations. No this is not a spoof apparently, several companies in North America, Europe and Russia are working on designs for small sealed nuclear piles capable of powering 20,000 plus homes for 10 years for around US$27m a shot yes I just did the math too. That’s about $135/house/year, pretty cheap if it’s right. The mini nukes are (if they ever reach production) to be made in factories where they are sealed and then installed underground with only the steam turbine above ground for ease of maintenance. Because they work at lower thermal efficiencies than civil nuclear power stations they are much simpler, require fewer systems Sizewell in the UK has 150 subsystems, ours has 12 says Hyperion owner John Deal to the Sunday Times.
In fact there are several companies with differing designs at different stages of realization. Hyperion does not intend to build their first reactor until 2013 but some firms like Nuscale have already submitted designs for regulatory approval. Nuscale, a firm started two years ago to commercialize technology developed at Oregon State University, is ahead of many others. It is working on 45MW reactors that can be put side by side in a traditional power plant set-up. Bruce Landry, head of business development, envisages up to a dozen sited together to generate 540MW, equal to the output of a gas-fired power station. Toshiba has a 10MW 4S (Super-Safe, Small and Simple) design they are looking to install for an outpost of 675 people deep in the Yukon. In practice, the most obvious early adopters would be remote communities, oil production facilities and mining sites far from reliable grid systems. Rolls Royce has been building mini nuclear power plants for Royal Navy submarines that could probably be developed for commercial applications more quickly than designing from scratch. Clearly Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear group, thinks the same way because they are said to have signed a deal last month with EN+, an arm of oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s (owner of Rusal Aluminium) Basic Element, to develop small reactors based on submarine technology.
Greenpeace has discounted the idea as completely impractical, largely it would seem on safety grounds that reactors could be stolen by terrorists and used to make bombs. Ian Hore-Lacey of the World Nuclear Association takes a more pragmatic line. Apart from having to dig up a concrete encased and remotely wired underground pile weighing several tons, terrorists would not be able to use the material inside anyway. He said, “Reactor-grade material has never been used for weapons. It is spiked with gamma-emitters so that any bad guys would be zapped in a hurry. Unless they had tens of tons of insulation material and industrial-size plants, the idea that they could take one of these plants off the back of a truck or dig it out the ground and use it for a weapon is inconceivable.
Excuse me while I pop out to measure up the garden shed.