"Small is beautiful" has for decades been a mantra for environmentalists committed to building ecologically sound communities, economies and agriculture.

But does the phrase apply to nuclear power plants?

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."

Diplomatic tool?

Blackwell is not the only person bullish on the security-related aspects of building small.

Tom Sanders, president of the American Nuclear Society and manager of Sandia National Laboratories' Global Nuclear Futures Initiative, has been stumping for small rectors for more than a decade. American-made small reactors, Sanders insists, can play a central role in global nonproliferation efforts.

"Our role at Sandia is the national security-driven notion that it's in the interests of the U.S. to be one of the dominant nuclear suppliers," Sanders said.

While U.S. companies have been exiting the industry over the past decades as government and popular support for new construction has waned, Sanders maintains that strong U.S. participation in the nuclear energy marketplace would give diplomats a new tool to use with would-be nuclear powers.

"It's hard to tell Iran what to do if you don't have anything Iran wants," he explained.

Sanders said mini-reactors are ideal to sell to developing countries that want to boost their manufacturing might and that would otherwise look to other countries for nuclear technologies. If the United States is not participating in that market, he said, it becomes hard to steer buyers away from technologies that pose greater proliferation risks.

Sanders been promoting this view since the 1990s, he said, when he realized "we were no longer selling nuclear goods and services, so we could no longer write the rules." The domestic nuclear industry had basically shut down, with no new construction in decades and a flight of talent and ideas overseas.

There is a silver lining in that brain drain, though, he believes, in that U.S. companies getting back into the game now are less tied to the traditional, giant plants and are freer to innovate.

A feature that several of the new product designs share is that the power plants could be mass-produced in a factory to minimize cost, using robots to ensure consistency. Also, with less design work for each installation, the time to complete an order would be shortened and some of the capital and other costs associated with long lead times avoided, Sanders said.

Another feature he favors is building the plants with a lifetime supply of fuel sealed inside.

Shipped loaded with fuel, such reactors could power a small city for 20 years without the host country ever handling it. Once depleted, the entire plant would be packed back up and shipped back to the United States, he said, with the sensitive spent fuel still sealed away inside.

Sanders is working on a reactor design hatched by the lab with an undisclosed private partner. He believes it is feasible to build a prototype modular reactor -- including demonstration factory components and a mockup of the reactor itself -- as early as 2014, for less than a billion dollars.

A mini-reactor could ring up at less than $200 million, he said, or at $300 million to $400 million with 20 years of fuel. At $3,000 to $4,000 per kilowatt, he said, that would amount to significant savings over estimates of $4,000 to $6,000 per kilowatt for construction alone with traditional plant designs.

To get a design ready to build, Sanders is urging a partnership between the government and the private sector.

"If it's totally a government research program, labs can take 20 to 30 years" to finish such projects, he said. "If it becomes a research science project, it could go on forever."

New approach, old debates

So far, there is no sign that the government's nuclear gatekeeper, NRC, is wowed by the small-reactor designs.

NRC's Office of New Reactors warned Babcock & Wilcox in June that the agency "will need to limit interactions with the designers of small power reactors to occasional meetings or other nonresource-intensive activities" over the next two years because of a crowded schedule of work on other proposals.

Meanwhile, opponents of nuclear technologies are not convinced that small reactors are an improvement over traditional designs.

Arjun Makhijani, who heads the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a think tank that advocates against nuclear power, sees disseminating the technology as incompatible with controlling it.

"A lot of the proliferation issue is not linked to having or not having plutonium or highly enriched uranium, but who has the expertise to have or make bombs," Makhijani said. "In order to spread nuclear technologies, you have to have the people who have the expertise in nuclear engineering, who know about nuclear materials and chain reactions and things like that -- the same expertise for nuclear bombs. That doesn't suffice for you to make a bomb, but then if you clandestinely acquire the materials, then you can make a bomb."

Peter Wilk, acting program director for safe energy with Physicians for Social Responsibility, an anti-nuclear group, argues that expanding nuclear power use runs counter to the goal of nonproliferation. "The whole proposition presupposes an ... international economy in which more and more fuel is produced and more and more waste must be dealt with, which only makes those problems that are still unsolved larger," he said.

"It may or may not do a better job of preventing the host country from literally getting their hands on it, but it doesn't reduce the amount of fuel in the world or the amount of waste in the world," Wilk added.

And then there is the issue of public opinion.

"Imagine that Americans would agree to take the waste that is generated in other countries and deal with it here," Makhijani said. "At the present moment, it should be confined to the level of the fantastic, or even the surreal. If [the technology's backers] could come up with a plan for the waste, then we could talk about export."

Makhijani pointed to a widely touted French process for recycling nuclear waste as a red herring (ClimateWire, May 18). "It's a mythology that it ameliorates the waste problem," he said.

According to Makhijani's calculations, the French recycling process generates far more radioactive waste than it cleans up. One category of highly radioactive material, which ends up stored in glass "logs" for burial, is reduced, he said. But in processing the waste, about six times the original volume of waste is produced, he said. Much of that must be buried deep underground, and the discharge of contaminated wastewater used in recycling has angered neighboring countries, he said.

Operational risk, of course, is another major concern.

"One has reduced the amount of unnecessary risk," Wilke said, "but it's still unnecessary risk."

He added, "I get the theory that smaller, newer, ought to be safer. The question is: Why pursue this when there are so many better alternatives?"

To Sandia's Sanders, Wilke is asking the wrong question.

With the governments of major economies like China, Russia and Japan putting support and cash into nuclear technologies, the power plants are here to stay, he believes. "There's going to be a thousand reactors built over the next 50 years," he said. "The question is: Are we building them, or are we just importing them?"

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500