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Feature: Small modular nuclear reactors - the future of energy?

By

February 16, 2012

Gizmag takes an in-depth look at small modular nuclear reactors and wonders if they hold t...

Gizmag takes an in-depth look at small modular nuclear reactors and wonders if they hold the key to solving the world's energy and nuclear waste challenges (Photo: Shutterstock)

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This year is an historic one for nuclear power, with the first reactors winning U.S. government approval for construction since 1978. Some have seen the green lighting of two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors to be built in Georgia as the start of a revival of nuclear power in the West, but this may be a false dawn because of the problems besetting conventional reactors. It may be that when a new boom in nuclear power comes, it won't be led by giant gigawatt installations, but by batteries of small modular reactors (SMRs) with very different principles from those of previous generations. But though a technology of great diversity and potential, many obstacles stand in its path. Gizmag takes an in-depth look at the many forms of SMRs, their advantages, and the challenges they must overcome.

Globally, there is a growing demand for electricity that is cheap, reliable and abundant. There's also an increasing need to find sources of energy that do not rely on doing business with hostile or unstable nations. At the same time, recent concerns over global warming have resulted in many governments pledging their nations to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they generate and new, stricter environmental regulations threaten to close coal-powered plants across Europe and the United States. The hope was that massive investments in alternative technologies such as solar and wind power would make up for this cut in generating capacity, but the inefficiencies and intermittent nature of these technologies made it clear that something with the capacity and reliability of coal and natural gas plants was needed. Nuclear, in other words.

The problem is that nuclear energy is the proverbial political hot potato - even in early days when the new energy source exploded onto the world scene. The tremendous amount of energy locked in the atom held the promise of a future like something out of a technological Arabian Nights. It would be a world where electricity was too cheap to meter, deserts would bloom, ships would circle the Earth on a lump of fuel the size of a baseball, planes would fly for months without landing, the sick would be healed and even cars would be atom powered. But though nuclear power did bring about incredible changes in our world, in its primary role, generating electricity for homes and industry, it ended up as less of a miracle and more of a very complicated way of boiling water.

Not only complicated, but expensive and potentially dangerous. Though hundreds of reactors were built all over the world and some countries, such as France, generate most of their electricity from it, nuclear power has faced continuing questions over cost, safety, waste disposal and proliferation. One hundred and four nuclear plants provide the United States with 20 percent of the nation's power, but a building permit hadn't been issued since 1978 with no new reactors coming on line since 1996 and after the uproar from the environmental movement after nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, it seemed unlikely that any more would ever be approved - until now. This fierce domestic opposition to nuclear power has caused many governments to take an almost schizophrenic stance regarding the atom.

Germany, for example, decided to abandon nuclear power completely in favor of alternative energy, but then the severe winter of 2011-12 got so cold that the Danube was freezing and Berlin had to put some of the mothballed reactors back into service. This opposition also means that many Western countries have a shortage of nuclear engineers because many see it as a dying industry not worth getting into. This is particularly acute in the United States and Britain, neither of which have retained the capacity for building the huge reactor vessels and must farm this out to overseas manufacturers.

Worse, nuclear power suffers from the natural gas boom brought on by new drilling techniques and fracking that opened up vast new gas fields in the West and dropped the price of gas to the point where coal and nuclear have a hard time matching it.

Traditional nuclear power: the Tricastin nuclear power plant in France

Traditional nuclear power: the Tricastin nuclear power plant in France

And money is one of the key problems facing a revival of nuclear power. Up until now, the sort of reactors used for generating electricity have tended toward the gigantic with reactors reaching gigawatt levels of output. With plants that large, small wonder that the cost of construction combined with obtaining permits, securing insurance and meeting legal challenges from environmentalist groups can push the cost of a conventional nuclear plant toward as much as US$9 billion. It also means very long build times of ten or fifteen years. This isn't helped by the fact that nuclear plants are custom designed from scratch in multi-billion dollar exercises in re-inventing the wheel. With so much time and money involved, an unforeseen change in regulations or discovery of something like a geological fault under the reactor site can make this a case of putting a lot of very expensive eggs in a very insecure basket.

Then there are safety issues. Reactor design is safer today than ever before. The Fukushima accident happened because Fukushima's reactors are a very old design - as old as the oldest active American reactors. If the earthquake and tsunami that hit Fukushima had hit a modern reactor, the disaster probably would never have happened. However, large conventional reactors still have safety issues because they require very fast reaction times to prevent damage in the event of an accident. Accidents can progress so fast in a reactor that the operators must take action within hours, perhaps even minutes. If a meltdown accident does occur, the large amount of fuel in the reactor means that a great deal of radioactive material may be released into the atmosphere. That makes time an essential element.

The enriched uranium fuel used in conventional reactions also poses a problem for nuclear weapons proliferation. Contrary to popular belief, the uranium used in reactors and even the plutonium that some reactors produce are useless for building nuclear bombs (the isotope ratios are all wrong), but the processes needed to produce nuclear fuel and bomb materials are almost exactly the same. So, though conventional reactors may not be a proliferation threat, the enrichment plants that service them are.

Small Modular Reactors

One way of getting around many of these problems is through the development of small modular reactors (SMR). These are reactors capable of generating about 300 megawatts of power or less, which is enough to run 45,000 US homes. Though small, SMRs are proper reactors. They are quite different from the radio-thermal generators (RTG) used in spacecraft and remote lighthouses in Siberia. Nuclear reactors such as SMRs use controlled nuclear fission to generate power while RTGs use natural radioactive decay to power a relatively simple thermoelectric generator that can only produce, at most, about two kilowatts.

In terms of power, RTGs are the equivalent of batteries while small nuclear reactors are only "small" when compared to conventional reactors. They are hardly the sort that you would keep in the garage. In reality, SMR power plants would cover the area of a small shopping mall. Still, such an installation is not very large as power plants go and a reactor that only produces 300 megawatts may not seem worth the investment, but the US Department of Energy is offering US$452 million in matching grants to develop SMRs and private investors like the Bill Gates Foundation and the company of Babcock and Wilcox are putting up money for their own modular reactor projects.

The 60-year old breakthrough

One reason for government and private industry to take an interest in SMRs is that they've been successfully employed for much longer than most people realize. In fact, hundreds have been steaming around the world inside the hulls of nuclear submarines and other warships for sixty years. They've also been used in merchant ships, icebreakers and as research and medical isotope reactors at universities. There was even one installed in the Antarctic at McMurdo Station from 1962 to 1972. Now they're being considered for domestic use.

The case for SMRs

SMRs have a number of advantages over conventional reactors. For one thing, SMRs are cheaper to construct and run. This makes them very attractive to poorer, energy-starved countries; small, growing communities that don't require a full-scale plant; and remote locations such as mines or desalination plants. Part of the reason for this is simply that the reactors are smaller. Another is that, not needing to be custom designed in each case, the reactors can be standardized and some types built in factories that are able to employ economies of scale. The factory-built aspect is also important because a factory is more efficient than on-site construction by as much as eight to one in terms of building time. Factory construction also allows SMRs to be built, delivered to the site, and then returned to the factory for dismantling at the end of their service lives - eliminating a major problem with old conventional reactors, i.e. how to dispose of them.

