Small-scale nuclear - not an oxymoron anymore
November 12, 2008 9:51 AM   Subscribe

For sale: 25 MWe uranium hydride nuclear reactor. $25 million. Size of hot tub; transportable on back of truck; suitable for burial next to steam turbine generator. No risk of meltdown. Powers 20,000 American homes, or significantly more remote African ones. Provides electricity at 10 cents/kWh. To join the waiting list or if you have questions, please contact Hyperion Power Generation.
posted by Dasein (83 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sweet! I won't need nuclear many engineers for my secret underground lair!
posted by jeffburdges at 9:54 AM on November 12, 2008


It is excellent. If we hadn't panicked in the 70s this tech would be 30 years further along now.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:57 AM on November 12, 2008


The FAQ states that it has to be dug up and sent back to the factory every five years (if not more frequently) for refueling. Five years may seem like a long time, but that could be a barrier to many remote implementations unless they develop some kind of instant replacement program.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:03 AM on November 12, 2008


Seems to me a truck brings in a fueled replacement and takes back the empty, which gets sent back out once it's refueled. Sorta like how trading in empty propane tanks works.
posted by jedicus at 10:06 AM on November 12, 2008


Burhanistan, I would think that this would only be viable if the deal was that Hyperion would bring along a fueled unit every five years to swap out, and then they could just take the old one back, refuel it, and deliver it to someone else with a performance guarantee.
posted by Dasein at 10:07 AM on November 12, 2008


Immediately made me think of this book.

I'll have to incorporate this in my next novel, Wal*Den, which is about a future post apocalyptic America where society collapses and most Americans live in giant neo-feudalistic WalMart-castle-town-biodomes called Wal*Dens. The economies will be largely based upon turn of the century mining towns, with people living essentially as serfs and getting paid in company scrip. (Walmart Gift Cards.) Also there will be zombies.
posted by Telf at 10:07 AM on November 12, 2008 [7 favorites]


The only thing that would make this cooler is if were being manufactured by Vault-Tec.

Still, I question their phrasing of it being "nearly impossible to steal" because that kind of thing rings the bells of "that's a challenge" for me.
posted by quin at 10:09 AM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Seriously though, this makes cessation look like a more viable option. Not so much for me, but Scientologists, Libertarians, and maybe a small cross section of back to earthers must be attracted to this. 25 million between a few thousands people is still a chunk of change but not impossible.
posted by Telf at 10:10 AM on November 12, 2008


Also there will be zombies.

Naturally.
posted by vibrotronica at 10:12 AM on November 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


This seems like one of those three-to-five-year ideas that never happens. Waste issues would be the biggest sticking point. And if they'll actually be able to get it built for that price, along with all the red tape. I doubt it.
posted by SirOmega at 10:22 AM on November 12, 2008


I finally read the article on this. There's doesn't appear to be an worry about degradation of power over time. So 5 years for a population of several thousand could be stretched out much longer for a ::ahem:: nuclear family.

This is pretty cool. Combine this with emerging solar technology and it opens up a lot of possibilities. Richard Branson needs to team up with Dean Kamen and make this happen.
posted by Telf at 10:23 AM on November 12, 2008


I like the idea of the forty-year, smaller reactors they mention. Think about it. One could power a small neighborhood of about 150 homes, for about $156,250 (using the naive assumption that all of this scales downwards), or a little over a grand per house. For forty years worth of power, that's very attractive. I keep checking my math on this, because this seems ridiculously low. Buy two or three, so you can cycle for repairs and build for the inevitable growth.

I think any move towards sustainability might function best if problems were solved somewhere around the neighborhood level in some instances. Power seems like one of them.
posted by adipocere at 10:29 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


N(uke)IMBY?
posted by schoolgirl report at 10:40 AM on November 12, 2008


I admit I had my doubts at first, but if you look at the website, you'll notice that the reactors have a blue glow which means they're good. If they had an evil green glow, then there might be cause for worry, but not with a blue glow . So I'm all for these.
posted by happyroach at 10:44 AM on November 12, 2008 [9 favorites]


25MW. For comparison, nuclear power plants are typically in the 1000 to 2000 MW range. So this is not really a replacement for commercial power companies, it's a niche product in remote locations or those needing a private power source like a large data center, aluminum factory or whatever. I suppose a new residential development could install one and by-pass the grid, but the grid has a lot of redundancy advantages and who knows about regulatory problems. Probably it will shine most in 3rd world countries.
posted by stbalbach at 10:46 AM on November 12, 2008


How much space does the fuel alone take up in one of these things?
posted by chillmost at 10:47 AM on November 12, 2008


We still haven't tackled the nuclear waste issue, and it's a big one. It is THE big one that holds back nuclear development, and rightly so.
posted by Mister_A at 10:48 AM on November 12, 2008


So $250/yr per house for electricity, or $21 bucks a month?

At those rates, you start thinking community or municipal co-ops. Hell, with an average residential cost per kWh of 11 centss, you start thinking of selling it back to the power company. Or if you're Google or the like, powering your server farms and insulating yourself from rate fluctuations.

I just wish this had been available back in the Enron price-manipulation era.

God, I hope this is a game changer, we need one now.
posted by orthogonality at 10:49 AM on November 12, 2008


ask your Vault-tec sales and propaganda representative today!
posted by boo_radley at 10:49 AM on November 12, 2008


Luke had a green lightsaber, happyroach. Think about it.
posted by Mister_A at 10:52 AM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Mister_A writes "We still haven't tackled the nuclear waste issue, and it's a big one. It is THE big one that holds back nuclear development, and rightly so."

