Nuclear Batteries

Tiny atomic reactors have energized the nuclear industry. Can they help save the planet?

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The Department of Energy would like to see small reactors filling niches in the energy market in the U.S., powering subdivisions, hospitals, universities, military facilities and other self-contained sites. Industry lobby groups like the Nuclear Energy Institute have bigger plans, however, suggesting that smaller reactors powered by nuclear batteries could one day offer a cheaper alternative to large plants by operating in clusters, with modules added depending on demand. That would certainly make them a substantial help in reducing carbon emissions. And Deal argues that nuclear batteries can augment renewable energy sources by providing a base load to stabilize fluctuations in the output of wind and solar farms, a common problem given that the wind does not always blow or the sun reliably shine.

Despite government support, the U.S.'s current regulatory process means that it will likely be many years before Hyperion constructs its first commercial reactor on U.S. soil. (A demonstration model for potential buyers will be built first at a government lab in South Carolina.) So far, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not granted a license for the nuclear battery or any other small reactor as it works its way through a bottleneck of applications for new traditional plants. As a result, Hyperion says, its first power plants will probably be built outside the U.S. sometime in the next few years.

The nuclear battery is so small, it can be transported in the back of a truck. It is that ease of transport that spooks Greenpeace International, which last year spoke out against Hyperion and said the batteries would be particularly vulnerable to terrorists who might want to cause a meltdown. Deal insists that not even a rocket-propelled grenade could damage nuclear batteries, because they will be shielded by a heavy layer of concrete and buried underground. Antinuclear campaigners counter that the modules will be vulnerable during transport, and of course, if the battery is powering ships, such protections would not be possible. Already, a small-reactor design by Russian state nuclear energy giant Rosatom for a seagoing, towable power station has led to a flurry of protests by green campaigners who accuse Russia of building "floating Chernobyls."

Nuclear-battery proponents say any such risk is outweighed by the prospect that the minireactors could help offset a bigger threat: nuclear war. Arms-control experts worry that the large number of developing countries expressing interest in nuclear technology portends a nuclear arms race; the countries themselves argue that they, like rich countries, need nuclear power to deal with issues of energy security and sustainability. Hyperion Power says its small reactor can help prevent nuclear proliferation by obviating the need for countries to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium — both processes that create material for bombs. As part of its turnkey design, the company promises clients that it will handle the entire fuel cycle — it will provide enriched uranium and arrange for the spent fuel (which includes small amounts of plutonium) to be collected and sold, although it admits it is still negotiating with the handful of countries that have commercial reprocessing operations for used fuel. What's more, the company says it will remotely monitor the reactor cores of its nuclear batteries and will therefore be aware of any attempt to steal or divert uranium or plutonium. "The State Department loves us," Deal recently told an energy conference in London. "We can provide a test: if you are serious about peaceful nuclear technology and you don't have weapons ambitions, then prove it by letting us take care of your fuel."

Despite all the controversy, nuclear batteries have some high-profile supporters in the NGO and academic communities. In testimony last year before Congress, Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, an arms-control think tank, said Congress should urge the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to speed approval for the Hyperion Power Module and other U.S.-designed small reactors, in part because they are much more proliferation-resistant than those being designed overseas. And globally, political support seems to be swinging in nuclear energy's favor. Sweden recently joined a growing list of countries whose parliaments have overturned moratoriums on new power plants.

While the industry will always be vulnerable to shifts in public opinion, there is growing interest in Jetsonsesque applications for a minireactor, from nuclear cruise ships ("Holy cow, do you know how cheap they would be to run?" says Deal) to desalination plants in conflict areas ("World War III is going to be fought over water. It's a huge issue, and we can help"). The interest is symptomatic of a vision that has been largely dormant in the U.S. since the early days of the nuclear era: the view that atom splitting can be a source of wonder and excitement rather than dread.

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