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|November 20-26, 2008
Back to Letters
by Paul Danish
Good news. Nuclear reactors are about to get so cheap that even Boulder can afford to buy a few.
A Santa Fe, N.M., startup company named Hyperion Power Generation Inc. has reinvented the nuclear reactor. Its reactor is small, inherently safe, designed for mass production and, by the standards of the nuclear-power industry, dirt cheap.
The Hyperion reactor is about the size of a backyard hot tub. It produces 70 megawatts of thermal energy or, teamed with a turbine, 25 megawatts of electricity. The 15-ton reactor is designed to be mass produced in a factory and delivered as a sealed unit to customers by truck. Once on site it can be buried 20 or 30 feet below the surface for security reasons.
The reactor has no moving parts. Heat is removed by circulating water through a pipe from the surface. The heated water is returned to the surface through a second pipe, flashed to steam, and used to drive a turbine (or alternatively used for industrial process heat).
Once in place, the reactor would operate continually for up to 10 years, at which time it would be dug up and returned to the factory for reprocessing and recycling.
A Hyperion reactor capable of producing 25 megawatts of electricity is expected to cost $25 million. On a per-megawatt basis, that works out to about 30 percent less than the cost of a traditional nuclear power plant and compares favorably with the cost of building a coal-fired power plant.
Traditional power plants are built large in order to achieve economies of scale; the trade-off is that capital costs are huge and it takes a decade or more to complete them. Hyperion’s reactors are designed to trump the economies of scale with the economies of mass production. This approach promises to transform the economics of nuclear power.
The Hyperion reactor’s design also transforms the debate over the safety of nuclear energy.
The reactor’s fuel is a uranium compound called uranium hydride, UH3. The hydrogen atoms (probably in the form of heavy hydrogen) increase the likelihood that the uranium atom they are attached to will undergo fission, which decreases the amount of uranium that must be used to create the critical mass needed to sustain a chain reaction (thus the reactor’s small size). But, conveniently, the hydrogen atoms also slow the speed at which the chain reaction proceeds, which means that uranium hydride fuel is a flop as a nuclear explosive.
Better still, if the temperature within the reactor rises above a certain level, the hydrogen will detach itself from the uranium, which will damp down the chain reaction and cause the temperature to fall. Once the temperature falls, the hydrogen atoms reattach to the uranium and the reaction resumes, which means the reactor is inherently self-regulating and can’t overheat and melt down.
I bring all this up because, as I’ve argued in the past, if Boulder is genuinely serious about combating global warming on a local level, it needs to go nuclear.
If the city is to meet its self-imposed goal of locally complying with the greenhouse gas reduction targets of the Kyoto treaty, it will have to cut its output of greenhouse gases to the equivalent of roughly 1.47 million metric tons of CO2 by 2012, a 506,000-metric-ton decline from the 1.97 million metric tons produced in 2007. It currently intends to achieve this goal through a combination of conservation — i.e. insulating buildings, switching to energy-efficient heating, cooling and lighting — and getting a greater percentage of its electricity from wind and solar (some of Xcel will supply in the course of complying with the state law requiring it to derive 10 percent of the electricity it sells from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2015).
All well and fine. But according to figures on the city’s website, 60 percent of the CO2 that Boulder produced last year was produced by generating electricity. So if the city were to switch to nuclear power, it would at a single stroke cut its CO2 output by almost 1.2 million metric tons, or more than twice it’s Kyoto goal, and become a world leader in combating global warming in the bargain.
Meeting Boulder’s current demand for electricity requires about 100 megawatts of generating capacity. So it could be met by buying just four or five Hyperion reactors for $100 to $125 million.
To be sure, a solar power plant could do the same thing. But solar energy has availability issues — they’re called “night” and “clouds” — so a solar plant would have to have three times the generating capacity of the 24/7-available nukes to produce the same amount of power in the course of a year. It might look something like the 280-megawatt solar thermal power plant Arizona Public Service is building at Gila Bend, Ariz., which will cover three square miles and cost more than $1 billion.
Which would you rather have in the greenbelt: an array of mirrors or solar cells the size of the city of Superior, or five hot-tub-sized nuclear reactors buried 20 feet underground with a turbine about the size of a couple of buses on the surface?
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