Right, because other than black lug, mountain-top removal and the resulting erosion and habitat destruction, and the acid rain and carbon pollution and global warming from burning it, there's no problem with coal.

People are still doing fine in Harrisburg PA thirty years after TMI.
posted by orthogonality at 10:54 AM on November 12, 2008 [7 favorites]


When calculating the price of energy from these chumpies, do not neglect to include operating and maintenance costs, line charges, company overhead, etc. which will be non-zero.

I think there is some merit to this idea, but it's no magic bullet.
posted by Mister_A at 10:55 AM on November 12, 2008


I like the concept, but let's just hope someone keeps track of where these things are buried.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 10:59 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


TMI wasn't a waste issue it was a criticality issue. Anyway, orthogonality, this is not a very thoughtful response. Since coal is dirty, we should promulgate the use of another non-renewable power source that carries a substantial risk of environmental catastrophe, and that creates lethal and weaponizable by-products and waste that is both toxic and radioactive, waste that we have no sane way of coping with, waste that we have "disposed" of by burying it in hardened concrete tombs? I have a hard time getting too excited about nuclear power until we figure out what to do with the waste. Never in my backyard for this stuff.
posted by Mister_A at 11:01 AM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Mister_A writes "We still haven't tackled the nuclear waste issue, and it's a big one. It is THE big one that holds back nuclear development, and rightly so."

orthogonality writes: "Right, because other than black lug, mountain-top removal and the resulting erosion and habitat destruction, and the acid rain and carbon pollution and global warming from burning it, there's no problem with coal."


When one talks about holding back nuclear development, it seems like they have to ignore Europe. I'm not going to look into this, but I was under the impression that western European countries like France love nuclear power and get a huge portion of their power from nuclear plants. I suspect, and am again too lazy to back this up, that the retarded* implementation of nuclear power in American has a lot to do with coal astroturfing groups and lobbyists.

* Retarded as in slowed or inhibited, not as in , "going full retard".
posted by Telf at 11:09 AM on November 12, 2008


can't... resist.... the snark....

This article was amended on Monday November 11 2008. $25m divided by 10,000 is $2,500 not $250. This has been changed.

That's some good science reporting there, Lou!
posted by LordSludge at 11:12 AM on November 12, 2008


What's wrong with burying all nuclear waste in Alaska? Just imagine the hunting fun for the Palin family when there are six-armed polar bears, tentacled land whales, and mutated poison-spitting moose!
posted by jamstigator at 11:13 AM on November 12, 2008


Happyroach, red glow would be much more evil. Green is also the glow of plants, and the mild toxic liquid in DukeNukem. Duke could stand it for some time and he was just a regular guy, so green is not so bad.

Also, the article mentions the Czech company TES was supposedly the first to subscribe. Well, they make generators and such. What's the likelihood they would not take one apart and try to copy it?

BTW, I'm all for it. Distributed energy generation can only be good.
posted by Laotic at 11:15 AM on November 12, 2008


People are still doing fine in Harrisburg PA thirty years after TMI.

The problem is not 30 years, it's 3,000 or 300,000 years. Storing nuclear waste securely for eons to come and in large amounts is the problem, not isolated incidents.

Salt mines and other cavities have not held up to scrutiny. There's no place on earth to store the stuff long term. If you do this in large enough quantities, spread out over enough places, the probability of a continent's water supply going FUBAR sometime in future generations approaches 1.

Additionaly, human knowledge continually is getting lost, today more so than in ages with less overall knowledge. You'd think now everything is digital information is forever, but it is more volatile than ever before.

This practically assures that future generations* at some point will not know where, in what amounts, or in what condition stored waste is placed. Even more so if nuclear fission power proliferates and the disposal sites do accordingly. That's a pretty scary concept of "Easter Egg".

* Mind, we are talking hundreds of thousands of years. Compare this to the past history we more or less *know* about, which spans some 5000 years. That's how long the stuff must stay secure, while all the time more gets added to it. Impossible to not fuck up.
posted by uncle harold at 11:25 AM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


1. easily accessible uranium in the earth's crust may be non-renewable, but exists in quantities to supply mankind with power for ~1500 years (compared with oil's ~30-50 year remaining supply)

2. coal burning plants IN AMERICA pump more nuclear radiation directly into the atmosphere each year than the entire history of nuclear accidents, leaks, etc, combined, worldwide. coal is radioactive. (but then, so's a lot of stuff)

3. what's wrong with putting it back in the ground? isn't that where it came from?

its cleaner, its safer, and its coming...
although, to be honest, i'd prefer offshore power generators with turbines below the waterline and windmills above...
posted by sexyrobot at 11:30 AM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


coal burning plants IN AMERICA pump more nuclear radiation directly into the atmosphere each year than the entire history of nuclear accidents, leaks, etc

The entire history of nuclear energy is, compared to the time periods we are talking about when securing nuclear waste, is zero. The blink of an eye.

what's wrong with putting it back in the ground? isn't that where it came from?

You know it, erm... radiates and stuff. And will still be radiating when Star Trek in real life is an old hat, and the warp drive is totally old school.
posted by uncle harold at 11:44 AM on November 12, 2008



This article was amended on Monday November 11 2008. $25m divided by 10,000 is $2,500 not $250. This has been changed.

