Sony invented the personal stereo, but Toshiba (under its Westinghouse division) appears to have gone one better – the personal nuclear reactor. The first is likely to be installed in Galena, Alaska in 2008. Instead of a very small number of very large nuclear power stations, the new 200 kilowatt invention ushers in the age of a very large number of very small nuclear reactors.
And that might be a good thing. Or it might be a disaster waiting to strike.
The micro-reactors would have to be housed in secure facilities, places like banks and police stations, but they could help solve the looming energy crisis as global demand increases and much of the supply is in the hands of questionable governments.
Toshiba’s acquisition of Westinghouse already made it one of just four companies worldwide capable of manufacturing the containers in which nuclear reactions take place. Now it has developed a new class of micro nuclear reactors to power individual apartment buildings or city blocks, reported Next Energy News.
“The new reactor, which is only 20 feet by 6 feet, could change everything for small remote communities, small businesses or even a group of neighbors who are fed up with the power companies and want more control over their energy needs,” says the report. The Toshiba press office did not return calls from Off-Grid.
In Galena, City Manager Marvin Yoder has been negotiating since June 2005 for a license from the Federal Government to install the Toshiba made “nuclear battery”. Yoder has plenty of support for his plans because in Galena electricity costs three times the price paid in the rest of the US.
The remote village in Western Alaska is a long way from the grid. Its a fly-in village with only local roads. The energy supply is limited to fossil fuels transported on river barges, but the river is choked with ice 9 months per year.
The long winters without large volume transport requires the town to maintain very large fuel tanks – the total storage capacity is more than 3 million gallons between the town and the airport, which equates to more than 4,000 gallons for every resident. Fuel purchase, transportation, storage and financing costs led the community to search for another way.
At just 2m tall with a diameter of about 70cm, the tiny sealed nuclear reactor buried in long concrete tube could be a test case for off-grid communities everywhere. The plant is designed to hum along without the need for fuel replenishment for 30 years, hence the battery tag. It would meet the town’s entire energy needs all that time.
“All of a sudden people are starting to recognise nuclear power again, to get rid of greenhouse gases and because of cost,” Yoder says.
Yoder and other town officials is finalising talks with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has oversight of the industry, to discuss licensing the micro-nuclear plant. Local native American tribes are also involved in the talks.
The 200 kilowatt Toshiba designed reactor is engineered to be fail-safe and totally automatic and will not overheat. Unlike traditional nuclear reactors the new micro reactor uses no control rods to initiate the reaction. The new revolutionary technology uses reservoirs of liquid lithium-6, an isotope that is effective at absorbing neutrons. The Lithium-6 reservoirs are connected to a vertical tube that fits into the reactor core. The whole whole process is self sustaining and can last for up to 40 years, producing electricity for only 5 cents per kilowatt hour, about half the cost of grid energy.
Toshiba expects to install the first reactor in 2008 and to begin marketing the new system in Europe and America in 2009.
There are 104 nuclear plants in the US on 64 sites in 31 states. But there have been no new licensed plants since the 1970s. The Galena proposal is just one of a host of new plans being developed across the US for nuclear power. Several counties in the past six months have adopted resolutions approving the construction of new nuclear stations. It’s a surge of interest driven in part by the high costs of oil and natural gas, better technology driving down the costs of nuclear power, concern over how to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and the desire for local job creation and investment.
Nuclear power generates about 20 per cent of the US’s electricity (coal produces 50 per cent) and its supporters are excited that, a generation after the notorious Three Mile Island accident, the industry is on the verge of a boom.
“There’s an excitement in the nuclear community I haven’t seen in a long time,” says nuclear power expert Robert Block, professor emeritus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. He says US policy-makers and, perhaps more important, the environmental lobby increasingly are seeing nuclear energy as the answer to greenhouse gas emissions after wind and solar technology has consistently failed to produce enough energy to be a viable alternative to coal.
Last month several of the US’s most prominent environmentalists went public, saying nuclear power should be reconsidered. In the May issue of Technology Review, Stewart Brand, a founder of the environmental publication Whole Earth Catalog and author of Environmental Heresies, says the risk of not addressing climate change is outweighing the risks of nuclear power.
“It’s not that something new and important and good has happened with nuclear, it’s that something new and important and bad has happened with climate change,” Brand told The New York Times.
Until now environmentalists speaking up for nuclear power, even if by default, have been labelled eco-traitors, such as Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, who has begun speaking the language of sustainable development, much to the horror of green groups.
“I believe the majority of environmental activists, including those at Greenpeace, have now become so blinded by their extremist policies that they fail to consider the enormous and obvious benefits of harnessing nuclear power to meet and secure America’s growing energy needs,” he told a US congressional committee a month ago.
“These benefits far outweigh the risks. There is now a great deal of scientific evidence showing nuclear power to be an environmentally sound and safe choice.” Meanwhile, the Galena-Toshiba proposal is generating plenty of interest.
Yoder says a best-case scenario would have the plant up and running in 2010. There are still a host of issues to work out, including security of the site and waste disposal though, as Yoder says, with such a small plant the radioactive waste would be minimal. But he feels he’s out in front of something big by going nuclear.
“When we started looking at this two years ago, no one seemed to be talking about nuclear power,” he says. “It’s changing now.”
Want to know more? If you are very technical, try the Handbook of Micro Reactors: Chemistry and Engineering – buy it from Amazon.
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