Nuclear Batteries

8 minute read
Eben Harrell

Nuclear-powered cars! airplanes! Fridges and freezers! In the heady days of the early 1950s — at the dawn of the civilian nuclear power age and President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program — nuclear optimists imagined a world powered by tiny nuclear reactors. Today, in an era of climate change and energy insecurity, the nuclear industry is dusting off some of those old dreams. That includes the nuclear battery.

Designed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory spin-off Hyperion Power Generation Inc., the nuclear battery — so called because it is cheap, small and easily transportable — is about the size of a refrigerator, compared with a 50-ft.-tall traditional reactor. It produces 25 megawatts of electricity — approximately a fortieth the output of a large atomic power-plant reactor. While not quite compact enough for cars, the battery, known as the Hyperion Power Module, has been designed to power subdivisions or towns with fewer than 20,000 homes, as well as military bases, mining operations, desalination plants and even commercial ships, including cruise liners.

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“Think of us as the iPhone of nuclear reactors,” Hyperion Power’s tanned and enthusiastic Denver-based CEO, John “Grizz” Deal, says. “Our technology is a game changer. There are so many exciting applications.”

Some high-powered energy experts share that excitement. In a recent editorial, Energy Secretary Steven Chu endorsed so-called small modular reactors — a category that includes the Hyperion Power Module as well as models by NuScale Power, Toshiba, Westinghouse, Babcock & Wilcox and others — calling them “the new nuclear option.” It is not an option endorsed by some environmental groups, which are concerned that nuclear batteries will only spur nuclear proliferation, increase nuclear waste and be vulnerable to terrorism.

The upside of small nukes lies in cutting not only greenhouse gases (nuclear power produces little to nothing in the way of emissions) but also costs. Chu pointed out that small reactors like the ones built by Hyperion are sold as ready-made, turnkey devices, which will likely keep construction costs down. Hyperion estimates it will take $100 million to build and 25 employees to run one of its plants, compared with the $4 billion to $6 billion in capital needed to build a traditional plant and the roughly 300 people needed to run one. Small reactors appeal particularly to the developing world because they are a microgrid solution. Many poorer countries lack the robust electrical grids needed to handle the massive output of a large nuclear power plant. According to Deal, of the 130 units Hyperion says it hopes to sell in the near future, over a hundred will be outside the U.S. — as far afield as Kenya, Cambodia and Saudi Arabia. The company is still raising funds and has yet to receive permission to build any reactors, but Deal says a combination of political support and economics means Hyperion will break ground on the first projects within the next few years.

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Such enthusiasm has been a long time coming. Nuclear power grew 750% in the 1970s (helped along by an oil-price spike) and 140% in the 1980s, but after high-profile accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, it increased only 8% in the 1990s. Still, government officials, corporate types and many green activists acknowledge that atomic energy can play an important role in combatting global warming. Today nuclear power plants operating in more than 30 countries produce 15% of the world’s electricity. If that energy came from burning fossil fuels, it would result in more than 2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, about 20% of all the emissions from power generation. In the U.S., the greenhouse-gas savings from nuclear-generated electricity are almost equal to the total emissions released by the country’s passenger cars. “To meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we’ll need to increase our supply of nuclear power. It’s that simple,” President Barack Obama said last year.

The problem with that sentiment, some environmentalists say, is that a lot can go wrong with nuclear power. Aside from fears of another Chernobyl and the high costs of traditional plants, there is the nuclear waste associated with splitting uranium atoms. It remains radioactive for thousands of years and requires deep burial, which most communities are understandably reluctant to accept. But that’s another selling point for nuclear batteries — they produce only about a fortieth of the toxic waste of traditional plants.

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The Department of Energy would like to see small reactors filling niches in the energy market in the U.S., powering subdivisions, hospitals, universities, military facilities and other self-contained sites. Industry lobby groups like the Nuclear Energy Institute have bigger plans, however, suggesting that smaller reactors powered by nuclear batteries could one day offer a cheaper alternative to large plants by operating in clusters, with modules added depending on demand. That would certainly make them a substantial help in reducing carbon emissions. And Deal argues that nuclear batteries can augment renewable energy sources by providing a base load to stabilize fluctuations in the output of wind and solar farms, a common problem given that the wind does not always blow or the sun reliably shine.

Despite government support, the U.S.’s current regulatory process means that it will likely be many years before Hyperion constructs its first commercial reactor on U.S. soil. (A demonstration model for potential buyers will be built first at a government lab in South Carolina.) So far, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not granted a license for the nuclear battery or any other small reactor as it works its way through a bottleneck of applications for new traditional plants. As a result, Hyperion says, its first power plants will probably be built outside the U.S. sometime in the next few years.

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The nuclear battery is so small, it can be transported in the back of a truck. It is that ease of transport that spooks Greenpeace International, which last year spoke out against Hyperion and said the batteries would be particularly vulnerable to terrorists who might want to cause a meltdown. Deal insists that not even a rocket-propelled grenade could damage nuclear batteries, because they will be shielded by a heavy layer of concrete and buried underground. Antinuclear campaigners counter that the modules will be vulnerable during transport, and of course, if the battery is powering ships, such protections would not be possible. Already, a small-reactor design by Russian state nuclear energy giant Rosatom for a seagoing, towable power station has led to a flurry of protests by green campaigners who accuse Russia of building “floating Chernobyls.”

Nuclear-battery proponents say any such risk is outweighed by the prospect that the minireactors could help offset a bigger threat: nuclear war. Arms-control experts worry that the large number of developing countries expressing interest in nuclear technology portends a nuclear arms race; the countries themselves argue that they, like rich countries, need nuclear power to deal with issues of energy security and sustainability. Hyperion Power says its small reactor can help prevent nuclear proliferation by obviating the need for countries to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium — both processes that create material for bombs. As part of its turnkey design, the company promises clients that it will handle the entire fuel cycle — it will provide enriched uranium and arrange for the spent fuel (which includes small amounts of plutonium) to be collected and sold, although it admits it is still negotiating with the handful of countries that have commercial reprocessing operations for used fuel. What’s more, the company says it will remotely monitor the reactor cores of its nuclear batteries and will therefore be aware of any attempt to steal or divert uranium or plutonium. “The State Department loves us,” Deal recently told an energy conference in London. “We can provide a test: if you are serious about peaceful nuclear technology and you don’t have weapons ambitions, then prove it by letting us take care of your fuel.”

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Despite all the controversy, nuclear batteries have some high-profile supporters in the NGO and academic communities. In testimony last year before Congress, Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, an arms-control think tank, said Congress should urge the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to speed approval for the Hyperion Power Module and other U.S.-designed small reactors, in part because they are much more proliferation-resistant than those being designed overseas. And globally, political support seems to be swinging in nuclear energy’s favor. Sweden recently joined a growing list of countries whose parliaments have overturned moratoriums on new power plants.

While the industry will always be vulnerable to shifts in public opinion, there is growing interest in Jetsonsesque applications for a minireactor, from nuclear cruise ships (“Holy cow, do you know how cheap they would be to run?” says Deal) to desalination plants in conflict areas (“World War III is going to be fought over water. It’s a huge issue, and we can help”). The interest is symptomatic of a vision that has been largely dormant in the U.S. since the early days of the nuclear era: the view that atom splitting can be a source of wonder and excitement rather than dread.

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