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Can Tiny Nuclear Plants Thwart Regulatory Hell?

1996 was the last year that a commercial nuclear reactor came online in the U.S. That project, at the Watts Barr  plant in Tennessee, began all the way back in 1973. We haven't built a new facility in 40 years.

A new startup called UPower is hoping to thaw some of this frozen market. Their plan: think small.

Currently, it is nearly impossible to open a new plant in the U.S. The reasons for this are well laid out here; they boil down to overregulation. A continuous increase in the number and complexity of regulations beginning in the early 1970s caused the materials and construction cost to increase dramatically. This increased the time required to construct a plant to nearly triple.

Vastly longer construction time has two huge negative effects. First, the loans needed to pay the high initial cost of building a plant accrue far more interest during those extra years of construction. Thus an exponential increase in cost occurs before the plant can begin its very profitable operating years. Second, during construction, new regulations often are introduced. This can require a redesign and perhaps even a partial tear-down and rebuild before the plant even opens.

The worst part? Most of these regulations would have done little to prevent previous accidents. Nuclear engineers and scientists don't believe they are useful at all. Rules stay because it's bad politics to oppose them.

Nuclear regulations, driven by a hype-fuelled media and anti-nuclear fearmongers such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, have strangled the building of nuclear plants. Ironically, these policies have directly contributed to our nation's reliance on fossil fuels, further damaging the environment and empowering tyrants in the Middle East. Given that nuclear power is our best energy strategy (as well as a good foreign policy strategy), what can be done to thwart this mess?

Go small. UPower's proposed reactor is tiny, making its design, testing, and implementation much easier. A typical U.S. nuclear reactor produces roughly 700-1300 megawatts (MW) of power at all times. In the current toxic regulatory environment, these reactors cost billions of dollars and take more than a decade to build. UPower's nuclear reactor would only produce about 2 MW of usable electricity. But after initial production of the first few units, they are hoping to reach a complete cost below $10 million each. The small, simple design allows a fast build time and easier accomodation of future regulatory burdens.

Its nuclear core can be made of several common nuclear fuels, depending upon availability, but it will not be suspended in water like most current nuclear plants. Instead, the reactor cycles coolant through an enclosed system within the device, carrying heat from the core to the outside. A particular strength of the design is that it is self-contained. No water, steam, or external electricity needs to be hooked up. The unit is placed in the ground and runs for more than a decade without needing constant micromanagement.

There are some hurdles. The reactor unit does not directly produce electricity: its output will be heat. UPower will need to design and package the machinery for turning that heat into energy. It's a relatively simple engineering task, which has been well understoood for centuries. Current nuclear, coal, natural gas, solar thermal, and geothermal power plants all generate power by converting the heat collected from those fuels into electricity via steam turbines.

In addition, they haven't yet produced a working model. However, nuclear reactor engineering is a technologically mature field. Thousands of nuclear fission reactors run all over the world today (e.g., in nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers); many of them cranking out more than 100% of the power output for which they were originally designed every single day without incident. Also, remember that these are 40-year-old designs; far better designs now exist, despite their being stifled in the US.

What about the nuclear waste? UPower claims that it will be minimal. After the plant runs for 12 years, the reactor is shut down, leaving some matter behind. This doesn't immediately become waste however; they claim that this spent fuel can easily be converted to a second material that can power the plant for a second 12-year cycle. Then after 24 years total, the fuel is spent and becomes waste. How much? Roughly the volume of a basketball. Not bad!

Whether this vision reaches commercial reality is anybody's guess. The idea, however, seems sound and could help melt the glacier of nuclear regulation in America.

(AP photo)

Tom Hartsfield is a physics PhD student at the University of Texas

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