SMRs also enjoy a good deal of design flexibility. Conventional reactors are usually cooled by water - a great deal of water - which means that the reactors need to be situated near rivers or coastlines. SMRs, on the other hand, can be cooled by air, gas, low-melting point metals or salt. This means that SMRs can be placed in remote, inland areas where it isn't possible to site conventional reactors.

Safety

This cooling system is often passive. In other words, it relies more on the natural circulation of the cooling medium within the reactor's containment flask than on pumps. This passive cooling is one of the ways that SMRs can improve safety. Because modular reactors are smaller than conventional ones, they contain less fuel. This means that there's less of a mass to be affected if an accident occurs. If one does happen, there's less radioactive material that can be released into the environment and makes it easier to design emergency systems. Since they are smaller and use less fuel, they are easier to cool effectively, which greatly reduces the likelihood of a catastrophic accident or meltdown in the first place.

This also means that accidents proceed much slower in modular reactors than in conventional ones. Where the latter need accident responses in a matter of hours or minutes, SMRs can be responded to in hours or days, which reduces the chances of an accident resulting in major damage to the reactor elements.

The SMR designs that reject water cooling in favor of gas, metal or salt have their own safety advantages. Unlike water-cooled reactors, these media operate at a lower pressure. One of the hazards of water cooling is that a cracked pipe or a damaged seal can blow radioactive gases out like anti-freeze out of an overheated car radiator. With low-pressure media, there's less force to push gases out and there's less stress placed on the containment vessel. It also eliminates one of the frightening episodes of the Fukushima accident where the water in the vessel broke down into hydrogen and oxygen and then exploded.

Another advantage of modular design is that some SMRs are small enough to be installed below ground. That is cheaper, faster to construct and less invasive than building a reinforced concrete containment dome. There is also the point that putting a reactor in the ground makes it less vulnerable to earthquakes. Underground installations make modular reactors easier to secure and install in a much smaller footprint. This makes SMRs particularly attractive to military customers who need to build power plants for bases quickly. Underground installation also enhances security with fewer sophisticated systems needed, which also helps bring down costs.

SMRs can help with proliferation, nuclear waste and fuel supply issues because, while some modular reactors are based on conventional pressurized water reactors and burn enhanced uranium, others use less conventional fuels. Some, for example, can generate power from what is now regarded as "waste", burning depleted uranium and plutonium left over from conventional reactors. Depleted uranium is basically U-238 from which the fissible U-235 has been consumed. It's also much more abundant in nature than U-235, which has the potential of providing the world with energy for thousands of years. Other reactor designs don't even use uranium. Instead, they use thorium. This fuel is also incredibly abundant, is easy to process for use as fuel and has the added bonus of being utterly useless for making weapons, so it can provide power even to areas where security concerns have been raised.

But there's still the sticking point that modular reactors are, by definition, small. That may be fine for a submarine or the South Pole, but what about places that need more? Is the alternative conventional nuclear plants? It turns out that the answer is no. Modular reactors don't need to be used singly. They can be set up in batteries of five or six or even more, providing as much power as an area needs. And if one unit needs to be taken off line for repairs or even replacement, it needn't interfere with the operation of the others.

Types of modular reactors

Let's take a look now at some of the major types of modular reactors under development. There are, in fact, many more than are presented here, but this should give a good cross section of what is in the pipeline.

Light-water reactors

A modular light-water reactor is basically a scaled-down version of a conventional reactor. Like conventional reactors, it uses water as a coolant and a neutron moderator (that is, the water slows down the neutrons produced by the nuclear fuel so that the uranium atoms have a better chance of absorbing them and inducing nuclear fission. The trick of fission is simply to have enough nuclear fuel in one place with a moderator so that the reaction becomes self-sustaining). Engineers already have decades of experience with light-water SMRs because these are the type used on submarines and icebreakers, so the technology is already advanced and has had lots of field testing under very hard conditions. Imagine a nuclear power plant that has to be able to operate safely as it's being tossed about in the ocean while sealed inside a submarine hull and you can see the daunting challenges that have been overcome.

Small light-water reactors aren't as efficient as their larger cousins, but they have a number of advantages. Steam is produced in a nuclear plant by passing a loop of cooling water from the reactor through the steam generator, which is a separate vessel filled with coiling pipes. The hot cooling water enters the generator and as it runs through the pipes a second coil filled with water is heated by the water from the reactor. This changes to steam, which turns the turbines that turns the dynamos. On a conventional reactor, most types have the steam generator outside the reactor vessel. With light-water SMRs, the steam generator can be placed inside the vessel. This not only makes the reactor more compact and self-contained, but it also makes it much safer. One common problem in reactors is radioactive water leaking as it travels from the reactor to the steam generator. With the steam generator inside the reactor vessel, it's the much safer situation of only non-radioactive water/steam going into and out of the reactor vessel.

Westinghouse SMR

The Westinghouse SMR is a miniature version of their AP1000 reactor. But where the AP1000 produces 1,154 megawatts and requires a plant covering 50 acres (20 ha), the Westinghouse SMR needs only 15 (6 ha), puts out 225 megawatts and can be built in 18 months as opposed to several years. The reactor and containment vessel stand 89 feet (27 m) high and 32 feet (9.8 m) in diameter, which makes it compact enough to be factory-built and shipped by rail to the site. Its fuel is standard enriched uranium that needs servicing every two years, but the reactor's passive cooling system relies on the natural circulation of water rather than pumps, which means that even in the event of a complete power loss, as Fukushima suffered, the Westinghouse SMR can go for up to a week without needing any operator intervention to prevent damage.

mPower

Backed by Babcock and Wilcox, mPower is based on US Navy reactor designs and produces 160 megawatts when the system's condensers are cooled by water, but it can be air-cooled as well, though with a lower power output. Seventy-five feet (23 m) high and 14 feet (4.3 m) in diameter, mPower is designed to be factory built, rail-shipped and installed below ground. Like the Westinghouse SMR, the mPower uses a passive cooling system and the steam generator is integral with the reactor. Unlike the Westinghouse SMR, the mPower needs refueling only every four years and the process involves simply replacing the entire core, which is inserted like a cartridge. The reactor has a 60-year service life and is designed to store its spent fuel on site for the duration.

NuScale

Diagram of the NuScale reactor (Image: KVDP)

NuScale seems impractically small with its output of only 45 megawatts, but it's intended to be installed twelve at a time to provide up to 540 megawatts. These are each placed in an underground pool of water and each unit is cooled by natural circulation. Because of this, there are no pumps and the only moving parts in the reactor are those used to operate the control rods. When it is time for refueling, the reactor is removed from its pool by an overhead crane and taken to another section of the facility.

High-temperature gas cooled reactors

As the term implies, gas-cooled reactors use a gas instead of water as a reactor cooling medium. In modern reactors this gas is usually helium because it's an inert element that doesn't react with other materials, yet is an excellent coolant (just ask any mixed-gas deep sea diver and he'll tell you why they have a heating tube in their suit while breathing helium). This is important because, not using water, the moderator for the nuclear reaction is a graphite core, which is flammable. These operate at relatively low pressures and high gas temperatures of up to 1,800 degrees F (1,000 degrees C) and the gas either drives the turbines directly or via a steam generator. This reactor type has safety advantages because the way the design makes the nuclear reaction self-regulating. As the reactor gets hotter, the reaction slows down and the reactor cools. It also lends itself to smaller scales to allow for factory building and underground installation.

