Posted by: doug308 | October 6, 2009

Does Size Matter?

huge_63_315252Does size matter? Well, when it comes to nuclear reactors for power generation it sometimes may actually be better to have a little one. 

As anyone who has read something about the nuclear Navy knows, smaller reactors have been in operation for decades on submarines, aircraft carriers and other surface ships. And a number of smaller reactors operating for research purposes have been on line at various locations around the world for just as a long. However, if companies like Hyperion Power Generation and my friends at Babcock & Wilcox  have their way smaller, modular reactors may very soon be running small cities and large factories around the globe, especially in the third world. And while the makers of the giant economy sized reactors may not, agree, in a lot of places these smaller reactors make a whole lot of sense and for a lot of reasons.

Big nuclear power plants are meant to be a part of a massive power grid serving hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. And if we’re talking about someplace like the Upper Midwest with dozens of huge factories (yes, some of them are still running) or the NYC metro then of course those sorts of power plants are the way to go. Even with their hefty price tags and long construction times.  But what if you live in a city of 100,000 in Central Asia or the Amazon Basin? Up to now you either had to string wires from who knows where, or you would have to build some sort of fossil power plant and hope you had a fuel source near by to keep the transportation costs down and the price per kilo watt hour low enough to afford to have it. Even then, if a bridge gets washed out and the trains or trucks can’t get through or a pipeline breaks you have a problem. Well, now these places have another option in the form of a small nuclear reactor or series of small reactors that could be hauled in on trucks or trains rather than built on site and be ready to go in weeks and months instead of years and decades. In fact Hyperion’s unit is only about six feet tall and can just be buried in the ground and uses less space than decent sized strip mall while still producing 25 MW of electric power.

Obviously these sorts of reactors will cost a lot less to purchase and operate. But another advantage is that these smaller reactors come with the benefit of safety in the form of a less complex system, thus fewer things to go wrong and a smaller facility to watch over making security an easier task to cope with.

Think of the advantages of such a system. Places that now are losing their populations to larger cities where they can find work thus making big cities more crowded, more polluted and more expensive, can have the means to attract industry and keep their community from dying. Places that now run on gas powered generators can have a consistent and reliable source of power for things like hospitals, water pumping stations and waste water treatment plants. Even in more developed areas such reactors might prove to be very useful backups to on a local level.

So, the next time the topic of size comes up remember that a big hammer is not the right tool for a little nail.


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