That's some good science reporting there, Lou!


And thats not all! November 11th was a Tuesday, errors in the correction leave me less than full of confidence in the other facts here.

But having said that, at least people are actually delivering technology to help address the problem.
posted by sfts2 at 11:47 AM on November 12, 2008


Speaking of doing some research, we do have some exciting new proposals on how to deal with nuclear waste. Countries aside from the United States have learned new things about nuke since the 70's.

Pony time! Pb, in the grand tradition of replacing people with small shell scripts, can I be replaced with something that mentions the potential of thorium reactors to burn old plutonium and other unwanted high-level byproducts of the nuclear industry every time someone brings up the phrase "nuclear waste" in one of these posts? It should only fire once per thread, mention the resulting low-level waste, and should be completely humorless.
posted by adipocere at 11:48 AM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


adipocere, I can't help but focus on the words "the potential". I am not anti-nuke, I am anti–going-about-it-all-willy-nilly. Where are the thorium plants now? Do you think they will be cheap to develop, deploy, and operate? France has a reprocessing scheme in place, but they still bury high-level waste in a huge hole in the ground, and that's a country that's a couple decades ahead of the US in nuclear power technology implementation.

So yes, I will consider sane nuclear power development, but I am not going to uncritically accept nuclear power as my huge, glowing, electric Jesus.
posted by Mister_A at 12:00 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yes, potential and ideas.

There have been lots of both in the history of nuclear waste (zing!) disposal, none have worked out. When the first thorium reactor is running at production capacity, I'll write a shell script retracting all mentions of nuclear waste (zing!).
posted by uncle harold at 12:00 PM on November 12, 2008


odinsdream: "So, where's the actual data on how it generates electricity from the nuclear heat? Is it a RTG? The article mentions no moving parts, ruling out any turbine-type system."

It mentions that you have to hook the reactor up to a separate steam turbine to generate electricity from the heat. The reactor itself has no moving parts, but the steam turbine is completely separate from the reactor.
posted by grandsham at 12:02 PM on November 12, 2008


Anyway, you did a good job on the "completely humorless" part.
posted by Mister_A at 12:03 PM on November 12, 2008


What is the risk of an accident or contamination? Using this assessment to extrapolate, if there are 1000 of these units deployed around the world, how many accidents will there be, and and what will be the environmental effects?
posted by KokuRyu at 12:03 PM on November 12, 2008


Mister_A: I'll be that huge, glowing electric Jesus that you can uncritically accept until such time as there is a more viable nuclear substitute.
posted by Burhanistan at 12:24 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's very likely just an RTG.
posted by anthill at 12:27 PM on November 12, 2008


How much dynamite would one one need to breach one of these things in situ and create a huge, toxic mess?



Hypothetically speaking, of course.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:27 PM on November 12, 2008


I'm hardly asking for uncritical acceptance of Cherenkov-shiny Jesus (that halo? That's a holy tokamak!). What I am getting at is, regardless of the power output, if we could build just one thorium reactor to process our already extant waste (and assuming, of course, we could work our way through the thicket of lawsuits that seem to arise whenever anyone wishes to transport said waste), it would be worth it. Hell, I didn't even bring it up here as a power source.

For the cost of just examining the suitability of Yucca Mountain (nine billion dollars, one buck for each of the names of G-d according to Clarke), I'm fairly sure we could have gone some distance down the road of building something that would exchange our millennially-hazardous waste for something that would be less dangerous, and only on the order of centuries.

Of course, we haven't anything like that in the States because we're too terrified of the image of green fuel rods gently boiling and glowing through a pool of dirty water (with the inevitable rivulet heading towards the playground) to perform the research that is going on in other countries (India, Australia).
posted by adipocere at 12:36 PM on November 12, 2008


Damn, I just put in a new gas furnace.
posted by Gungho at 12:37 PM on November 12, 2008


2. coal burning plants IN AMERICA pump more nuclear radiation directly into the atmosphere each year than the entire history of nuclear accidents, leaks, etc, combined, worldwide. coal is radioactive. (but then, so's a lot of stuff)

This is completely true; one year of radioactive output from America's coal plants is higher than the total radioactive emissions of the entire civilian nuclear industry since its inception.

If you exclude Chernobyl, which isn't that unreasonable, the radioactive emissions of the entire Atomic Age have been less than the yearly output of one coal plant.
posted by Malor at 12:41 PM on November 12, 2008


Would you link to something about the thorium technology you're talking about? Most of what I find talks about using Thorium as a fission fuel. I did not think thorium was a significant waste product of contemporary fission plants. If you could explain how thorium plants will consume high-level nuclear waste, I'd be glad to hear it.
posted by Mister_A at 12:42 PM on November 12, 2008


at the moment, canada is destroying itself for oil to sell to americans. i do not want it to destroy itself digging up uranium or trying to find places to bury the stuff when it's exhausted. this is simply not the good news everyone seems to think it is.

something this small and relatively affordable will inevitably become ubiquitous. ubiquity equals demand. demand leads to supply and waste. when these things are everywhere there will be a lot more uranium in circulation than ever before.

bad.
posted by klanawa at 12:44 PM on November 12, 2008


Luke's lightsaber throws off the curve, and I can only guess that it's an illustration of how open to corruption he is, since at the beginning his lightsaber was blue-white, like Obi-Wan's. By contrast, the fluid in Re-animator glows green, as does Kryptonite. Therefore, green glows are generally evil.