GT-MHR

Built by a partnership led by General Atomics, the GT-MHR reactor has a capacity of 285 megawatts and can also be used to produce 100,000 tons of hydrogen gas per year. It has the interesting distinction of being able to run on weapons-grade plutonium. The reason for this was that the GT-MHR was originally designed to help dispose of Soviet nuclear warheads after the end of the Cold War. It also serves to highlight the practical applications of the SMRs' ability to burn alternative nuclear fuels.

Fast neutron reactors

In conventional reactors, neutrons are slowed down by a moderator such as water, carbon or helium so that the uranium atoms have a better chance of absorbing them and initiating fission. A fast neutron reactor manages the same fission reaction except it does so by reflecting fast-moving neutrons back into the uranium in large quantities and thereby increasing the odds of fission. This has the advantage of allowing reactors to be very simple in design (and hence smaller) and to use enriched fuels, thorium or even nuclear waste as fuel.

There are two types of fast neutron systems used in current SMR designs. The first are candle, breed-burn or traveling-wave reactors. The second, standing wave reactors.

The "candle" name for the first variety stems from the fact that that's what the fuel resembles. Put simply, it's a big slab of depleted uranium with a plug of enriched uranium stuck in one end. When the nuclear reaction starts, the enriched uranium "ignites" the slab by initiating a reaction that turns the U-238 into Pu-239, an isotope of plutonium that can fission and generate power. This reaction burns along the slab at roughly one centimeter per year, creating and burning plutonium as it goes. It's a process that can take years, even decades, as the reactor burbles away at a temperature of about 1,000 degrees F (550 degrees C) while cooled by liquid sodium, lead or lead-bismuth alloy.

The other version is called a "standing wave," and the principle is the same, except instead of a great slab, the reactor is made up of fuel rods of U-238 and the reaction is started in the center. As the reaction proceeds outwards, the spent rods are reshuffled by the operators until all the fuel is consumed. The upshot of this is that a traveling wave reactor uses it fuel more efficiently and can run for 60 years without refueling. Theoretically, it could go for 200 years.

With either type, they are also unusual in that they have no moderator, rely on passive cooling, can be built in factories and have no moving parts. They are as close to plug-and-play as nuclear reactors can get.

Hyperion

Cutaway of a Hyperion reactor installation (Image: Hyperion Power Generation)

Hyperion is another very small modular reactor that produces only 25 megawatts, but what it lacks in power it makes up for in portability. The reactor vessel is only 8 feet (2.5 m) tall and 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter, has no moving parts and can go for ten years without refueling. When refueling is needed, the reactor is returned to the factory and replaced rather in the manner of a gas bottle. This configuration not only makes it possible to build multi-reactor power plants, but the individual reactors can also be used for applications like providing heat to extract oil from shale beds, steam for industrial uses and running desalination plants.

PRISM

Power Reactor Innovative Small Module (PRISM) is a GE-Hitachi design. It's sodium cooled, installed underground and generates 311 megawatts with refueling every six years. Its ability to burn plutonium and depleted uranium makes it of great interest to the UK, which is negotiating to have two installed at the Sellafield nuclear facility where they would be used to burn nuclear waste stockpiles. This is more than just a waste disposal solution. It's estimated that if this works, the waste could provide power to Britain for 500 years.

Molten salt reactors

In this type of SMR, the coolant and the fuel are one in the same. The coolant is a mixture of lithium and beryllium fluoride salts. In this is dissolved a fuel, which can be enriched uranium, thorium or U-233. This molten salt solution passes at relatively low pressure and a temperature of 1,300 degrees F (700 degrees C) through a graphite moderator core. As the fuel burns, the waste products are removed from the solution and fresh fuel is added.

Flibe

Concept art of Flibe modular nuclear reactor installed at military base (Image: Flibe)

Flibe (Fluoride salt of Lithium and Beryllium) is a sort of reactor in a box. The US military wants to develop small reactors that can be easily set up at remote bases. Toward this end, the Flibe is designed around a power plant that packs into a set of cargo containers. The idea is to stick the reactor in the ground, set up the generating machinery and cover the lot with a building. The last doesn't need to be anything like the containment building of a conventional reactor because the reactor is not only passively heated, but also features a salt plug that needs to be actively cooled at all times. If the reactor suffers a breakdown and the reactor starts to overheat, the plug melts and the molten salt/fuel mixture pours out into a drain tank. Power output is rated at 20 to 50 megawatts and it uses U-233 and thorium for fuel. This not only eliminates proliferation issues (neither U-233 nor thorium is completely unsuitable for weapons), but it also opens up a cheap, easily obtained energy source.

Challenges remain

As impressive as many of these reactors sound, most of them are still in one stage or another of development or approval. It is a long way from there to flipping a switch and watching the lights go on. Most of these designs have roots that go back over half a century.

In the 1950s, Admiral Hyman Rickover, the architect of the US nuclear fleet, pointed out that the small research reactors, the precursors of SMRs, had a lot of advantages. They were simple, small, cheap, lightweight, easy to build, very flexible in design and needed very little development. On the other hand, practical reactors must be built on schedule, need a huge amount of development spent on "apparently trivial matters", are expensive, large, heavy and complicated. In other words, there's a large gap between what is promised by a technology in the design phase and what it ends up as once it's built.

So it is with the current stable of SMRs. Many hold great promise, but they have yet to prove themselves. Also, they raise many questions. Will an SMR need fewer people to run it? What are its safety parameters? Will they fulfill current regulations? Will the regulations need to be changed to suit the nature of SMRs? Will evacuation zones, insurance coverage or security standards need to be altered? What about regulations regarding earthquakes?

Indeed, it is in government regulations that the modular reactors face their greatest challenges. Whatever the facts about nuclear accidents from Windscale to Fukushima, a large fraction of the public, especially in the West, is very nervous about nuclear energy in any form. There are powerful lobbies opposed to any nuclear reactors operating and the regulations written up by governments reflect these circumstances. Much of the cost of building nuclear plants is due to meeting all regulations, providing safety and security systems, and just dealing with all the legal barriers and paperwork that can take years and millions of dollars to overcome. Modular reactors have the advantage of being built quickly and cheaply, which makes them less of a financial risk, and factory manufacturing means that a reactor intended for a plant that missed approval can be sold to another customer elsewhere. And some SMRs are similar enough to conventional reactors that they don't face the burden of being a "new" technology under skeptical scrutiny. However, red tape is still a very real thing.

Only time will tell if the small reactor becomes a common sight on our power grids, if it falls by the wayside like other technological dreams, or if it falls victim to the bureaucrats' rule book.

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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43 Comments

Nuclear? No, thank you.

Joaquim Guerreiro
16th February, 2012 @ 06:59 am PST

Nuclear? Hell yes! fear of nuclear power is ignorant sillyness, grow up. Its green, its safe, its ready to go. Im NOT talking about old school huge plants, tear them down. But the new kind could fill the gap untill fusion reactors become practical in lets hope 20-30 years.

Lumpy
16th February, 2012 @ 08:16 am PST

One of the more interesting reactors I think is the quantum nucleonic reactor. You bombard hafnium with xrays and it stimulates more energy. These can be so small it could be fitted into light airplanes. The material is fairly benign as radioactive metals go.

