When most people think of nuclear power plants, visions of huge complexes like Three Mile Island come to mind. Now companies are rushing to develop a new generation of refrigerator-size nuclear reactors to help meet the world's growing demand for electricity.
John Deal, chief executive officer of Hyperion Power Generation, intends to apply for a license "within a year" for units that would power a small factory or towns too remote to be connected to traditional electricity grids. The Santa Fe-based company, as well as Japan's Toshiba, are vying for a head start over traditional reactor makers General Electric (GE) and Areva in downsizing nuclear technology.
"We're building iPhones when the nuclear industry has traditionally built mainframe computers," says Deal. Hyperion says it has more than 150 purchase commitments from customers, including mining and telecom companies, provided its technology gets licensed for operation by the U.S. government.
A generation after the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents wiped reactor construction off the agenda of many governments, developers are pressing ahead with designs to satisfy demand for power that doesn't pollute. World electricity demand is forecast to grow 2.7 percent annually until 2015 and then 2.4 percent annually until 2030, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency.
While large-scale nuclear plants now under way cost an average of $6.2 billion and will generate multiple gigawatts of power, Hyperion's price tag is $50 million for a 25-megawatt reactor, more comparable in cost to diesel generators or wind farms. Transportable by truck, the units would come in a sealed box and require less maintenance than a fossil fuel plant. Developers say they'd cost 15 percent less per megawatt of capacity than the full-scale atomic reactors now on the drawing board, according to World Nuclear Assn. data. "A 25Mw plant would put electricity into 20,000 homes, and it would fit inside this room," says James Kohlhaas, vice-president at a Lockheed Martin (LMT) unit that builds power systems for remote military bases. "It's a pretty elegant micro-grid solution."
So far, no manufacturer has sought certification for any small reactor, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Formal approvals would likely take three to five years, the same as for bigger reactors, says Scott Burnell, a commission spokesman.
Environmentalists are concerned that small reactors would pose the same risk of leaking radioactive materials as their larger counterparts, says Jan Beránek, nuclear energy project leader at Greenpeace International in Amsterdam. "Terrorists could hijack a reactor and directly use it to cause a meltdown or use it to fabricate fissile materials for later use in a weapon," Beránek says.
Deal rejects those concerns, noting that his units are designed to fit in the same canisters used to transport nuclear fuel for bigger plants. The power-producing core ships in multiple sealed chambers, containing any leak, and the entire unit would be installed in an underground vault to protect it from tampering and natural threats, Hyperion says. "You still have to have guards and dogs, but you have to do that with a grocery store in some countries," says Deal.
The basic technology used by Hyperion was invented a half-century ago at the government's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Six other mini-reactors are being planned by companies including NuScale Power, Toshiba, and Westinghouse, acquired by Toshiba in 2006. Westinghouse has been developing tiny reactors since 1999, intended for sale to small industry, utilities, and customers in developing nations, says Michael Anness, manager of its Advanced Reactors, Research & Technology Div. Toshiba is working on reactors that would produce 10Mw and 50Mw, called 4S, for "supersafe, small, and simple." It will apply later this year for U.S. approval to test a unit in the village of Galena in central Alaska, says spokesman Keisuke Ohmori.
Galena has no connection to power lines and is closed to barge traffic for more than half the year while the Yukon River is frozen. To provide heat and electricity, the town has always relied on diesel fuel, which has risen in price by about 48 percent in the past 12 months.
The bottom line: Small nuclear reactors hold much promise. Overcoming opposition to get operating permits will be tough.