Portable Nuclear Power
Is a Portable Nuclear Power Device Feasible?
As the global population grows, we find ourselves facing growing energy consumption needs. In industrialized nations, this translates into rising energy costs to power our homes and businesses. Power outages are a major concern in metropolitan areas that depend on power to meet humanity’s most basic needs. For those in poorer nations, we do not even have a way to supply them power. It is hard to believe, but there are still many in the world who are not close enough to a power grid to be connected.
What if there was a way to cut energy costs in half? What if we could eliminate the possibility of power outages in the future? What if we did find a way to supply power to those in even the most remote areas, even though there is no grid close by? What if we did answer these questions and many others? At present, much of the focus is on alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, and others. Nuclear power remains a gray area in terms of alternative energy sources, largely due to fears over environmental and safety issues. However, there have been many changes in the way nuclear power is managed and it is much safer now than it was in the past. Currently, there are plans to design small, portable backyard nuclear reactors. This research will explore the possibilities of these reactors as a means to solve many of the world’s current energy problems.
Current Design Proposals
The idea of portable nuclear reactors first began to appear in popular media around 2008. In 2009, Popular Mechanics presented the idea to the world with a drawing of what one of these nuclear reactors might look like for the average homeowner. According to the article, the smaller versions are similar to their larger cousins and they would still need to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) (Hise). Since then, interest in nuclear reactors has continued to grow as the realization that we cannot continue to meet our future energy needs becomes increasingly imminent.
Several versions of smaller nuclear reactors are currently on the design table. The first one is the home unit which is the smallest version, providing energy for a single home or building. Designers realize that the average homeowner does not want a cooling tower in their backyard, so the entire units its underground (Hise). There are also plans for slightly larger units that would provide power for around 45,000 homes. These are much smaller than the larger reactors currently in existence and could be built less expensively and could be designed as modular units that are easy to install (Hise). These are the two primary designs that are being considered for approval by the NRC.
According to the World Nuclear Association, smaller nuclear power units cost much less to build and operate than the larger more complex units in existence (World Nuclear Association and Hore-Lacey). A unit is considered small if it is under 300 MWe. It is expected that by 2040 approximately 1000 smaller nuclear actors will be supplying electricity locally to communities (World Nuclear Association and Hore-Lacey).
A big factor in the decision to develop smaller nuclear power plants is cost. The following table compares the cost of alternative energy sources currently being used. It might be noticed that advanced fuel nuclear technology is included in the table for comparison. Advanced nuclear technology refers to technology such as the small nuclear reactors that are the topic of this discussion.
Cost by technology
Source. EIA. Biomass for Electricity Generation. Retrieved from http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/analysispaper/biomass/figure_3.html
As one can see from this graph, advanced nuclear fuel ranks as one of the more costly forms of alternative energy. Two main factors account for these higher costs. The first is the cost for construction of the plant and administrative fees for licensing and such. The other cost driver of nuclear fuel is the cost of uranium enrichment. Nuclear plants also must have redundancy build into them for safety purposes. Next is the problem of nuclear waste disposal. All of this adds up to higher capital cost when compared to other alternative energy forms.
In a cost comparison by Hyperion, makers of the proposed mini reactor, the cost of installing one of their reactors is much lower than that of installing high power electricity transmission lines. Power is produce 100% of the time and the total energy output is more than 15 times that of the world’s most powerful wind turbine (Asher). The total cost to build one of these many reactors is 25,000,000 U.S. dollars. According to Hyperion, the main reactor will be able to produce power at the cost of .05/kWh (Asher, 2008). The company currently has a five-year waiting list, largely from the oil and gas industry.
The actual cost of generation is only a rough estimate at this point and we will have to wait until the units are in operation before real figures can be developed. What we do know is that the cost of building small nuclear power plants is about one half of one percent of the cost of building a full size plant. Full size plants take approximately 12 years to build and smaller versions can be up and running quickly. As of mid-2011, Hyperion has approximately 10 billion dollars in orders waiting to be built (Laytner).
What Challenges do Portable Nuclear Power Supplies Face?
Much of the information in this study has discussed small nuclear power plants as opposed to backyard units. However, Hyperion is also producing units being called the “Nuclear Battery” that are even smaller (Fehrenbacher, 2008). One of the key problems that the acceptance of portable nuclear power supplies face his acceptance by the public. When one says nuclear power, unfortunately many immediately think of accidents such as Three Mile Island, or the more recent nuclear disasters as a result of the Japanese earthquakes. Many do not consider the many nuclear power plants around the world that have been operating flawlessly for decades to provide the power that we need.