Seriously, while the proposal is nice, I can't see the reactors being distributed into the places where they'd be the most useful, like the third world. Never mind the waste issue; if the anti-proliferation problem is a mess now, think of it with thousands of small reactors as potential sources for dirty bombs.

As for the waste issue, I don't think we should even bother trying to hold it for 10,000 years like the standards for Yucca Mountain say. Holding it for a thousand years would be a task that's several orders of magnitude easier, and I'd say there's a fair chance that some time in the next couple hundred years we'd find some use for the stuff, if it's not too hard to get to.
posted by happyroach at 12:51 PM on November 12, 2008


Please do some research before commenting further.

I actually hold a certificate of radiation safety that allows me to use radionuclides at the city college of new york (not that they're licenced to handle anything more potent than radioactive iodine (mostly for genetic marking and such...they don't really do a lot of energy research there...that's all up at brookhaven), and not that i've even used it...it was just a certification i got for fun)

so:
Q: which energy source gets more energetic after you've used it to supply energy?
A: none. none at all. (see: the first law of thermodynamics)

and:
Q: where do you want your radiation?
a) in the air
b) in the water
c) deep under the ground in a tectonically stable region that's already pretty much uninhabitable

sure, i'll agree that nuclear accidents are horrible and potentially deadly, but they are nothing compared to the loss of life caused by chronic exposure to the pollutants from oil, gas, and coal...which aren't as noticeable until you start running the numbers.

also, calm your boner for solar power if you've got one...those panels degrade over time, contain arsenic compounds, are expensive, and are currently being 'improved' with carbon nanotubes (which are great and all, but may be worse for you than asbestos...the jury is still out on that one...)

but, like i said, i favor wind and water power, but if that isn't enough, i'll take nuclear over fossil fuels anyday, it's just plain greener.
posted by sexyrobot at 12:55 PM on November 12, 2008 [5 favorites]


Well, page three of this Cosmos article is a nice intro. Alternatively, you could just ask Google. Plutonium (old, high-level waste) injected into the thorium fuel cycle is consumed. I don't have a handy fuel cycle diagram.

Bonus thorium fun: because it's incapable of going critical on its own, you must supply it with additional neutrons. In any potential runaway situation, as soon as the process melts the neutron beam equipment (recently developed), the reaction goes subcritical, and no more China Syndrome.

This property also makes thorium very hard to build fissile bombs out of.

At the very least, it's worth some research dollars.
posted by adipocere at 12:57 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


sexyrobot, do you know anything about nuclear waste? Your comment about "what's wrong with putting it back in the ground" leads me to believe you don't.

Please do some research before commenting further.


This reminds me of Joe the Plumbers comment that we should "Do research" to see why he might think electing Barack Obama would mean "Death to Isreal". Come on, there is tons of garbage information out there; it isn't like doing research means you know something when it comes to a contentious issue. Why don't you tell us why you think putting it back into the ground is a problem. It doesn't seem like a problem.

also, calm your boner for solar power if you've got one...those panels degrade over time, contain arsenic compounds

They are certainly expensive, but traditional polysilicon solar panels don't contain anything harmful. Newer thin-film panels may contain different chemicals, though.

The deal with Polysilicon, though, is that it's expensive because it's hard to make, but Aluminum used to cost more then gold. It's possible that polysilicon pure enough to make solar panels could one day be as cheap as Aluminum.
posted by delmoi at 1:00 PM on November 12, 2008


Just a thought:
High-level waste is carefully stored over its 10-year lifetime by the nuclear industry. This is done above-ground in sealed tanks. It is not proposed to bury nuclear waste underground until activity has fallen to the medium-level category. Instead of underground burial, however, we now consider that medium-level waste is delivered for safekeeping to individual households.

We take the amount of the waste so delivered to be that which has been generated over the 70 years from 1990 to 2060....

... Over this period a typical family of four would accumulate 4 x 70 = 280 person years of vitrified nuclear waste, which for an all-nuclear energy economy would weigh about 2 kilograms. Supplied inside a thick metal case, capable of withstanding a house fire or a flood, the waste would form an object of about the size of a small orange, which it could be made to resemble in colour and surface texture - this would ensure that any superficial damage to the object could easily be noticed and immediately rectified by the nuclear industry.

The radioactive materials inside the orange would be in no danger of getting smeared around the house, not like jam or honey. The radioactive materials would stay put inside the metal orange-skin. Indeed the orange would be safe to handle freely but for the γ-rays emerging from it all the time. The effect on a person of the γ-rays would be like the X-rays used by the medical profession. If one were to stand for a minute at a distance of about 5 yards from the newly acquired orange, the radiation dose received would be comparable to a medical X-ray.

Unlike particles of matter, γ-rays do not stay around. Once emitted γ-rays exist only for a fleeting moment, during which brief time they are absorbed and destroyed by the material through which they pass. Some readers will be familiar with the massive stone walls of old houses and barns in the north of England. If a γ-ray emitting orange were placed behind a well-made stone wall 2 feet thick, one could lounge in safety for days on the shielded side, and for a wall 3 feet thick one would be safe for a lifetime.

