Monday, March 8, 2010

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A reactor to make nuclear affordable

Babcock & Wilcox Company mPower nuclear reactor

President Obama is trying to give nuclear power a new lease on life, but one of its biggest drawbacks is its multibillion-dollar price tag. Sarah Gardner reports on new "mini-nukes" that could help.

A single Babcock & Wilcox Company mPower™ nuclear reactor module inside its own independent, underground containment. (

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Kai Ryssdal: French President Nicolas Sarkozy sees economic opportunity in nuclear power. France gets about 80 percent of its electricity from splitting atoms. They have a robust nuclear industry there. So when Sarkozy told a conference in Paris today that nuclear is a great way to help third world countries fight climate change, you can safely infer that he would prefer those countries buy French technology.

Here at home, meanwhile, President Obama is trying to give nuclear power a new lease on life. Last month he announced an $8 billion loan guarantee for two reactors in Georgia. He wants another $50 billion to jumpstart an industry that's been on the decline since Three Mile Island in 1979.

One of nuclear's biggest drawbacks, though, is the multi-billion-dollar price tag for all those new reactors. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner reports now on a way to make nuclear affordable.

SARAH GARDNER: Call them "mini-nukes." A handful of companies in the U.S. are designing nuclear power reactors that could fit in your backyard. Well, sort of...

CHRIS MOWRY: 12, 15-feet wide by about 75-feet tall.

That's Chris Mowry, CEO of Babcock and Wilcox Modular Nuclear Energy out of Virginia. His company already has some experience with smaller reactors. Babcock started making nuclear reactors for Navy submarines back in the 1950's.

MOWRY: Our idea is, hey, let's make that nuclear reactor in a factory where it can be done with higher quality and lower cost and then ship it to the field on a rail car. So really we're talking about something that's about a tenth of the size of a typical large reactor.

Of course, that means they produce a fraction of the electricity as well, but still enough to power a small city. But the idea behind these smaller generators is to let a utility add nuclear to its power mix bit by bit. That's instead of investing in one, multi-billion dollar reactor that puts the entire company at financial risk. First Energy in Ohio currently generates over a third of its power from three large nuclear plants.

But spokesman Todd Schneider says his company might be interested in buying smaller reactors in the future and not just because they're cheaper.

TOM SCHNEIDER: The construction timetable would be shorter. These units would be pretty much pre-fabricated and then shipped to the site and put in place.

A couple of American start-ups are working on small reactors too, one said to be the size of a hot tub. They're counting on renewed interest in nuclear power here. Many utilities see it as a cleaner alternative to their aging, coal-fired power plants that fuel global warming. But nuclear regulators have yet to approve any of these mini-nukes. And even if they do, experts don't expect any to go online for at least another decade.

Nuclear engineer Paul Wilson at the University of Wisconsin says it's still unclear whether these smaller nukes are economically viable.

PAUL WILSON: I think it relies on large volume production in a factory setting. So if we can't produce them in enough volume, then the economic benefits might not materialize.

Mini-nuke makers say these reactors are as safe, if not safer, than existing ones, but nuclear critics aren't appeased.

Anna Aurilio is with Environment America.

ANNA AURILIO: They're still gonna generate a big problem when it comes to radioactive waste so Environment America does not believe that mini-nukes will get us any closer to solving our energy crisis.

Congress still hasn't agreed on a permanent site for burying the country's nuclear waste. But nuclear expert Paul Wilson says these small reactors may end up snagging their first customers overseas in any case. He says they may well suit remote towns and villages in developing countries where the transmission systems can't handle big nuclear reactors.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Nelson Diaz

    From San Diego, CA, 03/09/2010

    It is unfortunate that most of the conversation around Nuclear Reactors does not involve Thorium. This alternative to Uranium provides a viable alternative for cheaper and cleaner energy using many of the same principals.

    I would love to see you include Thorium in the conversation. From Wikipedia:
    " Advocates of the use of thorium as the fuel source for nuclear reactors state that they can be built to operate significantly cleaner than uranium based power plants as the waste products are much easier to handle.?

    By Ray Van De Walker

    From Huntington Beach, CA, 03/09/2010

    C. Wheeler's comment about renewables promotes an exposed myth: That renewables can provide adequate power. This report says that Germany's policy (the best funded renewable program in history) failed in many ways: CO2
    abatement, jobs, return on investment, energy production and
    energy security. Germany -actually- turned to coal and natural gas.
    "Safe Clean Natural Gas" killed 6 and destroyed a $1B development in Middletown Connecticut on Feb. 5, 2010. Note that both coal plants and natural gas plants emit more radioactivity than nuclear plants, as uranium in ash and radon, respectively. Meanwhile, I think C. Wheeler's unreferenced "poison" comment might refer to the discovery of 27nanocuries/L of tritiated water at the Vermont Yankee power plant. This is 1/5 of the radioactivity of a bannana. Per liter. In a private monitoring well. As for nuclear waste, Areva, in France, in quite happily reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, (dramatically reducing the long-lived isotopes of the waste). Cost? The U.S. nuclear regulatory commission is preventing approval of practical reactors, raising the cost of reactors in the U.S. to 3x of Korea. The U.S. lacks new nuclear power because of bad institutions, electoral folly, and fossil fuel lobbies, not unsafe systems or "high cost."

