Monday, December 15, 2008
Nuclear Power in a Small Package
By Raam Wong
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Northern Bureau
SANTA FE — It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie: A nuclear reactor smaller than an SUV that could produce electricity for 20,000 homes.
It would have no weapons-grade material, produce very little waste and would need refueling once every five to 10 years.
You could bury it in the backyard — not that you would want to.
This scenario is real.
A company partly owned by Los Alamos National Security, the consortium that runs the national lab, and using technology from the lab hopes to get regulatory approval and start manufacturing the mini-reactors within a few years.
The company, Hyperion Power Generation, already has a couple hundred orders pending and is proposing to mass-produce thousands of the reactors that would provide clean, reliable energy to industries and communities in remote areas.
The units could power military installations and islands, for example, or perhaps pump and clean water in developing countries.
About 5 feet wide, the Hyperion Power Module would leave the factory sealed and be carried by truck, train or ship to its destination, where it would be buried underground.
The reactor would power a steam turbine that could produce enough electricity for 20,000 American homes at a cost of 6 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour.
Public Service Company of New Mexico sells electricity for just more than 8 cents per kilowatt hour — a figure that takes into account transmission, distribution and other expenses, as well as the power generation.
Hyperion CEO John Grizz Deal said in a telephone interview from Denver that more investors want to write checks for orders than the company knows what to do with.
Hyperion is considering Lea County in southeastern New Mexico and Idaho Falls, Idaho, as possible homes for its manufacturing facilities. More plants would be built abroad.
The plan is to manufacture 4,000 units that sell for $25 million a pop.
The reactor was invented by then-LANL scientist Otis "Pete" Peterson. The lab licensed the technology to Hyperion for commercialization. Deal said Los Alamos National Security — the lab's for-profit corporate manager — owns part of the company.
Hyperion has said the reactor will need about three more years of work before it can be deployed.
The company plans to apply for design certification and a manufacturing license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It will be up to a reactor's owner to obtain an NRC site permit and operating licence, Deal said.
The key to the reactor's slim figure is the nonweapons-grade uranium that makes it run.
Uranium hydride — uranium plus hydrogen — both fuels the reactor and controls its nuclear activity. If it gets too hot, the uranium sheds hydrogen, slowing down the nuclear fission.
The idea of developing compact reactors has been bandied around for decades.
In 1964, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission developed a pamphlet titled "Power Reactors in Small Packages." The thought was that portable reactors could be used in polar exploration, disaster recovery efforts or at radar stations.
"Although we all know that the history of such power plants was very short, these ideas are now being regenerated, revitalized by advancing technology and a continuing need," Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Peter Lyons said during a conference in September.
Los Alamos National Laboratory first used uranium hydride in efforts to design a safer nuclear weapon, Deal said.
But getting the NRC's immediate support may be a challenge.
Lyons, the NRC member, told the High Temperature Reactor 2008 conference that applications to build small reactors were "at the bottom of the NRC's priority list."
The commission wants to ensure such reactors are commercially viable before beginning licensing procedures, the trade publication Nuclear New Build Monitor reported last month.
Deal isn't worried about a lack of attention.
"The rest of the nuclear energy industry just thinks we're adorable," said Deal, who in 1992 founded a successful software company called LizardTech using technology developed at LANL.
Part of the solution
The Hyperion reactors would need to be dug up after five to 10 years of use and sent back to the factory for refueling. The company says the reactors will produce waste about the size of a softball.
Deal said a mechanical failure is unlikely because the reactors don't use fuel rods or other moving parts, while a unit would emit less radiation than the public is exposed to on a daily basis.
Still, even if Hyperion is a smashing success, Deal acknowledges the reactors will be only part of the solution.
"If we sold 4,000 of our units it would be a fraction of the electric demand around the world."
Deal views emissions-free nuclear reactors as one of the best ways of addressing global warming, whereas other alternative energies like solar and wind have no good way of storing the energy.
"I'm a left-wing environmentalist nutball, and I've embraced nuclear energy," Deal said. "We think this is important."