Our family of four would therefore build a small thick-walled cubicle inside the home to ensure safe storage of the family orange. After several generations, the waste inside the orange would have declined to the low-level category when the orange could be taken out of its cubicle and safely admired for an hour or two as a family heirloom....
I haven't checked the math and obviously the medium term is a bit glossed over, but in principle we're not talking about all that much stuff here. Certainly long-term low-grade waste is comparable in volume to the gold we've got, and we do a pretty good job keeping that safe.
posted by Skorgu at 1:06 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mister_A writes "I have a hard time getting too excited about nuclear power until we figure out what to do with the waste."

Stick it in the coal mines. Although we'll probably invent a way to reprocess it.

(And note that there's trace uranium in coal, which gets into the atmosphere and builds up there when we continue to burn coal.)

You're stuck in a "the best is the enemy of the good" trap; we have to stop burning coal if we are going to control global warming. While solar and geothermal and wind might be better than nuclear, nuclear is our only real option now, and we can't afford to wait much longer.

Nuclear waste's a potential problem, with a good short-term solution: bury it; the Maldives and the Netherlands being submerged, and European wars over potable water are a short-term certainty if we don't get global warming under control.
posted by orthogonality at 1:10 PM on November 12, 2008


I'm not going to look into this, but I was under the impression that western European countries like France love nuclear power

Yeah, don't look into it, it'd make a mess of your blanket generalization. In fact, only France loves nuclear power and a growing roster of European nations (Denmark, Norway, Sweden) have legally banned it, while Germany is phasing out its outdated nukes. All have decided that large-scale deployment of renewables is the most cost-effective way to eliminate fossil fuels.

But sure, let's take these guys at their word. Let's assume that the retail cost of a "product" still in the lab, with no known commercial deployments, can be accurately forecast. After all, this is the nuclear industry we're talking about here, and when they said in the '50s they'd provide energy "too cheap to meter," by god they delivered! (That's why I miss living in Toronto so much. Oh, that free meterless power from Pickering and Darlington! But I digress.)

So $25m for 25MW is $1 per watt. I'm assuming that's independent of a steady uranium supply. Also of whatever it costs to pay the team of lawyers you'll need to rewrite every building code and zoning bylaw on earth to be able to put these things in the ground anywhere near where people live. Probably need to rewrite every home insurance policy too. Put in place some sort of testing, maintenance and security infrastructure for 'em. (Then again, the story says their first clients are in Panama, the Caymans and the Bahamas, so maybe these are actually designed to exist only in regulatorily challenged environments. Digressing again . . .)

So I'll be enormously generous in the figure I pull out of my ass to mate with theirs, and I'll say the actual installed cost will be $1.50/watt. And since we're going with future-tense estimates here, I feel safe in placing that alongside the $1.00/watt that at least one thin-film solar company is advertising, and even with no fuel costs, no particularly arduous regulatory hurdles, no waste ever, maybe the installed cost will be as much as that of a nuclear reactor. (Incidentally, the buck-a-watt solar folks just signed a $50-million deal with EDF of France - the world's biggest nuclear plant operator. I'm not sure who's hedging who's bet there. This'll be the last digression, I promise.)

So, at the same price, which would you choose? Clean solid-state solar, fed by a free and limitless fuel source and built by companies that have only just begun to explore market efficiencies and economies of scale and all that? Or nuclear, fed by a limited resource (and thus subject, in the long run, to some of the same problems we're now encountering with oil), with a deadly byproduct for which there's no known permanent storage solution, built by an industry that has not once kept its promises or kept to its budget estimates in half a heavily subsidized century?

By all means, let's consider any reasonable offer. But the first part of being ecumenical about energy is to consider all commercially viable power sources. Nukes better than coal? Sure, hands-down. But this is not a binary energy world. How do they compete with wind, the sun, the earth's stored heat?

(Oh, and I do hear your gnashing teeth out there, intermittancy trolls. I think we need to be at like 20-percent solar power worldwide before it really matters, but I'll take the stuff I'm hearing about smart garages over the unsubstantiated claims of the nuclear power business.)

On preview: nuclear is our only real option now

Yeah, that's what I mean about being ecumenical. This line gets repeated everywhere like naked truth, and yet I know of not a single conventional nuke design that could produce a single new kilowatt-hour before about 2018. Whereas the 800MW of solar PG&E just commissioned - roughly the size of a conventional reactor in output - will be lighting Californian homes by 2012.
posted by gompa at 1:19 PM on November 12, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm not stuck in any such trap, orthogonality. I want more information, and more debate, and more hard scientific data before I'm ready to endorse nuclear energy as "good". How will new plants differ from old plants? How will we fund their construction? How will we safeguard the fuel and byproducts? We are talking about a wholesale shift to nuclear energy, a huge effort that requires enormous changes to our infrastructure, and I think it is appropriate to ask some questions and demand answers.

I want better answers than, "Thorium plants dude!" or "Chernobyl won't happen here," or "they did it in France."
posted by Mister_A at 1:21 PM on November 12, 2008


Maybe we could just take all the spent fuel and make bombs out of it. Problem solved.
posted by snofoam at 1:33 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


25MW. For comparison, nuclear power plants are typically in the 1000 to 2000 MW range.

