"Small is beautiful" has for decades been a mantra for environmentalists committed to building ecologically sound communities, economies and agriculture.
Some experts think so. They say small reactors are the right fit in the global push for carbonless energy.
What is a small nuclear plant? Measured against plants that kick out 1,000 megawatts or more and power a million homes, "right sized" reactors might supply a small city or large industrial facility.
"Several technical and manufacturing innovations make this reactor a potential game-changer for the global clean energy market," said Christofer Mowry, president and CEO of Babcock & Wilcox Modular Nuclear Energy. He cites small reactors' baseload profile as a good match with intermittent renewable-energy generation.
Mowry's company is among several working on designs for such reactors. They see a market in servicing large electric utilities that want to incrementally expand their generation capacity, developing countries that cannot afford or make good use of traditional reactors, and off-grid and hard-to-power sites.
Here is what's happening:
- Babcock & Wilcox announced the development in June of a 125-megawatt reactor for which it plans to request Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval in 2011.
- Hyperion Power Generation is advertising a 25-megawatt "power module" that it compares to a large battery and says would be the size of a hot tub. The company says its units will cost $25 million to $30 million, with "delivery dates starting in 2013."
- South Africa's Eskom utility and Westinghouse are working on a 200-megawatt "pebble bed" modular reactor design.
- NRC has also received small-reactor applications from NuScale Power Inc., Toshiba Corp., and GE Hitachi.
- And the Defense Department is also interested in small reactors -- thanks, in part, to mandates that its bases become more self-sufficient and to its head start with the nuclear technologies used to power naval vessels.
Why all this activity? The existing model of the nuclear plant -- featuring massive, concrete-domed reactors -- is at a crossroads in the United States.
Despite the nuclear industry's talk about a "nuclear renaissance" and the promise of generous federal loan guarantees, the industry faces constraints in breathtaking construction costs and risks. Proponents of the miniature reactors see their lower cost and potentially smaller risks -- some could even be buried underground, reducing the need for "guns, gates and guards" -- as a way forward.
"Small reactors are not there to replace the big reactors," said Deborah Blackwell, Hyperion's vice president of licensing and public policy. She cited applications like providing power for metal mining or oil sands development where "temporary baseload, heavy-duty power" is needed, as ideal for the technology.
"It's also good for remote communities that are so far off the grid that it doesn't make sense to try to run transmission wires to them," she added, "as well as military bases, so they can be independent of the grid ... and not be susceptible to a terrorist [attack] or something going on in the big grid. It's not a good idea for our military bases to be operating on the same grid that you and I live on."