And to the naysayers of nuclear.....with 7 billion on the planet, we need to utilize EVERY means of power production until someone figures out a better solution.

VoiceofReason
16th February, 2012 @ 08:21 am PST

One thing you didn't mention about Flibe's molten salt reactor is that it runs at atmospheric pressure (basically). That is a huge improvement in safety. Also, there is no hydrogen buildup possible or any other combustibles so explosions leading to the dispersion of radioactive particles is eliminated.

Since the fuel is in a molten salt, if the core did rupture, the salt would leak out and solidify (possibly even plugging the hole and stopping the leak).

@ Joaquim, nuclear is the only form of energy that can provide reliable baseload power without emitting CO2. It really is our only choice if we want to decrease CO2 and keep abundant, cheap energy available to our society.

George Carlin
16th February, 2012 @ 08:53 am PST

Can't happen soon enough - there's NO alternative.

Keith Reeder
16th February, 2012 @ 09:24 am PST

Nuclear? Faster please would be my response.

But then, most likely unlike Joaquim, I design the Instrumentation, Controls & Electrical for power plants. Normally they are Combined Cycle Gas Turbines.

Hence, I realize the difference in the 1960 design and controls of a reactor compared to the current design. And even then, the controls and related for any of these 'Small' reactors is multiple orders of magnitude better then anything that Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima ever had. The best example would be a car:

Take a car that was designed in 1960. Better yet, take a car design in 1910, because two of those plants were first generation 'lightbulb' designs (Three Mile/Fukushima) and Chernobyl was the oldest commercial reactor design, RBMK. So, pre-model-T.

Now, controls on a reactor built in 1960 (I also have done refinery work) is mostly pneumatic. As in, a chunk of SS tubing run from a level switch to a valve. When the tank gets full, the valve opens. When the tank fills past the point a little further up, another level switch gets tripped, and in this case, in most applications, a signal goes out and turns on a light. That is 1960s design, allot like a 1960's car, with emissions tubing, a carburetor, poor tolerances, smoke out the tailpipe, bad gas mileage, and lots of NOX, SOX, CO.

A modern car, even the friggen Ford Raptor, an obnoxious off-road truck, the emissions are cleaner then the air going into the truck. Cleaner! And it has allot more power output, is multitudes cleaner and safer in an accident then a car from the 1960's, and three times as efficient.

The difference in reactor and plant design between the versions that had problems, shoot every plant in operation from the 1970's, and what could be built now (like the AP1000 units) is so amazingly different that all anybody who has any experience working with modern plant design, the redundant controls, the DCS systems, the SIL ratings, the SIS ratings - Wow. Far more then our advances in car design. Since, short of the two new AP1000's, we haven't put into place a design that wasn't nearly 50 years old!

I can make a 200MW Gas Turbine plant that is walk away safe, remote controlled to turn on, run, and if there is any problem shut itself off, and make it be controlled by a friggen smart phone. These SNR plants are that way also, in some cases (Thorium and Breeded) there isn't any nuclear waste that last more then 100 years. And it eats all of our old waste.

Thing Prius, Volt, Karma, Leaf when you see these new reactors. Stop thinking 1965 442. This is a huge improvement on anything people have any way of relating to.

Josh C
16th February, 2012 @ 09:26 am PST

I really hope these type of power plants are approved and used as soon as possible. This is a great answer to the worlds energy needs. I am all for it. This could even be a way of producing "green" hydrogen for use in fuel cells?

@ Joaquim, did you even read the whole article? If so then what do you suggest we do instead, keep burning more coal?

jason 77
16th February, 2012 @ 09:52 am PST

Excellent article, well written.

Nathan Rogers
16th February, 2012 @ 12:22 pm PST

India plans 'safer' nuclear plant powered by thorium

Use of relatively low-carbon, low-radioactivity thorium instead of uranium may be breakthrough in energy generation

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/01/india-thorium-nuclear-plant

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/01/what-is-thorium-nuclear-power

Viktor Szabó
16th February, 2012 @ 12:38 pm PST

as with all other good ideas,they don't want us to take advantage and make good use of them,because tory administrations like to repress and politicise everything,wrap it so tight in red tape that it strangles itself before it can come to fruition.as such,i don't hold out much hope for any good idea when governments choose to use these things for political points scoring,think of all the potential jobs!oh.....there i go again....dreaming.

floccipaucinihilipilification
16th February, 2012 @ 01:33 pm PST

I am surprised this rather long list of nuclear types doesn't include any LFTR reactors. These are actually being buit, and the amount of Thorium available is huge, compared to U235, and it produces a much much smaller amount of nuclear waste than any Uranium based reactors.

Eletruk
16th February, 2012 @ 07:11 pm PST

Another energy producing system that people think will last for ever. It is not limitless it requires fuel and it produces waste.

When will you people learn that there is only one solution and that is an energy system that does not produce any waste product and has no polluting effect on the environment and this includes heat.

Heat is becoming one of the greatest polluting effects of the human race and as more people populate the planet any system that they use to create energy/electricity that has a by-product of heat will ultimately heat up the environment.

You need to think in time scales larger than 5 or 10 years and need to focus on the one and only solution which is solar.

Foxy1968
16th February, 2012 @ 07:33 pm PST

Great Article, Very well written. I really appreciate Gizmag doing these features.

I would be happy to see these SMR built in Australia to cover peak loads and augment

renewable energy. Australia has labelled it self a "Nuclear free zone" (with the exception of nuclear medicine)it will be a difficult sell to the ignorant to change that position.

Develocon
16th February, 2012 @ 08:31 pm PST

SMRs with thorium fuel :

even safer and efficient ?

Technique yet (or soon) available ?

From a french reader, a country that seems only to think Uranium ou Plutonium and with giant nuclear plants, and where Greens are imagining a zero nuclear option (and preferently a zero fossil fuel too...) available within 20 years... Oh my God !

watersworm
17th February, 2012 @ 02:28 am PST

Nuclear? Yes please!

Australia should be the world's one-stop shop for all things nuclear. We have massive natural supplies of uranium. We have massive tracts of unihabited land that incorporate many of the uranium sources. These could, and should be used for safe disposal of spent, processed fuel.

I wish there was more advocacy work on the inherent benefits and safety of new nuclear-power generators.

In Australia we have a "Greens" (with Red centers) party in politics that scream murder with respect to coal-fired generators and their carbon generation yet they will not support the only suitable replacement - nuclear!

In fact, coal burning has released more radiation into the environment globally in the last 100 years than the entire history of nuclear plant meltdowns ( a byproduct of burning coal is you also burn everything that was with the coal, including radioactive elements).

We also have some of the most stable geology in the world.

What we don't have is political will or political spine. Thus, sadly we will trail the world. To our shagrin we remain adicted to foreign oil to fuel our nation.

Australian
17th February, 2012 @ 02:39 am PST

re; Foxy1968

Given your comment on the solar tower that will hopefully be built in Arizona http://www.gizmag.com/enviromission-solar-tower-arizona-clean-energy-renewable/19287/ you want us living in dank caves eating raw vegetables.

If you truly are worried about heat pollution having dark colored panels all over the earth converting most of the visible spectrum into heat at ground level is not the solution, besides covering the entire planet in solar collectors is worse for the environment than burning coal with chimney scrubbers.