They're going to have to make it a little smaller and get it up to 1.21GW for it to be any use to me. Now where did I put that flux capacitor?
posted by The Bellman at 1:33 PM on November 12, 2008


Oh, like the USA will ever find anyone to bomb.
posted by Mister_A at 1:34 PM on November 12, 2008


If you somehow parsed my original comment ("the potential of thorium reactors to burn old plutonium and other unwanted high-level byproducts of the nuclear industry") as "thorium plants dude!" I can only suggest that no amount of further data provided to you would result in any significant shift in your attitudes, and is therefore not a productive use of your time, my time, or the time of anyone else in here. At no point was there a "dude," or even a "cowabunga."

Hard scientific data, while being totally tubular, as provided by funded research, won't appear until the reaction of the community as a whole to even looking into the issue proceeds beyond the gag me with a spoon reflex.

Changes to the infrastructure, well ... we've got these power lines ... umm. That part is no more of a leap than solar plants.

We've had the funding issue solved for some time, in the form of bonds, that part doesn't really change. Be nice if it did, but that's more of a gnarly bonus.

Handling of the waste? That was my initial point.

I think you are talking about a wholesale shift to nuclear energy. I don't see anyone else in here doing so. It's a pretty bitchin' Catch-22, though, that you'd put us in, since we'd have to know everything that would possibly happen before we can do anything to put some cash into it.
posted by adipocere at 1:41 PM on November 12, 2008 [4 favorites]


Me:
"I'm not going to look into this... I suspect, and am again too lazy to back this up..."

Mister_A:
Yeah, don't look into it, it'd make a mess of your blanket generalization.

Calling out my own laziness after I've already called it out is just bad form. It's kind of like how I'm allowed to make fun of my little sister all day long, but if you make fun of my sister I have to punch you in he face.

Pre-emptive self deprecated burning of your own strawmen is a time honored internet argument defensive tactic. Don't go muddying the waters with your "well thought out" and possibly "researched" opinion. It's dirty pool and besmirches the whole point of disagreeing anonymously with strangers.
posted by Telf at 1:45 PM on November 12, 2008


This post made me fire up simcity 4 and try out a new nuclear plant I had recently downloaded. IT DIDN'T WORK. IT'S AN OMEN.
posted by Citizen Premier at 1:49 PM on November 12, 2008


I parsed your original comment as, "Ha! I am going to say something about how awesome thorium plants are, but not supply any particulars, and then suggest that anyone who doesn't immediately concede the awesomenessicity of thorium plants is a backwards rube."

I asked you to show me some info on thorium plants and you posted a google search. Why don't you FILTER that stuff a little and present a passable thesis on thorium plants and how they can be adapted to burn plutonium, and how they will help with the non-plutonium wastes from conventional nuclear plants, and how far they are from feasibility, and so on. Because right now, you have come into this thread and suggested that nuclear power is the answer because some over-the-next-hill magic unicorn technology that is not really related to the matter under discussion. At least orthogonality is focusing on the real, confirmed, technologically feasible nuclear options that are on the table. While I disagree with his position, at least there's some substance to it.

Thorium, dude!
posted by Mister_A at 1:50 PM on November 12, 2008


O RLY?
posted by Mister_A at 1:53 PM on November 12, 2008


Also, I think you're missing the point here. We're talking about personal nuclear reactors. These things are obviously only one step away from jetpacks, flying cars, and laser pistols that actually make p'choo p'choo sounds when you fire them.

If our forefathers had let concerns like nuclear waste cloud their judgment, we'd be losing infants to rampant Dodo birds and would be afraid o swim in our whale-infested oceans. Don't fight progress.
posted by Telf at 1:54 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]


Also, I think you're missing the point here. We're talking about personal nuclear reactors. These things are obviously only one step away from jetpacks, flying cars, and laser pistols that actually make p'choo p'choo sounds when you fire them.

You know where you could make use of all this stuff? Awesomenessicity!

Anyway, I'm now convinced. I will endorse personal nuclear reactors, but only as part of a package in which we convert all of our plain old cities to awesomenessicities ASAP.

In Awesomenecessicity, I will ride a super-intelligent dolphin to work. After all, we work in adjacent offices on the same cloud. He's my accountant, you see.
posted by gompa at 2:02 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


dry cask storage as an option for spent fuel.

The only downside I can see from five minutes of expert web sleuthing yields this and the need for open space for the bad stuff to sit and watch the sky. But space as a raw commodity appears to be relatively cheap in the Americas/Africa/ExSoviet states. Anyone got more on why dry-cask is not more of an option?

Digging one, big, deep hole seems just too much like putting all one's eggs in one basket, so to speak.
posted by ilovemytoaster at 2:12 PM on November 12, 2008


Also, I think you're missing the point here. We're talking about personal nuclear reactors. These things are obviously only one step away from jetpacks, flying cars, and laser pistols that actually make p'choo p'choo sounds when you fire them.

If our forefathers had let concerns like nuclear waste cloud their judgment, we'd be losing infants to rampant Dodo birds and would be afraid o swim in our whale-infested oceans. Don't fight progress.


I can't tell if you're being serious or sarcastic, but I kind of like it either way.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:17 PM on November 12, 2008


> You're stuck in a "the best is the enemy of the good" trap; we have to stop burning coal if we are going to control global warming. While solar and geothermal and wind might be better than nuclear, nuclear is our only real option now, and we can't afford to wait much longer.

Problem is you just can't go to any corner store and buy the parts to build yourself a Nuclear power plant any faster than a georthermal or solar, and depending on your design, you may have a 10 year wait period not counting the site survey and impact costs. If we are going to throw our money at something and wait 10 years for a return, we might as well ramp up solutions that we don't have such a hard time working with properly.

