For a century, technology, ideology, and deep government pockets have combined to favour electricity mega projects, high costs and government monopolies. Yet, technology may again start disrupting things for the better.
The Economist Technology Quarterly of December 2010 glimpses at a way out of the Hobson’s choice of financial or environmental collapse.
“Hyperion Power Generation, a firm based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is building components for what it calls a “nuclear battery”. The refrigerator-sized Hyperion Power Module (HPM) reactor will shift much of the building from field to factory, where a controlled environment reduces costs. Also, fewer workers and families must be moved, at great expense, to distant building sites. HPMs would be delivered by truck with enough uranium to run for about ten years. They would be constructed in batches with interchangeable parts and cost about $100m each. And they need little human oversight to operate. “Forget huge—let’s make a hand-held version of a power plant,” says John Deal, the firm’s boss. Five companies, located in America, Britain, Canada, China and India, have put down deposits for an HPM.”
The simplicity and scalability of small reactors, it is argued, makes them an ideal source of future demand for communities in developing and developed economies—where future demand is uncertain and investment in larger plants and transmission grids is not economic.
Various companies, labs and countries are developing small reactors. One day soon, they could compete with the flexibility of fossil fuel and solve the daunting cost problems of other available renewable technologies: wind, solar and ever more giant nuclear reactors.
Big nuclear reactors have consistently used up the lion’s share of nuclear R & D dollars, not because big is better, but because the builders and the buyers are very big as well. In light of the continuing failure of massive public and private monopolies to control costs let alone drive them down, it is welcome that entrepreneurs in mini-nuclear reactors are coming to the fore.
The big nuclear “renaissance” is clearly stalled in North America and elsewhere. It will be interesting to see whether government’s and their entrench energy planning organizations will start looking aggressively at ways to facilitate mini nuclear reactors.