.........................................................................................................................

While I would welcome any of these pint sized nuclear reactors, I think that really big nuclear reactors mounted on ships floating in deep water is the way to go. Come to think of it submarines would be immune to surface phenomenon and harder for terrorists to target.

Slowburn
17th February, 2012 @ 04:10 am PST

Although I am confident enough that modern reactor designs are reasonably safe from catastrophic failure, do they not still produce large quantities of radioactive waste? I would rather continue with coal and gas until other clean technologies fill the void.

jonoxn
17th February, 2012 @ 04:24 am PST

The "Energy Catalyzer" or "eCat" by Andrea Rossi in an interesting development:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_Catalyzer

...tho its still up in the air as to whether or not he's on the up-n-up.

MzunguMkubwa
17th February, 2012 @ 05:35 am PST

Certainly we will get sufficient energy, but still lacks security when it goes into wrong hands.

Tulasi Ram
17th February, 2012 @ 06:49 am PST

If Professor James Lovelock says that nuclear power is necessary, then as far as I am concerned, nuclear power is necessary. In satisfying that necessity the idea of SMRs would seem to an excellent answer, especially those that are inherently safe and can be as good as unmanned while having no materials of use to terrorists.

Seeing as there are doubts regarding the supply of Uranium needed to meet a large expansion in nuclear power generation, I imagine thorium based models would be best, which also solves the weapons question entirely.

While it would be nice to have completely non-nuclear fuel generation, if only from a public acceptance point of view, climate change and over-population are realities that we have to address in the very near future and these SMRs would seem to be the best bet. The possibility of distributing them about the country, with no need for a local supply of water in many designs, would obviate the need for a national grid to a large extent and thus enable us to remove all those pylons that currently blot the landscape.

Thanks for taking the trouble to produce this article, much appreciated.

Mel Tisdale
17th February, 2012 @ 06:58 am PST

I was really surprised that the LIFTR reactor was not mentioned. It is a liquid salt type reactor burning Thorium and U233. It's safe. It's been built already. It's small enough to put into 2 cargo containers. It has excellent power output. It's easily serviced. It can consume close to 98% of it's fuel leaving very little waste. It can use (and get rid of) the contents of existing retired fuel rods actually lowering the amount of waste material in the world. Google has sponsored several seminars on this design.

dwreid
17th February, 2012 @ 09:44 am PST

@Jonoxn - No, many of the new designs do not create significant amounts of waste material. In the case of some of the thorium designs they can even use existing waste as a fuel actually reducing the amount of waste now being stored. There is some additional information here. http://www.gizmag.com/thorium-nuclear-power/18204/ You'll also find some presentations sponsored by Google if you search on the terms LFTR or LIFTR.

dwreid
17th February, 2012 @ 09:56 am PST

Here's some more info on thorium: http://liquidfluoridethoriumreactor.glerner.com/

As much an improvement as thorium holds over conventional fission, however, I will never see the sense of building anything nuclear until there is fusion. Why in the world would anyone build something that, when it inevitably fails (no matter how good the technology), ends up risking lives and causing widespread, long term destruction of the environment, and, even if it doesn't catastrophically fail, is so flawed that no one at all, anywhere, wants it's radioactive waste in their backyard? The very need for such extremely rigorous long term handling and storage, and this includes "decommissioning" hundreds of gigantic end of life radioactive hulks, throws into our faces that something is really wrong with the very concept of fission for power.

And now this industry wants to proliferate these abominations so we can have one for every town? At such a scale, just the radioactive transport and storage alone, even without sudden catastrophes, is unthinkably dangerous, both technically and politically.

As a retired avionics engineer, I can tell you that failure mode analysis is a game of probabilities. There are always unhandled influences that exceed your control laws. Nth-order, compounded, confluences of events arriving from outside the control of system itself, can perturb any system that is inherently unstable (and ultimately all are) to end up way past its integrity limits. Catastrophic failure is really just a matter of Murphy's law, whether technically or economically driven.

Simply put, since all systems can fail, at some point they will. It's just the inevitable dynamic between any coherent system and the entropic influences of the contextual environment in which it exists.

So can we really guarantee that all the nuclear dump sites, both "permanent" and temporary, will be continuously funded for monitoring, maintenance and failure containment and recovery, for, say, the next 30,000 years. Really? Now there's a pathetically naive pipe dream, if I ever heard one. Fission waste handling and technical and political safety issues are just slow motion catastrophes that are already in progress as we speak. Even educated humans generally have a lot of difficulty taking responsibility for social actions that have repercussions approaching geological time scales, and it has taken reality checks like Chernobyl and Fukushima to even give us pause. Sadly, a few months later, as the news cycle changes, we're back to business as usual.

So instead of trying to be oh-so-clever with claims of improved safety, reliability and control for fission power, a fundamentally flawed premise at nearly every stage of the life cycle, while remaining in completely dysfunctional denial about the inevitable collapse of failure mode mitigation measures, how about if we take a look at what that $9 billion quoted price for a typical fission reactor, (perhaps less for thorium, but still not counting the human and economic cost of storing the waste for thorium's minimum 300 years or the hundreds of regular reactor's times of thousands of years) could buy if applied in good faith to the plethora of alternatives coming down the pipeline? Oh, and while doing those calculations, let's factor in that fission has had, what, 75 years of R&D just to get to this point (wherein failures, storage and political safety all remain unsolved), and give truly green alternatives an equivalent chance. Also, let's factor in that the $9 billion is just for one plant. So let's multiply by, say, 100 plants, just to start off. That's a lot of money that could be spent on technologies that are not inherently flawed.

How many people are killed if a wind or solar farm catastrophically fails from, say, a hurricane, an earthquake, or a tsunami flood? Perhaps some, but the results would be nothing like the uninhabitable wastelands of Chernobyl or Fukushima. As far as human habitation goes, aren't two of these dead zones in the world enough?

This love affair with fission is foolishly shortsighted. Vested industry propaganda is only believable if you ignore the full life-cycle risks and costs, which habit became part of our western psyches back in the glorious promised land of the '50's and hasn't appreciably abated since. Sadly, our capacity for ignorance is almost completely controlled by those devious false promises, and, in the final analysis, our fear of not surviving in this world. In my opinion, offering such false promises and manipulating those fears is the fission industry's marketing stock in trade, and is no less despicable than war profiteering.

kurt
17th February, 2012 @ 12:16 pm PST

@ dwreid and Eletruk - You need to learn the terminology and descriptions of theLFTR or LIFTR you thought was not mentioned.

Flibe is LFTR or LIFTR. It is also known as a MSR -- Molten Salt Reactor.

Yes, we need lots of them, or something with their inherent advantages.

see3d
17th February, 2012 @ 12:43 pm PST

re; jonoxn

Most of what you call waste is really fuel, and the rest can be subjected to neutron bombardment until all that is left is short half-life gamma emitters.

............................................................................................................................

re; kurt

Chernobyl was a badly designed, and poorly constructed even by the standards of the USSR and the surrounding territory has become a de facto wildlife sanctuary.

Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex was already starting to be shut down do to its old age when it was hit by a record earthquake fallowed by a record tsunami, if the emergency diesels had not failed there would not have had a problem. and even so they haven't demonstrated that more than twenty people have been harmed.

