The Sciences

Backyard Nukes?

Cosmic VarianceBy John ConwayNov 12, 2008 10:56 PM

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I am not sure if this is clean, or it's green, but at least it doesn't emit CO2. The net is full of stories recently about new, miniature self-contain nuclear reactors which supply 25 megawatts of power, when and where you need it. The technology was developed at Los Alamos National Lab, and is now apparently being commercialized via a company called Hyperion Power Generation, Inc. The miniature power plant is truck-sized and buried underground for the five years it operates. HPG says it has no internal moving parts, needs no maintenance, and emits no pollution (though I am guessing there amy be a few neutrons and gamma rays flying around, which is a good reason to bury it; HPG doesn't talk about this). After five years, you replace it, like a battery. It may be a while before one of these is literally in your back yard, since you probably don't need 25 megawatts of power, and also because one of the units purportedly costs 25 million dollars. But for, say, a university like mine which already has its own power substation, it might be quite feasible to install one of these babies underground, and enjoy much cheaper power, selling any excess back to the power company. But all this kind of set off my inner skeptic...let's do the math. Present commercial rates for power are about about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. These mini-nukes last five years, putting out 25 MW. My trusty HP-15c tells me that this represents 219 million kilowatt-hours per year, or just over 2 cents per kilowatt hour! That would be a nice savings. (Note - original post was in error here!) Then, on the company's own web site FAQ it ways that each module puts out 25 MW electric power, but 70 MW thermal! Definitely don't want that in my back yard - and so does one need a 70 MW cooling tower? Or use the waste heat somehow? This kind of ruins the nice picture of the thing sitting quietly underground while a couple strolls on the surface...70 megawatts is like 30 sticks of dynamite exploding per second. In addition, of course, anti-nuclear activists will howl in protest: there are the obvious issues of nuclear waste storage (we won't open Yucca Mountain until at least 2017), uranium mining, terrorism during transport, and more. But there may be plenty of applications where this would seem to be a great solution, like remote locations or already secure places with big power needs. In the long run we will need more nuclear power plants to offset carbon emissions. Maybe this solution is better than giant multi-gigawatt installations?

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