Sunday, November 9, 2008

Mini nukes: Blink and you'd miss it

One of the strange consequences of teaching climate change and energy at the general education level is how much time and attention it takes to keep up with the latest climate science and energy tech. I've already commented elsewhere in this blog about how policy ideas in climate change mitigation and abatement are rapidly made obsolete by either new climate science, or new energy technology. This article, a bit of a teaser, is a prime example. It suggests that prefabricated small scale nuclear power plants will soon be mass-produced and available for delivery to firms and communities all over the world. Presumably the service "package" also includes waste processing and treatment, although, because few details are provided, I'm going to have to do some digging to find out what the government researchers, and the commercial firm that is getting the technology, has in mind.

Most environmentalists would run a mile before embracing any kind of nuclear technology, so this is going to be a hard sell. But for those of us who have looked the potential horrors of abrupt climate change right in the face, this might be a partial solution to some hard "techy" questions about providing the right energy mix. In particular, although renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind, wave, and biomass seem very likely to be cheaper and less polluting than fossil fuels, there's still the "base load" problem to solve.

Take wind turbines, for instance. These are more reliable than you would guess. Most people don't know that a good wind power site can produce electricity 70-90% of the time. But there are still lulls, calm periods in which no power can be generated. This is a problem because electrical power demand is regular and diurnal, with a daily double peak in the mornings and evenings, and a constant base. Redundant wind capacity is only a partial solution. Some suggest that, particularly with the new giant 500m and 700m super-turbines in more or less permanently windy offshore sites, we can get upwards of 30% of our power from the wind. The Danish island of Samso is generally held up as an example of the feasibility of this. But more likely, we will be held to a more conservative theoretical maximum supply projection of 20% wind power. That leaves 80% to be provided by some other form of electricity generation.

Likewise, solar power only works when the sun is shining. Some applications, like electrical lighting, are needed when the sun is definitely not shining. In off-grid installations, lead acid batteries are used, an ancient and potentially polluting technology, to store power overnight. Battery cost is prohibitive, large scale use within grid tie systems as decentralized storage would require a massive increase in industrial scale battery production and recycling, as well as a lot of regular maintenance at the house, and so most solar power installers recommend grid-tie systems instead of batteries. In the event of large scale adoption of household solar, or indeed any kind of renewable household energy production, this lack of storage contributes to the base load problem in designing and managing local and regional grids, making it worse, not better, in most cases, and is one reason why power companies such as Central Maine Power are not really looking forward to the day when solar panels, or household-scale wind turbines, become cheaply and mass-produced for household installation.

It would also be nice if we could make the grid itself more resilient and secure on a regional basis, avoiding disasters such as the massive supra-regional power blackout of a few years ago that caused so many problems and recriminations. Any "hardening" of power generation in case of attack or natural disaster would also be a boon.

Right now, base load for our part of the world is primarily coal from southern New England states with our own Maine hydropower, waste incineration, and biomass. Peak load "topping off" is provided by oil, or small to medium scale natural gas, or hydro. Natural gas is actually a nice peak load technology because of the speed with which a natural gas plant can be fired up and on-line. Hydropower can be used for either peak or base, although peak load usage requires more substantial reliance on storage than in-stream flow, and thus requires more changing of reservoir levels. Coal-fired power production, currently the favorite, and cheapest base load technology, is probably the largest single contributer to climate change.

So any technology that is capable of providing decentralized base load power relatively cleanly is interesting as a necessary complement to clean household-scale energy generation. A local or regional base-load system such as the small nuclear plants suggested in this article would actually make current household solar and wind power technology more viable. It would also make offshore wind more viable.

I don't expect very many environmentalists would see things quite this way, though!

Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes

£13m shed-size reactors will be delivered by lorry

Jon Vidal and Nick Rosen, for The Observer

Nuclear power plants smaller than a garden shed and able to power 20,000 homes will be on sale within five years, say scientists at Los Alamos, the US government laboratory which developed the first atomic bomb.

The miniature reactors will be factory-sealed, contain no weapons-grade material, have no moving parts and will be nearly impossible to steal because they will be encased in concrete and buried underground.

The US government has licensed the technology to Hyperion, a New Mexico-based company which said last week that it has taken its first firm orders and plans to start mass production within five years. 'Our goal is to generate electricity for 10 cents a watt anywhere in the world,' said John Deal, chief executive of Hyperion. 'They will cost approximately $25m [£13m] each. For a community with 10,000 households, that is a very affordable $250 per home.'

Deal claims to have more than 100 firm orders, largely from the oil and electricity industries, but says the company is also targeting developing countries and isolated communities. 'It's leapfrog technology,' he said.

The company plans to set up three factories to produce 4,000 plants between 2013 and 2023. 'We already have a pipeline for 100 reactors, and we are taking our time to tool up to mass-produce this reactor.'

The first confirmed order came from TES, a Czech infrastructure company specialising in water plants and power plants. 'They ordered six units and optioned a further 12. We are very sure of their capability to purchase,' said Deal. The first one, he said, would be installed in Romania. 'We now have a six-year waiting list. We are in talks with developers in the Cayman Islands, Panama and the Bahamas.'

The reactors, only a few metres in diameter, will be delivered on the back of a lorry to be buried underground. They must be refuelled every 7 to 10 years. Because the reactor is based on a 50-year-old design that has proved safe for students to use, few countries are expected to object to plants on their territory. An application to build the plants will be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next year.

'You could never have a Chernobyl-type event - there are no moving parts,' said Deal. 'You would need nation-state resources in order to enrich our uranium. Temperature-wise it's too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with your bare hands.'

Other companies are known to be designing micro-reactors. Toshiba has been testing 200KW reactors measuring roughly six metres by two metres. Designed to fuel smaller numbers of homes for longer, they could power a single building for up to 40 years.


Rod Adams said...


Small nuclear plants offer a game changing opportunity. They can be built with high quality, high security and predictable costs using factory construction techniques learned in industries like shipbuilding. As emission free generation sources with low fuel costs, they should be important sources of power in the future.

Your state has quite a lot of experience in the shipbuilding industry and should be vying for some of the factory installations.

I also wanted to challenge your summary of the power sources in your state. According to the US Energy Information Agency, here is the mix of sources providing power to your grid as of 2006:

Coal 62.09%
Petroleum 0.92%
Natural Gas 4.80%
Nuclear 24.76%
Hydroelectric Conventional 1.07%
Other Renewables (mostly wood) 5.74%
Other 0.61%

In other words, even though it has not been "popular" nuclear is an important part of your electricity supply already, second only to coal. Why did you leave it off of your list?

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

Mick said...

That's great information. Why wasn't I, and why aren't other Mainers, aware of the real mix? Probably because most Maine environmentalists considered it a "victory" when Maine Yankee was closed and thought that was the end of nukes in Maine.

So, as I alluded to in the article, understanding of the real nature and function and limits of the grid system escapes most folks, even those with a stake in the outcome.

But theres also a Maine renewable portfolio standard law stipulating that the local power companies (CMP and Bangor Hydro) must "sell" 30% renewable power in-state. (The 30% mix itself is controversial because it includes incineration.) So your mix numbers represent the energy sold in the entire regional grid, while Maine itself has accounting systems in place to ensure that "our" portion of the mix is differrent.

Obviously, I know that to some analysts portfolio standards are controversial, and seen as a clever accounting trick to make power seem more "green" than it is, not unlike RECs or offsets.

Nevertheless there is a law in place.