Slowburn
17th February, 2012 @ 06:26 pm PST

I very much agree with Kurt. It is nice that traditional waste fuel can be consumed in alternative reactor designs. But even disregarding the complexities of transporting and processing the fuel, at what point in the cycle does nuclear fuel reach a point where it harmless to life, and can be dumped or recycled like fly-ash is today? I don't only see this as a solution to a problem, I see it as the beginning of many more.

jonoxn
17th February, 2012 @ 09:42 pm PST

No mention of helium cooled pebble bed reactors. Some have already been built. They encapsulate sub-critical amounts of fuel inside seven alternating layers of graphite and ceramic. The shells keep the fuel separated enough so that it cannot reach a temperature hot enough to melt the encapsulation of the pebbles (they're more like softball size) even without any cooling helium flowing through the containment chamber.

A big benefit to a helium cooled reactor is if there happens to be a coolant leak, it floats up in the air and will eventually blow away on the solar wind, same as the helium that leaks out of toy balloons.

Reactor cooling would be an excellent use for the US Strategic Helium Reserve, which we've been maintaining for all the military dirigibles we haven't had for 75 years.

Kurt, dude. Chill out man. You must be afraid to step out your own front door. The nuclear waste storage problem was solved long ago, but watermelons like YOU have kept reprocessing of the waste and reactors designed to use the reprocessed fuel blocked for decades. It's your kind of baloney sellers that are the problem with nuclear energy, and manned space travel and every other technology that's been held back by the know-nothing, fear mongering Luddites.

As for "overpopulation", try some simple math. Find the area of the State (or Republic if you live there) of Texas. Hit the official world population site, grab that number and divide it into the area of Texas. Around five years ago the quotient was nearly 2,000 square feet of Texas per human. Texas is a very large place. For even more fun, take the Texas/World quotient and divide it into the land surface (ie. not including the oceans) area of Earth. Earth, crowded? Ha! It's only those who choose to sardine themselves into the large cities who actually experience anything close to crowding.

Pick up any SciFi tale including a planet with super high population, with or without a world girdling, multi-level building and you'll find the author has vastly undershot the mark. Cover just the land of Earth with four levels of building, use the top floor for food production and the bottom level for services and the middle two floors could hold 27.4 trillion humans - given 200 square feet of living space per human and using half the space on each living floor for hallways etc. IIRC, Issac Asimov's planet Trantor in his Foundation series was completely covered with a 100 story building, excepting a section around the emperor's palace. If Trantor was smaller than Earth so its total area equaled Earth's land area, it could accommodate somewhere around 270 trillion and have 1,000 square feet of space per human. (I'm pretty certain when I calculated that I only used 1/2 the space, leaving the rest for services, hallways, open space etc.)

Run the numbers. Earth is extremely far from being "overpopulated". Write a SciFi tale with an "in each others pockets constantly" population density that's actually plausible by the numbers. If you give your world a full coverage 100 story building or a bunch of 1,000 floor towers, don't be BSing your readers with a mere few billion or even a paltry trillion inhabitants. ;)

Josh C, I hope you don't write the operating manuals for those power plants. ;) There is no such word as allot or its bastard cousin alot. How hard is it for people to learn the proper use of then and than? Than is like a logical NOT gate. I'd rather have a nuclear power plant next door THAN a coal fired one. Then is used to separate two items in a sequence. First let's build a nuclear power plant, THEN we'll have pollution free energy. Our education system must be in the crapper when even power plant designers have problems with basic English grammar. :P

"And even then, the controls and related for any of these 'Small' reactors is multiple orders of magnitude better then anything that Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima ever had."

That sentence literally makes no sense!

"And even then, the controls and related (missing a word here, perhaps systems) for any of these 'Small' reactors ARE multiple orders of magnitude better THAN anything that Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima ever had."

When attempting to express yourself in writing where you want to be taken seriously, spelling and grammar are very important. Even those who got straight failing grades in the subject can usually tell the difference.

Some people wondered why the control rooms at Fukushima look like they're 40+ years old. It's because they are 40+ years old! I bet if one dug into it, you'd find case after case of anti-nuke organizations blocking any attempts over the years to change anything. The ones leading the wrong way know the truths about all the safety, efficiency and pollution reduction advancements that have been made for al types of power plants - yet instead of pushing for all *practical* upgrades to be made to old plants, they keep the red tape and protests spewing to block any upgrades. They demand that the plants must be brought up 100% to the latest standards, or do nothing, or shut the plants down. Then just try to get around the anti-progress "progressives" to build a new power plant.

Which would you rather have, a old coal fired power plant that's operating like it was when it was built, that same plant with updates that cut its pollution by half, or no power plant at all and higher priced electricity and rolling blackouts? The "progressives" want the third. Bush Jr's proposal tried to obtain the second. What we got was the stagnation of the first choice.

This has been going on for many years. Back in the 80's I helped manufacture some replacement refractory burner grates for an industrial incinerator. The thing was so old that new parts weren't available. It could have been modified and upgraded to make it more efficient and cleaner, but the only choices allowed were to repair it back to original condition or scrap it and buy an all new, very expensive incinerator. The replica grates had to match the originals, no variation allowed. Thank you, dear stupid "greens", for forcing a dirty incinerator to continue to pollute more than it had to for several more years.

Gregg Eshelman
17th February, 2012 @ 10:49 pm PST

Thorium reactors were the commercial version of the nuclear industry, killed at birth by a successful Conventional Nuclear lobby

http://energyfromthorium.com/

which is a shame because that lobby has no influences in states other than the US, China and India will bring in the next generation of nuclear reactors based on Thorium, Gas will displace what is left.

L1ma
18th February, 2012 @ 12:51 am PST

Nuclear power makes sense if it solves more problems than it causes at a reasonable cost. For the moment, neither seems to be the case.

Does nuclear power solve more problems than it causes?

Risks decreased by nuclear:

global warming, energy dependence on unreliable countries

Risks increased by nuclear:

nuclear waste, accidents, weapons proliferation

In terms of risk, is nuclear a winner? That's hard to weigh, but it must at least be admitted that nuclear has both up and downsides. To pretend otherwise is magical thinking. Still, if there is no other way to provide enough energy as well as deal with global warming, then maybe we have no choice but to accept nuclear. And whatever it costs, we'll just have to pay.

But are there other technologies that can solve both energy and global warming problems? And can they do so without any of the risks of nuclear? The answer is, "Yes." It's possible to provide 100% of the world's energy solely with wind, solar and water power:

http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/renewables/wind-water-and-solar-power-for-the-world/0

But what about cost? Well, in the short term, it appears to be cheaper to not go all the way with renewables. This has been worked out in considerable detail for the US state of California:

E. K. Hart. "A Monte Carlo approach to generator portfolio planning and carbon emissions assessments of systems with large penetrations of variable renewables." Renewable Energy. Vol. 36 (8). 2011.

In the paper's low carbon scenario (80% C02 reduction), the only non-renewable generators were natural gas backup plants, which had a peak capacity equal to 25% of total energy production. Roughly speaking, they ran 2.6% of the time.

Nuclear backup would have been a far more expensive than backup from natural gas. And as a source for bulk, low C02 power, nuclear would have been more expensive than wind: 97 $/Mwh for wind vs. 113.9 $/Mwh for advanced nuclear. This is for year 2016 systems that meet US grid security standards, expressed in 2009 dollars.