    By Daryl Reece

    From Atlanta, GA, 03/09/2010

    I'd love to have heard how big (Watts) these reactors are, as well as what fuel they use. There are still many ill informed people that rail against nuclear without having a clear understanding of the technical issues. It's too bad we let uninformed, emotion stand in the way of advancing our science knowledge. The energy density of nuclear reactors is orders of magnitudes ahead of solar, wind, geothermal, ...

    By David Rigby

    From NC, 03/09/2010

    "Congress still hasn't agreed on a permanent site for burying the country's nuclear waste."
    Burying?! This is ignoring the problem, not a solution. There is still only one way of completely destroying nuclear waste, but shooting it into the Sun is just too expensive.

    By Evan Jackson

    From Greeneville, TN, 03/09/2010

    Small reactors must first have an inherently safe design. Most importantly, this means that the reactor's physical properties must inhibit fission as temperature increases. Such a negative feedback design would eliminate any possibility of a runaway chain reaction. The rate of fission can then be regulated externally, simply by increasing or decreasing the rate of coolant flow. The reactor should "burn" much of its own waste, and/or use a more plentiful fissionable material, such as thorium, for greater efficiency, less production of radioactive waste products, and longer periods between refueling. It should function without internal moving parts in the core, for reliability. It must have a durable capsule, and should operate at ambient pressure, to reduce risk of leaking. It should be buried in the ground, to prevent theft, vandalism, or terrorist attack. Small safe reactors could be located in cities. This would allow waste heat, hot water or steam, to be used for heating nearby buildings, or for industrial purposes, rather than dumped into a river.

    If such a reactor design can be achieved, manufactured in large numbers, and transported to the destination by rail, we will have achieved a huge advance in guaranteeing a stable, safe, and affordable future electrical supply, while reducing CO2 emissions.

    If energy from fission has a future, it is with small reactors - not multi-billion dollar nuclear behemoths.

    By Tom Collins

    From Bethesda, MD, 03/09/2010

    Listened to your report and it is interesting that these mini reactors may come online.....but why are we going with a design from my fathers time. Why is their no descusion about pellet reactors. They are being developed and going online in Germany, South Africa, and especially China. They are just as small as the ones you discussed, but are cheaper and even safer and less of an issue waste wise. I guess our engineers are just not as clever, or are the companies in this country that control these reactor designs not willing to look at a new and updated technology.
    A good article appeared in Wired Magazine within the last 2 years, take a look.

    By Cynthia Weehler


    Tell me how having more sites where the ground is permanently contaminated is beneficial. Explain, please, why we want to essentially eliminate land availability for living or growing food in a world that is producing more people in a finite space. That's what building more and smaller nuclear power generators will do. If you're so fascinated with technology that you have to apply it to everything you do, then build energy sources that require no fuel and produce no waste. These are geothermal, solar, wind, conservation; with natural gas as a bridge to get us from here to there. New nuclear build just sucks up money that could really solve our energy problem.

    By K Bruno


    Whether you make the nukes smaller or bigger, the problem is still the same: they are too costly economically and to society at large. You don't have to go back too far in time to see that nukes have always promised a cheap solution to our power needs. However, nukes only exist based upon a governmental push to adopt the technology and governmental subsidies on a large scale.

    Factors not considered by this piece is that the operational risk is not insurable. If an operating nuke, big or small, has an "accident" the consequences will be borne by the public. The private generator's costs are capped, at an unreaonably low level by the Price Anderson Act. Private insurance would not be available for their operation if their full costs were included.

    Consider also the issue about terrorism. If big nukes face the issue with huge security budgets and numbers of security personel, how will these mini nukes deal with it? With so many envisioned to be installed, particularly in cournties with poorer governmental infrastructure, how long will it take a terrorist to gain access to the deadly posions within The Russian security services have already shown, in their assasination of a Russian emigre in London, it does not take much to have a very bad outcome.

    These PR blitzes by the industry play down the risks, ignore the cots and tout the "benefits." Once you factor in the costs, the price is just too high.

    By Nick Knight


    You might not have noticed, but were still engaged in a war for oil. Resource conflicts including those for oil, are going to be a challenge in the future. We start to see a bit of it already, with China, trying to buy up resources all over the globe.

    By Malcolm Ross

    From Annandale, VA, 03/08/2010

    "ANNA AURILIO...Environment America does not believe that mini-nukes will get us any closer to solving our energy crisis"

    TO WHAT ENERGY CRISIS is Ms.Aurilio referring? Her point is a straw man and utterly prejudiced. There is no energy crisis, except for the strawman drumbeat of global warming alarmists.

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