Small nuclear reactors

2011-01-07

in Economics, Science, The environment

Climate change definitely strengthens the case for nuclear power, but it is very hard to determine just how strong that case really is, particularly on economic grounds. Climate change does nothing to lessen the risks associated with accidents or nuclear proliferation, but it does represent some of the most significant risks associated with fossil fuel based forms of electricity generation.

Some of the major barriers to the deployment of new nuclear power plants are cost and long lead-in times. Construction can easily take a decade or more. One means by which both of those issues could potentially be addressed is through the use of small modular nuclear reactors. This is an approach being experimented with by a number of groups, including Russia’s state nuclear energy company (which is building a floating, towable nuclear power station) and firms like TerraPower, which has been enthusiastically endorsed by Bill Gates.

One of the most interesting possible uses for small nuclear reactors is as ‘drop-in’ replacements for the coal-burning parts of old power plants. Potentially, the heat source in a power plant could be switched from the combustion of coal to the fission of uranium, keeping most of the rest of the plant’s infrastructure in place. In particular, such converted plants could make use of existing transmission capacity.

I can’t say whether small nuclear reactors really are a more economical or appealing option overall, but it seems like a technology to watch as the world struggles to find ways to achieve carbon neutrality.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan January 7, 2011 at 4:19 pm

One thing relevant to market economies and to governments forced to take the short term view: the economist article linked suggests that a return on investment can be had much more quickly from a modular reactor than a traditional one. Even if the cost per unit of electricity is the same, the ability to recover an investment more quickly is highly relevant in our economies based more on speed than long term viability.

oleh January 10, 2011 at 12:29 am

A major reason for consideration of the smaller modular nuclear reactor is the importance on quickly turning the corner on the emission of greenhouse gases. Introduction of small nuclear reactors into coal generation facilities seems to be an earlier way to turning that corner.

Do you know of anywhere where this has occurred?

Milan January 11, 2011 at 7:39 pm

As far as I know, these small reactors are just in the planning stages and nobody has swapped one in as a fuel source in a power station formerly driven by fossil fuels.

oleh January 12, 2011 at 7:59 am

I wonder if the development of small nuclear reactors could become a project for Canada not unlike the CANDU reactor became in the 1950″s and 1960’s. On the other hand, perhaps safe and effective development and use of small nuclear reactors may be better done through international co-operation. In any even, in this world of miniaturization, I can see it being possible. Use of existing fossil fuel infrastructure connected with transmission lines seems a natural fit. Perhaps Ministries and Environment and Industry of Western countries including Canada, can work together in that regard.

I think one of the challenges is that, it seems that the Ministries of Industry and Environment hesitate to co-operate towards the goal of providing cleaner forms of energy.

Milan January 16, 2011 at 9:49 pm

There is no guarantee that small reactors would be more economical than larger ones (or than alternatives like renewable energy).

That being said, the urgency of dealing with climate change makes me think we should pursue a portfolio of approaches, to maximize the odds that some will work well in time.

. February 21, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Utilities split over small nuclear reactor economics

Washington (Platts)–18Feb2011/509 am EST/1009 GMT

Despite enthusiasm among nuclear reactor vendors and the Obama administration about the potential of small nuclear reactors, some utilities remain to be convinced of their economic viability.

Bill Johnson, CEO, chairman and president of Progress Energy said Thursday the company is unlikely to build small nuclear reactors in the next two decades, even though some vendors hope to make such units commercially available by 2020.

Johnson said it is “an intriguing thought” to build nuclear power plants “on a small scale, plug-in and play, [and] modular” fashion, but he added that “the timetable for that looks more like the 2030s, just given the pace of development.”

By then, he said most remaining coal plants will be large units, as Progress is retiring a third of its coal plants, mostly smaller ones, and replacing some of them with natural gas. Johnson spoke at a Platts conference on nuclear energy in Bethesda, Maryland.

“It’s going to come down to cost,” said Johnson. If a 100-MW plant will have to need the same size security and operating staff as a 1,000-MW unit, he said, “that’s going to make it difficult.”

Duke Energy has proposed acquiring Progress in an all-stock deal. Johnson would be CEO of the combined company, which would be the largest utility in the US.

. August 25, 2017 at 8:56 pm

Atomic power stations out at sea may be better than inland ones

Land-based power stations are bespoke structures, built by the techniques of civil engineering, in which each is slightly different and teams of specialists come and go according to the phase of the project. Marine stations, by contrast, could be mass-produced in factories using, if not the techniques of the assembly line, then at least those of the shipyard, with crews constantly employed.

But a slightly less ambitious approach to marine reactors—anchoring them on the surface rather than below it—is about to come to fruition in Russia. The first such, Akademik Lomonosov, is under construction at the Baltic Shipyard, in St Petersburg (see picture). According to Andrey Bukhovtsev of Rosatom, the agency that runs Russia’s civil nuclear programme, it is 96% complete. It will be launched later this year, towed to Murmansk, and thence transported to Pevek, a port in Russia’s Far East, where it will begin generating power in 2019.

Akademik Lomonosov consists of two 35MW reactors mounted on a barge. The reactors are modified versions of those used to power Taymyr-class icebreakers. As such, they are designed to be able to take quite a battering, so the storms of the Arctic Ocean should not trouble them. To add to their safety, the barge bearing them will be moored, about 200 metres from shore, behind a storm-and-tsunami-resistant breakwater.

Altogether, Akademik Lomonosov will cost $480m to build and install—far less than would have to be spent constructing an equivalent power station on land in such a remote and hostile environment. And, on the presumption that the whole thing will work, plans for a second, similar plant are being laid.

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