It is possible to look this up:

"Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2011." U.S. Energy Administration.

http://205.254.135.24/oiaf/aeo/electricity_generation.html

The assumptions made in this study are described here:

http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/aeo/assumption/renewable.html

In summary, the case for nuclear is currently unconvincing, both in terms of security and in terms of cost.

Maybe SBR's will improve nuclear economics but this was not demonstrated in this nearly numberless article. If nuclear ever does become significantly cheaper than renewables, then it will be reasonable talk about weighing risk against cost.

But until then, renewables are actually the more logical choice.

scotto
18th February, 2012 @ 05:22 am PST

Nuclear power isn't the problem.

The problem is with the reactors we've been using to make it. If the reactors at Fukushima had been Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) they wouldn't have a mess on their hands.

Molten salt reactor technology was developed at Oak Ridge National Labs in the 1960s. Although the test reactor worked flawlessly, the project was shelved, a victim of political shenanigans during the Nixon Administration. But MSRs have been gathering a lot of new attention since the events in Japan.

A Molten Salt Reactor (a variation of which is the LFTR - Liquid Fuel Thorium Reactor) is a completely different kind of reactor, as different as an electric motor from a gasoline engine. An MSR can't melt down, and automatically adjusts its output to meet changing workload demands. It requires no active cooling system, and can be installed anywhere on earth, even an underground vault. A tsunami would roll right over it, like a truck over a manhole cover.

MSRs use liquid fuel - nuclear material dissolved in molten fluoride salt. Solid-fuel reactors are atomic pressure cookers, with the constant danger of high-pressure ruptures, meltdowns, and the forceful ejection of radioactive material. MSRs don't use water, and always operate at ambient pressure.

An MSR can deliver 750ºC heat for industrial processes, or spin a high-temperature gas turbine to generate power. If disaster strikes and an MSR should leak, the spill cools to an inert lump of rock, chemically locking the nuclear material inside. The solidified fuel would not be carried away by wind or water, and can all be recovered and used again. The contaminated area would be measured in square meters, not square kilometers.

The LFTR variant of MSRs will burn Thorium (hence the T in LFTR), a mildly radioactive material more common than tin and found all over the world. America has already mined enough Thorium to power the entire country for 400 years. It's found by the ton in the tailings of our abandoned Rare Earth Element mines.

The worldwide supply of Thorium is for all practical purposes unlimited. America has already mined enough to power the country at our current electrical consumption rate for 400 years. It's the mining waste at our shuttered Rare Earth Element mines, and costs about $200K per ton, processed and delivered.

MSRs are highly resistant to proliferation. Thorium is bred into 233-Uranium inside the reactor, but only enough to keep the MSR running, so no stockpiling occurs. While 233U is an excellent fuel, its harsh radiation makes it nearly impossible to steal, and extremely difficult to use in a weapon.

An MSR's liquid fuel can be continuously cleaned of the contaminants that spoil solid fuel. This unique feature enables MSRs to consume their fuel so thoroughly that they can even use the spent fuel from other reactors, cleaning up our legacy of nuclear waste while producing a minuscule amount of waste themselves.

In 300 years, an MSR's waste will be virtually harmless, compared to the waste of a conventional solid-fuel reactor, which only uses 1% of its fuel, contaminating the rest of it and turning it into long-term waste. By contrast, MSRs burn 99% of their fuel.

A 1-gigawatt MSR, big enough to power a city of one million, will run on one ton of Thorium per year, or about 2 teaspoons per hour. The yearly long-term waste would be the size of a basketball.

Google: MSR, Molten Salt Reactor, LFTR, Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, Thorium

See the Wired.Com article "Uranium Is So Last Century"

Mike Conley
18th February, 2012 @ 11:43 am PST

@kurt

You think fission reactors are dangerous, yet you want to put the sun in a box? That is seriously playing with fire.

AlexMH
18th February, 2012 @ 04:53 pm PST

Having served in the US Navy as a Nuclear Machinist Mate and also an advocate for public ownership of utilities I see the fear of nuclear power by the West based mostly in a lack of confidence in the Corporate Capitalist organizations that build and operate them. There is a non-carbon based future for the humanity. Bigger does not make something better. It just allows room for more,"apparently trivial matters".

onearth1hominid
18th February, 2012 @ 06:41 pm PST

Variously called "Cold Fusion", LENR (Low Energy Nuclear Reaction), CANR (Chemically Assisted Nuclear Reaction) and LANR (Lattice Assisted Nuclear Reaction) a reaction between hydrogen and nickel promises to be the energy source of the future.

This reaction, initially introduced in the 80's by Pons and Fleischman is indeed for real. The reaction, replicated globally by many Physicists is somewhat of an enigma. Physicists are currently debating the precise mechanism by which hydrogen and nickel (heated above 450C) liberates excess energy and produces copper as a by product. Initially called "Cold Fusion" by virtue of the fact that nickel and hydrogen are adjacent to one another on the Periodic Table and that (presumably) nickel fused with a neutron becomes copper.

Currently there are several debates. The first is whether the reaction constitutes fusion or another reaction previously unknown. The second is whether the reaction occurs at all. The third is the mechanism by which copper may be transmuted from nickel in a non classical (high pressure high temperature mechanism....as in the sun) fusion environment.

.

Advocates for this reaction include Nobel Physics Laureate Brian Josephson (NASA) and others at NASA.

There are efforts currently in process to unequivocally validate the mechanism by years end (2012).

For more information, please search on any of the "Cold Fusion" synonyms presented at the

start of the post.

rkleslie
18th February, 2012 @ 08:55 pm PST

I'll try not put on my tinfoil hat here, and make a disclaimer that my knowledge of the fore mentioned types of reactors is very limited. Having said that, I think one could make an argument for bigger reasons as to why these technologies are not being explored more.

If the information contained within this article holds water, as well as some of comments below, imagine where this technology could be in 50 years. Is it a huge step to think we could not eventually have self contained, cheap to run energy sources for every home? True self reliance, especially if one lives where one can afford their own piece of property.

Besides the money lost (energy corporations, oil corporations), think of the power lost ("hey, maybe I don't have to rely on politicians to provide infrastructure for me, or protect me from evil polluting corporations") as well. A true spirit of self reliance I think would take hold more than ever. Many people in high, or rich places, have much to lose over such a technology. Paranoid? Maybe. But think about it.

clarkekent
18th February, 2012 @ 09:27 pm PST

This is NOT the future of energy. The future of energy is FUSION and space based solar power. Of course neither can be realistically put into practice now, fusion mainly because of technical challenges, and space based solar, mainly because of financial challenges (specifically the cost/lb of putting something in orbit) But with progress being made on both fronts, it could be a completely different situation in a decade or 2.

By 2050 the U.S. and most of the world COULD be powered 100% by fusion and space based solar. Wether or not that turns out to be the case is another story.... the biggest challenge is probably going to be political BS

KushSmoka420
18th February, 2012 @ 11:41 pm PST

This is an interesting article, for years I have thought that it would be better to use nuclear reactors based upon the design the US Navy uses for it's nuclear carriers, than using the unique one off design we have been using in the past. We know the carrier reactors are safe, after all you can't hide a nuclear accident on a 6,000+ personnel carrier, you can't hide the fact if a carrier no longer exists while on active duty, because the reactor went critical.