Of course, the development of these units faces many regulatory challenges and processes that are a normal part of the nuclear industry. Regulations are strict and at any point the project can be halted by the NRC or other necessary government agencies. Safety is always a major concern in the nuclear power industry. Once Hyperion has cleared all of the government hurdles, it then faces the most difficult challenge, which is convincing the public that these units are safe. Gaining the confidence of the public is the biggest challenge that companies face in the development and marketing portable nuclear power units.
What About Waste?
The first thing that comes to mind when someone says nuclear power is waste. One of the most important principles to understand about nuclear power is how it is regulated through the use of a moderator. Two primary mechanisms control the reaction to keep it from proceeding too rapidly, hence becoming a nuclear bomb. The moderator slows down the neutrons being shed by the uranium so that they can be grabbed by other uranium atoms. This is the process of fission and how heat is produced. The coolant keeps the reaction from going too far and serves as a secondary moderator. The fuel being used in the backyard prototype is different from that being used in larger reactors. The fuel being used is uranium hydride (UH3). It is only a low grade fuel, with an enrichment of only about 10% uranium isotope-235. The rest is uranium 238. By comparison, bomb grade uranium is approximately 98% enriched (McDermott). The nuclear reactor that is proposed to provide power via a backyard nuclear reactor could not possibly become a bomb.
In order to turn the fuel used in home nuclear reactors into something more nefarious would require the ability to reprocess, and reenrich the fuel. According to manufacturers, this is nearly impossible and, “you might as well start with yellowcake” (McDermott). In August of 2008 the first portable power unit, produced by Hyperion Power Generation, was sold (McDermott). Small nuclear reactors that can power 20,000 homes generate waste about the size of a football after 8 to 10 years of operation. The waste stream is very concentrated compared to other energy forms such as coal and gas. The waste would be returned to the manufacturer for proper disposal according to NRC regulations (McDermott, 2008).
What is the Current State of the Technology?
One of the key difficulties in this research is that at the present time the technology is still under development. A few companies have designs out, but as a whole the information available is sketchy at best. At present, no academic research could be found on the portable nuclear reactor. Many of them are still in the design phase and those that are under the production are being kept secret by the companies developing them. Once the technology is operational, then studies can be conducted to answer many of the issues that have been raised in this research. According to Hyperion executives, they are under strict regulation as to who they can even talk to at the present time (Laytner). For right now, we will have to manage with the information available and know that once the units are in operation, more information will be released to the public that will facilitate academic research.
The idea of small power from portable nuclear devices is a new idea for many. However, the smaller nuclear power units highlighted in this research are not the tiniest nuclear power devices available. Currently, radioactive decay is used to power nuclear batteries that have been powering pacemakers, satellites, and underwater systems for many years. Research is being conducted to make this technology so small that is almost as thin as a human hair (Horneyak). The attraction of these batteries is that they can run for many years without being replaced. This makes them perfect for applications such as pacemakers where the fewer times the patient has to undergo surgery, the greater the risk is reduced.
The small nuclear reactors being developed by Hyperion for power generation are being considered for many of the same reasons that their smaller predecessors have been used in applications where it was inconvenient, or sometimes next to impossible to change the battery. The fuel cells do occasionally need to be replaced when they are depleted. However, for the portable power units this is only about once every decade (Hyperion Power Generation).
One of the main challenges faced in the development of portable nuclear power is that of shielding. Hyperion has solved this dilemma in their small nuclear plants through the use of a self enclosed unit and the additional protection of placing it underground. The unit is designed to be a self-sufficient and with little maintenance, except every 10 years when the fuel rods must be replaced. Swapping of the fuel rods will require digging out the entire unit from the ground, replacing the rods, and then reinstalling the unit into the ground (Hyperion Power Generation).
In the past, ideas such as the electric car and small nuclear powered personal generation units, such as those for the use and power outages has been halted by the problem of the amount of shielding that is required to protect passengers and others around the vehicle. When the proper amount of shielding was applied, the unit was so big that it was unusable. Current trends are leaning towards the development of other alternative materials that can be used to generate nuclear energy.
The development of alternative fuel sources that produce more power, but at the same time less radiation is the key to the development of devices that can replace electrical power in remote areas or in the event of a power outage. Fuel sources that produce less radiation will not require the massive amounts of shielding needed by the old uranium isotopes. The development of alternative fuels for nuclear power will also mean that it can be produced cheaper and more efficiently than using the current fuel sources available. This will allow designers and developers to use nuclear power for more versatile applications.
We are still a long way away from having units that we can just plug into and have instant power in our homes. However, the development of better fuels will allow nuclear power to provide the answers for many more of our energy needs and to be used in common devices around the home. There is still much to be done in the way of development of new generation nuclear energy.