And for the US, we will need a dynamic power grid no matter what solution we put in place to make power distribution more efficient. So a massive solar array in Arizona could in fact power the whole US, etc.

I do think the Hyperion system is interesting, and it beats the creation of coal burning plants in eastern europe (one of the larger users of coal energy), but to say that nuclear is the only answer is to ignore the fact that we haven't been that good at working with it (or cleaning up after it) in the past. People tend to forget that the fuel has to be processed somewhere, the materials used to process the fuel have to be treated and contained, and all of the EQUIPMENT becomes contaminated and that has to go somewhere also. It's not just hiding that little orange of waste, it is dealing with everything that was used to make that little orange of waste, too.
posted by mrzarquon at 2:33 PM on November 12, 2008


no fuel costs, no particularly arduous regulatory hurdles, no waste ever...

Ever? Never?
posted by electroboy at 3:01 PM on November 12, 2008


They are certainly expensive, but traditional polysilicon solar panels don't contain anything harmful.

sorry, i was being a bit hard on the solar panels...but, as far as i know, the polysilicon is just the substrate...i'd always learned the active part was gallium arsenide or one of it's doped cousins (it's the same stuff as in LEDs...add electricty to it, you get light, add light, get electricity...it's the photoelectric effect...what einstein won the nobel for (with max planck), not relativity, BTW (you can't win it twice...)... problem is, anything that reacts so strongly to light becomes degraded by it...its why fluorescent paints have such transient pigments...so yeah, the industry is headed towards the magic number of $1/watt, but for a product that lasts how long? and yeah, gallium arsenide contains arsenic, and after seeing what a bang-up job the electronics industry has been doing cleaning up its toxic mess, i'm a bit leery of large-scale deployment of toxic panels...especially if they're coated with nanotubes...which are really cool and all, but which might be dangerous like asbestos...millions of tiny fibers capable of blocking lung passages and penetrating cell walls to interfere with dna in all sorts of cancer causing ways...but, like i said, the jury's still out (i forget which govt agency is currently investigating...the cdc maybe?)

for more on the current state of the art with the solar panels, you should check out futurepundit.com...he posts a lot of articles about solar power...

also, if this new reactor is based on a RTG, then it's unlikely to contain anything fissionable or capable of being used for bombs. and as far as blowing one up with a stick of dynamite, well, the RTGs on the cassini probe, now orbiting saturn, were designed and tested to withstand the explosion of its launch vehicle (a titan iv-b centaur...the largest current u.s. expendable rocket) and to be recoverable, intact, either on land or from the sea floor after a drop from altitude. ...sooo, something like that, weighing a few tons, buried underground behind the fences at the power station on the outskirts of town, under 24hr camera surveillance? i'm actually fine with that. how would you steal it without cutting power to 10,000 homes anyway? they would catch you immediately.
posted by sexyrobot at 3:32 PM on November 12, 2008


how would you steal it without cutting power to 10,000 homes anyway? they would catch you immediately.

Again, statements like this are not doing anything to help get rid of the heist music that has been playing in my head nearly constantly since I started thinking about how to liberate a nuclear reactor from its earthly prison.
posted by quin at 3:51 PM on November 12, 2008


> how would you steal it without cutting power to 10,000 homes anyway? they would catch you immediately.

well, it would be easy to sneak away in the dark with it, what with everyone being without power and all...
posted by mrzarquon at 3:57 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mister_A: the nuclear waste issue
adipocere: the potential of thorium reactors to burn old plutonium and other unwanted high-level byproducts of the nuclear industry
Jamstigator: What's wrong with burying all nuclear waste in Alaska?
orthogonality: Stick it in the coal mines.
Skorgu: delivered for safekeeping to individual households.
happyroach: Holding it for a thousand years
adipocere: green fuel rods gently boiling and glowing through a pool of dirty water
sexyrobot: a) in the air b) in the water c) deep under the ground
snofoam: make bombs out of it
ilovemytoaster: dry cask storage
uncle harold: Storing nuclear waste securely for eons to come and in large amounts [...] Salt mines and other cavities [...] no place on earth [...] future generations

Earth, Earth, Earth. You all seem to be missing the obvious solution: send it up on Japan's space elevator and nudge it toward the sun. Seriously: why not?
posted by lostburner at 4:09 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


I worry a little bit about the dirty bomb issue as well. Not only would these things be targets for terrorists to dismantle for radioactives, but they'd be at risk of becoming inadvertent dirty bombs in a conventional war. A lot of the countries people are suggesting we send these to are pretty unstable, and power plants are among the first targets hit in any conflict. I don't see why a place too unstable for a conventional non-proliferation nuclear power plant is stable enough for these.

For populated areas, I tend to favor the traditional mode of nuclear power - build big, centralized plants that are easy to defend, and put them way out in the middle of nowhere so if someone strikes them (or if an accident occurs) the danger of radioactive contamination is reduced.

On the other hand, in remote areas that are not unstable, these would be great.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:02 PM on November 12, 2008


send it ... toward the sun. Seriously: why not?

First: accidentally dropping canisters of radioactive waste from a few kilometers up probably isn't going to be too popular with the Japanese

Secondly, more practically: way more expensive than just burying it. Waste is pretty heavy.

