Baby Nukes

by Richard T. Stuebi

Although not popular to many in the environmental community, one low/zero-carbon energy supply alternative that has to be at least put on the table for serious consideration is nuclear energy.

Yes, yes, we know the litany of concerns about nuclear energy: runaway fission leading to explosive catastrophes like the one that occurred in 1986 at Chernobyl, long-lived and extremely toxic waste products, and the use of fuels that make for scary weapons-grade materials for terrorists to exploit.

The U.S. nuclear industry hasn’t completed a new nuclear power generating unit in many years — though it’s generally not for the reasons listed above. Rather, the main damper on the U.S. nuclear industry has been high cost: to achieve economies of scale, the optimal nuclear unit size has long been thought to be greater than 1000 megawatts, which given the capital intensity of nuclear technologies (a November 2007 article in Nuclear Engineering suggests construction costs of at least $4000/kilowatt), implies minimum investments of several billion dollars. Given the massive market and regulatory uncertainties facing electric utilities, few have been willing to step up to the nuclear plate and lay down such a huge bet.

In recent weeks, I’ve seen not one but two articles — “Neighborhood Nukes” in Forbes and “Mini Nuclear Plants to Power 20,000 Homes” in The Guardian — covering the investigation of small-scale nuclear power generating units. Both articles prominently feature the New Mexico company Hyperion Power Generation, which claims to be developing a hot-tub sized unit of 25 megawatts capacity.

Spun out from Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Hyperion design is intended to overcome many of the obstacles associated to date with nuclear energy.

As The Guardian article summarizes, “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.”

From Forbes: “Hyperion’s design uses uranium hydride instead of traditional uranium with control rods. The reactor gets rid of heat using thermal conductivity, which eliminates the big water-cooling systems and their containment bulwarks.”

Stunningly, Hyperion promises an installed cost of $1000/kw, and claims a sales backlog of $2.5 billion, with 100 firm orders.

So, maybe there’s a renaissance of nuclear energy in the offing. Steve Martin may have had it right, after all: “Let’s get small.”

But, before you get too excited, remember that the nuclear industry has been down this path before: in 1954, Lewis Strauss, then-Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, hinted that nuclear energy would in the not-too-distant-future make electricity “too cheap to meter.” We’re still waiting.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. In 2009, he will also become a Managing Director at Early Stage Partners.

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