The current plan is to have the first customer install of the portable nuclear power unite completed in June of 2013 (McDermott). Small nuclear reactors have been tested for many years. This is not new technology. Small nuclear reactors have been used on submarines and Russian icebreakers for many years (World Nuclear Association and Hore-Lacey). This experience provides real world testing of units similar to those proposed for home and business generation. The current military reactors have been developed in many different designs. There are wide number of designs available for use in the development of small nuclear reactors for home and community use. The development of those reactors is quite advanced and has been tested under the harshest of circumstances.
The possibility of using small nuclear reactors to solve many of Earth’s energy problems is promising. However, in August of 2011, NASA announced that they had developed a small nuclear power plant the size of a suitcase. This power source could power as many as eight normal sized homes. It has been proposed that this technology paves the way to human colonization of the Moon and Mars (FoxNews). It will still be many years until humans colonize the Moon or Mars, but the development of small nuclear reactors solves the problem of how to provide power when we do.
Nuclear power still remains one of the more expensive of alternative energy sources. However, with the development of more efficient fuels that produce more power with less fuel, or different types of fuel, the cost will be certain to come down in the future. Enriched uranium is the main expense in nuclear power generation at present. The price of raw uranium continues to rise as a result of the demand created by increased dependence on nuclear power. In the future, the price might stabilize, as fuel sources are developed that have greater longevity than present devices.
The future of the nuclear industry is in building it smaller, not building it bigger. The facilities being developed by Hyperion are intended to be linked together to compete with larger nuclear facilities. However, unlike their larger counterparts, these units cost less to build, can be built in less time, and their modular design allows them to be quickly built in remote areas of the world. One day soon, there will be no areas of the world that do not have access to power as a result of this new way of thinking about nuclear power.
One of the issues asked at the beginning of this research was whether portable nuclear devices could eliminate power outages, or provide generation in the event of a power outage. The answer to this is complex. Many power outages are not related to the source of power. Regardless of the source of the power, be it fossil fuels, solar, wind, or nuclear, power outages will occur from time to time. The problem usually lies in the transmission lines, or perhaps a substation along the way. These problems will continue to occur and no system will be completely free from failure.
At the present time, the home unit proposed by Hyperion is about 9 feet tall and can be installed underground. There are currently no plans for a home unit that functions as a generator. The problems identified with this type of unit revolve around the amount of shielding needed to ensure the safety of the occupants. In addition, Hyperion has expressed concerns over the potential for operator error causing a dangerous situation. At the present time, they are not intending to introduce this type of generator to the market. It will be quite some time before we see the fusion-fueled car featured in sci-fi movies, but that does not mean that smaller nuclear power plants cannot solve many of our dilemmas and help us to solve many of our current and future electricity needs.
Portable nuclear power units refer to modular designs that can be used to power communities. It may be a long time until people are ready to operate their own mini nuclear power plant in their back yard. The units that Hyperion intends to produce are the first step on the road to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. As time goes by, consumer confidence will incease as well. Nuclear power will continue to be a valuable commodity in the future with endless possibilities.
Asher, M. “Miniature Nuclear Reactors to be on Sale Within 5 years.” Daily Tech. November 10, 2008. (Web) Accessed 6 June 2011.
U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Biomass For Electricity Generation. U.S.
Department of Energy. Electricity Analysis Reports. (Web) Accessed 6 June 2011.
Fehrenbacher, K. “Hyperion’s Nuclear-In-A-Box by 2013.” Gigaom. August 1, 2008. (Web)
Accessed 6 June 2011.
FOXNews “Miniature Nuclear Reactor to Power Mars and Moon Colonies.” (Web) Accessed 6
Hise, P. “Mini Reactors Show Promise for Clean Nuclear Power’s Future.” Popular
Mechanics. December 18, 2009. (Web) Accessed 6 June 2011.
Hornyak, T. “Penny sized nuclear battery keeps going and going.” CNet News. October 9, 2009.
(Web) Accessed 6 June 2011.
Hyperion Power Generation. Technology. 2011. (Web) Accessed 6 June 2011.
Laytner, R. “America’s Nuclear Battery Can Change the World.” Edit International. (Web)
Accessed 6 June 2011.
World Nuclear Association, Ian Hore-Lacy (Lead Author);Cutler Cleveland (Topic Editor)
(2010). “Small nuclear power reactors.” In: Encyclopedia of Earth. Eds. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment). [First published in the Encyclopedia of Earth January 6, 2010; Last revised Date January 6, 2010; (Web) Accessed 6 June 2011.
McDermott, M. “Portable Backyard Nuclear Reactors Ready to be Installed by 2013.”
Treehugger. . September 25, 2008. (Web) Accessed 6 June 2011.
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