Thirdly, most importantly: our grandkids will curse us for throwing away perfectly good fissionables. Yucca mountain doesn't have to last 50 gazillikon years, it just has to last long enough for some bright bunny to figure out how to run a reactor on our "waste."
posted by bonehead at 6:07 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


25MW. For comparison, nuclear power plants are typically in the 1000 to 2000 MW range. So this is not really a replacement for commercial power companies,

Actually, it's an excellent replacement for commercial power companies that currently service suburbs. If it worked as advertised (and I'm on the side of the people who worry about waste, I might add), you'd drop a few per suburb, and toss out the wasteful transmission lines that currently bring your power from far, far away, losing huge amounts of generated power in the process.

it's a niche product in remote locations or those needing a private power source like a large data center, aluminum factory or whatever.

Aluminium factory? I think you underestimate what a smelter requires.
posted by rodgerd at 6:35 PM on November 12, 2008


Unless I see some real data here, I'll call BS. RTGs use thermocouples that are only about 10% efficient. So that means the reactor has to put out 250MW of heat to get 25MW of electricity. It is inconceivable that you could have 250MW of energy in a container the size of a hot tub without it melting into slag. What are you going to do with all the waste heat?

The idea that an electrical generator, nuclear or not, putting out 25MW from a small garden shed is ridiculous. And for $25 million. I don't think so.

If such a device were possible, they would first be installed in submarines and aircraft carriers. Instead, they use steam turbines.

This all sounds like vaporware to me.
posted by JackFlash at 7:34 PM on November 12, 2008


The FAQ says the unit puts out 75MW of waste heat for that 25MW of power. So not only do you get electricity you could hook everyone one up with central heating.

There are at least a few places around BC this tech would be perfect for. Places running desiel generators for a few thousand people in remote towns. I think I was reading that during the recent oil price spike they were paying something like $0.30 a KWh for electricity between the cost of fuel and the cost of transporting it.
posted by Mitheral at 8:49 PM on November 12, 2008


i think i read somewhere that these in fact have a steam turbine attached...

as far as the 'terrorist target' issue goes, seems these things are small enough to be buried just about anywhere...who's to say exactly where the are? they just have to be close enough to a power line to plug them into the grid, and that covers, well, just about everywhere, no?
posted by sexyrobot at 10:39 PM on November 12, 2008


Okay, so I see that for your $25 million, all you get is a hot tub that supposedly puts out 70 MW of heat. Not included is the steam turbine and electrical generator. A 25MW turbine and generator are about the size of a large house and weigh about 300 tons. To operate the turbine you need water -- lots of water. You need about 5000 cubic meters of water per hour just to cool the turbine. Then you also need about 100 tons of water each hour to produce the steam. Oh, and you're going to need a giant cooling tower to cool the water. And you are going to need a big yard of electrical switching gear to distribute the power throughout the neighborhood.
posted by JackFlash at 11:58 PM on November 12, 2008


JackFlash, RTFA.

"What is Hyperion’s output?
Approximately 70 megawatts (MW) of heat (thermal energy) and 25 megawatts (MW) of electrical power via steam turbine

This is approximately enough power for one Hyperion module to provide electricity for a community of 20,000 average-sized American-style homes. Hyperion modules can also been “ganged” in multiples to provide even more power."

It's not an RTG.
posted by Thoth at 12:23 AM on November 13, 2008


It's not an RTG.

Yes, that's what I posted just above after further reading. And it's not 70 MW of heat plus 25 MW of electricity. The Hyperion unit is just a heat generator that puts out 70 MW of heat. You can hook this heater up to a separate steam turbine and generator which can put out 25 MW of electricity, about 35% efficiency. The turbine and generator are not included. This is an enormous, expensive facility, not a 25MW electrical generator in a garden shed -- not to speak of all the water you need to support a steam turbine.
posted by JackFlash at 1:13 AM on November 13, 2008


As far as the waste issue is concerned (I mean for nuclear in general), well, the countries that developed nuclear technology early and for the purposes of weaponry have generated a shitload already due to the general defence exemption from any kind of best practice and the lack of foresight regarding future decommissioning. In countries like this (e.g. US, UK, France) the additional HLW created by a single generation of power plants built with waste minimisation and decommissioning in mind would not add significantly to either the magnitude or the timescale of the waste issue, nor would it require significantly more land than currently occupied by nuclear sites. It would make sense for these countries to build one more generation of plants to ease the transition to a renewable energy economy. The argument for other countries is less clear cut.

Regarding the disposal of the extant waste, there are a few viable alternatives, but these are all contentious due to the 'we're bound to fuck it up' brigade objecting to pretty much every proposal. Unfortunately these folks don't seem to understand that we need to deal with the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. The temporary storage solutions implemented thus far all depend entirely on political stability, which human history teaches us is a fragile thing. We need to deal with the issue now. There are a number of tectonically stable areas where the waste could safely be buried with no risk to uninformed future societies, and in such a manner that retrieval would inherently require the technological and political wherewithal to deal with the recovered material. It is only a matter of political will
posted by Jakey at 3:58 AM on November 13, 2008


One day in a nuclear age
They may understand our rage
They build machines that they can't control
And bury the waste in a great big hole
Power was to become cheap and clean
Grimy faces were never seen
But deadly for twelve thousand years is carbon fourteen


Suck it Sting - right in the ear.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 11:58 AM on November 13, 2008


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