The US Navy has trained personnel who could man these power plants.

The biggest issue would be from a security standpoint of allowing the design to become know to the world, which could be alleviated by using an earlier design, with some modifications.

It would be essential to have a standard design for safety sake.

By building multiple units of these SMRs, one could have one unit powered down, so if a unit needed to be taken down for any type of maintenance the extra unit could be brought on line to maintain the total power output needed.

But this article has brought to my attention of other types of nuclear reactors, which look to be much safer, and much more efficient.

We are at risk from anything we do on a daily basis, even the act of getting out of bed can be a risk. Driving our automobiles is very risky, but we do it and don't really think of the risks involved as we go speeding down our roads, tailgating another vehicle.

mb230kc
19th February, 2012 @ 07:06 am PST

re; scotto

. Nuclear power makes sense if it solves more problems than it causes at a reasonable . cost. For the moment, neither seems to be the case.

. Does nuclear power solve more problems than it causes?

. Risks decreased by nuclear:

. global warming, energy dependence on unreliable countries

First AGW has been proven to be a fraud so remove global warming from this list. Second it lowers the risk from real pollutants including heavy metals, (See the EPAs unreasonable, and unethical actions against Texas.) reduces the risk from released radiation, (coal is admittedly seriously nasty stuff) reduces the amount of stuff moved by rail thus all those related risks, the footprint of nuclear power is trivial compared to renewables.

. Risks increased by nuclear:

. nuclear waste, accidents, weapons proliferation

Most of nuclear waste is in fact Fuel and it is easier to deal with the small amount of waste generated by nuclear power, than the mountains of waste generated by burning coal. Weapons proliferation? In countries that already have nuclear power if they want nuclear weapons they already have them and we don't have to encourage nuclear power in unstable countries to use it greatly in stable countries.

. In terms of risk, is nuclear a winner? That's hard to weigh, but it must at least be . admitted that nuclear has both up and downsides. To pretend otherwise is magical . thinking. Still, if there is no other way to provide enough energy as well as deal with . global warming, then maybe we have no choice but to accept nuclear. And whatever . it costs, we'll just have to pay.

The math does not work for nuclear winter and given the size of the discrepancy intentional tampering looks likely but gross incompetence is possible. Again AGW is a lie.

. But are there other technologies that can solve both energy and global warming . problems? And can they do so without any of the risks of nuclear? The answer is, . "Yes." It's possible to provide 100% of the world's energy solely with wind, solar . and water power:

The footprint of nuclear is trivial compared to renewables. If people don't want windmills sticking up everywhere barely touching the agricultural or wildlife potential of the land they don't want it paved with solar. The affects of the dams for hydro-power on river life is worse than a nuclear accident the size of Chernobyl's across its drainage area. The odds of another accident like Chernobyl is extremely low almost indistinguishable from zero.

Hydro-power is the only renewable that provides electricity 24/7.

. But until then, renewables are actually the more logical choice.

Not even close.

Slowburn
19th February, 2012 @ 07:13 am PST

I think nuclear fission is only a temporary solution until we can commercialize nuclear fusion. Forget radioactive wastes.

bio-power jeff
20th February, 2012 @ 04:18 am PST

re; bio-power jeff

Given that power positive fusion has been ten to twenty years off for at least forty years I don't think it is going to happen. be nice to be wrong though.

Slowburn
21st February, 2012 @ 05:05 am PST

@Gregg Eshelman: I have fought with my severe dyslexia quite a bit to get where I am in life, but thanks for being a grammar Nazi. It generally takes me more work then most to do my job when it comes to grammar, 'simple' differences like then and than to you are basically the same word to me. I make up for it in excellent spatial design and software skills. That is why I teach 3D design and software instead of English, and hire somebody else to write my patents. How that is related to the topic I am not sure, but thank you for pointing it out.

Josh C
21st February, 2012 @ 07:55 am PST

Josh C, thanks for reminding me there are other reasons for misspells.

Slowburn

The LFTR MSR FLIBE reactors do not produce weapons grade products. They cannot be turned into Nuclear weapons. In fact they can be used to burn up much of the waste we currently have. They produce 1% of the waste of a current reactor and much of that waste has a half life of 300 years instead of 27,000 years.

This technology was proposed by Dr Alvin Weinberg and he built and ran one for approx 6 years at Oak Ridge. He was fired for making statements against the safety of PWR/LWR designs, the very design he held patents on. He did not think they were safe for civil use so Nixon silenced him. The current designs are not safe but they do have an impressive safety record due to control measures and strict obedience.

His MSR was shut down each weekend and restarted the next weekday. It is a fabulous technology that has little backing because of the entrenched nuclear lobby. It didn't catch on because it doesn't produce weapons materials that the PWR does/did.

Please all do research on the LFTR and force feed it to your congressmen. This technology will not only solve many problems but will help the poor nations secure clean, cheap power to drag themselves up in the world. Our western mentality (we must save the world, global warming or cooling, CO2 blah, blah) almost always puts the poor countries in a worse situation. Clean, cheap energy is what everyone can have with LFTR.

Let's save our fossil fuels for other more critical tasks and get us off the middle east teat.

Just saying.

Dr. Veritas
13th April, 2012 @ 01:56 pm PDT

I don't see why these mini nuke plants are being touted as having real advantages over their larger brothers. For example, the Babcock and Wilcox mPower units are less like Navy nukes and more like smaller versions of conventional nuclear plants. They are 180MW each and installed as twin-packs (360MW) for "economy of scale". But economy of scale is of course why conventional nukes are typically 1200 MW per reactor, and not smaller. The capital cost of the mPower units is also similar to conventional nuke plant - currently estimated about $5,000/KW - and this is 10 years before the first one is slated to go into commercial operation. Nuclear installation costs typically end up double or triple their initial estimates. These mini nukes also only have about 10% turndown (36 MW on a 360MW plant), making them only suitable for base load. Some Navy nukes can go 30 years before refueling, but these are only advertised at 4 years being refueling........

Mirror16
9th September, 2013 @ 07:09 pm PDT

biggest question i would be asking is what is likelihood if failure were to occur what would be the nuclear fallout be if these new nuclear technologies suddenly became unstable and became a nuclear disaster..

can we really afford another 3 mile island type disaster when something fail..

don't get me wrong i'm not scared of nuclear power stations as such though what happens with waste where does it go and how toxic can it be to humans what rays can it give off that is still unknown to scientists today..

nuclear may be safe to a certain point for power consumption though some the byproducts associated with nuclear fusion may not be known, and the true hazards are not yet known..

you only breed complacency saying something is relatively safe to use when the full consequences are not yet known of what the byproduct can do..

i'm no tin foil hat wearing fool, though looking at that 70's disaster flick where the a plant goes into meltdown and makes the man look like a kook though the reality after his death he save alot of lives, the that starred henry fonda..

whist the movie was a work of fiction the reality is that it showed the merit of what could happen when you ignore things complacency happens in upper management and shit happens and it showed how fragile a nuclear power plant could be..

doesn't matter how safe you say something is until you blow it up there is no way to know what contamination there is and what type of contamination it can cause to life, nature and the ozone layer..

Jason Howe
14th September, 2013 @ 10:53 am PDT
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