By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A nuke in every town

This could be the most important story of the year, if not the decade. According to the Guardian, scientists at Los Alamos have developed technology to build small, cheap, safe nuclear power plants that can power 20,000 homes.

According to reporters John Vidal and Nick Rosen:

The miniature reactors will be factory-sealed, contain no weapons-grade material, have no moving parts and will be nearly impossible to steal because they will be encased in concrete and buried underground.

The article is a bit superficial. There’s no mention of what happens to the waste, and no explanation of why the lack of moving parts ensures that it’s safe.

As for why we shouldn’t worry about terrorists making use of these, we get this quote from John Deal, head of the company that plans to manufacture these mini-nukes: “Temperature-wise it’s too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with your bare hands.”

I’m not impressed.

Still, if the safety and terrorism concerns can be properly addressed, this sounds like one of the great technological leaps forward we need to solve both the energy and the global-warming crises. It’s very exciting, and I hope the sudden re-emergence of cheap oil doesn’t make such advances too financially risky. (Via Howard Owens’ Twitter feed.)

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  1. Bellicose Bumpkin

    When something sounds too good to be true …..It looks intriguing but I’m doubtful about the all-gain, no-pain advertising. When I heard “no moving parts” I thought … impossible. Ultimately in any power generation facility, a turbine needs to turn in a magnetic field to generate juice. And this is no different. The unit apparently generates heat that turns an exteran – probably above-ground steam turbine. The company also has a web site this woefully high on hype and short on detail.Count me skeptical until I see some details.

  2. Howard Owens

    I had some of the same thoughts, though I’m not as skeptical as BB above.If something like this is possible, it will be done. That’s just the nature of technological advancement.I’m moving more toward a notion of the importance of self-sustaining local communities. This helps in that regard. But more importantly, think what this could mean for developing countries — cheap electricity, development unhindered by legacy technologies (land-lines, super highways, big electric grids). These kinds of advancement could — being the complete optimist here — have a profound positive impact on poverty and hunger.For me the whole “green” thing is more than just being green. These advancements can have positive socio-economic impacts.

  3. Vox

    We’re still talking nuclear fission here, right? I’ll be more entusiastic when they perfect nuclear fusion.

  4. Aaron Read

    This smells like BS to me. I’ve heard of all sorts of over-hyped “miracle energy” stories in the past couple of years. Most have not panned out. Remember about a year or two ago when some California company invented a new way of making non-silicon solar panels you could literally print in flexible sheet from a special printer? Was going to change the world, make solar cheaper than coal, blah blah blah. Yeah, still hasn’t quite worked out; the manufacturing process proved to be quite difficult and inefficient. Oops.There are ways of creating electricity without a moving turbine, actually…so the no moving parts is a theoretical possibility. I think what they’re referring to is that nuclear reactors are usually “controlled” by inserting neutron rods into the reaction chamber. They absorb free neutrons, which prevent them from hitting fissionable material instead. More rods = less fission = less energy created.If there’s no moving parts, then somehow they’ve figured out a way to keep the reaction from ever getting to a point where you’d need to mechanically insert/remove control rods to tone it down or speed it up. Probably some design of the reactor that makes it so the bigger the reaction, the more the overall process naturally flows into a system that retards fission…thus becoming self-regulating.As for not being able to steal it, that’s good for a laugh. If it’s hot enough to be impossible to steal then it’s too hot to be safe to have hundreds of the damn things everywhere. And at $25mil a pop, that’s powerful (pun intended) incentive to have the proper equipment to steal them.

  5. Ani

    I’m skeptical, too. Without knowing anything to speak of about energy generation, I would also wonder whether burying lots of very hot objects in the earth will have a negative impact on the ecology, or has that been addressed?

  6. acf

    Pretty good, small enough that every small town or neighborhood can have one, and too hot to steal. A winner all around. Call me a green luddite, but to reiterate a question brought up earlier, what about the waste? Also, its widespread deployment makes it a rich target for terrorists. Do you notice how 8 years of Bush fear and doom have put ‘terrorist’ into our ready vocabulary? Are we any more at risk than 8 years ago, 16, really?

  7. zadig

    I won’t be satisfied until I can power my car and home with a Mr. Fusion. Heck, Christopher Lloyd had one of those way back in the ’80s.

  8. Steve

    I don’t know about these mini-nuke plants. It sounds to me like widespread adoption of this technology would leave us with lots and lots of points of potentially hazardous failure.I’d much rather see us build Cape Wind, if the billionaires would just get out of the way.On the topic of nuclear waste, though, Technology Review had an interesting idea in its December 2004 issue: since technology marches on, procrastinate!(In the following excerpt, “cask fields” are pretty much on-site storage of nuclear waste)”With nuclear waste, procrastination may actually pay. The construction of cask fields presents a chance to rethink the conventional. The passage of several decades while the waste sits in casks could be immensely helpful. A century would give the United States time to observe progress on waste storage in other countries. In the meantime, natural radioactive decay would make the waste cooler and thus easier to deal with. What’s more, technological advances over the next century might yield better long-term storage methods. “If it goes on for another 50 years, it doesn’t matter. It could go on for 100 or 200 years, and it’s probably for the better,” says Allison Macfarlane, a geologist at MIT and coeditor of a forthcoming book on Yucca. “We’ve got plenty of time to play with it.””

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Steve: Yes, and windmills too. There isn’t going to be one solution, is there?

  10. Ani

    Having experienced recently how “not as advertised” an innovation in technology (the HD conversion box) can be, I worry that whatever we’re told, it will turn out to be significantly different.

  11. Bellicose Bumpkin

    This technology looks to be for real.The question is – do they really pass a cost v. benefit analysis? And what about the waste produced during manufacture and disposal?

  12. Michael Pahre

    This kind of design sounds to me more to be a manufacturing innovation, rather than a technological one.There already exist nuclear reactor designs on small scales — see Submarine, Nuclear-Powered and Aircraft Carrier, Nuclear-Powered. My understanding of submarines is that the reactor is manufactured and delivered as a self-contained unit, not unlike this latest design.The small and/or modular-design idea is an interesting way to reduce construction costs by (a) not having to send large installation teams out into the field, and (b) not having to customize every single power plant.Modular and/or small designs, however, have not been shown to make economic sense. The energy delivery costs might be favorable to current rates in Alaska and Hawaii, but that’s not saying much — and is a limited market. Actual costs are higher than large-scale plant designs. (Note that this is a link to an industry webpage.)While they may not have analyzed this particular model, the Union of Concerned Scientists currently lists only one reactor design as being a safety improvement on existing plants — and it’s not this latest design. I don’t think anyone will buy into these little reactors until safety improvements are demonstrated and independently verified. We ain’t there yet.

  13. bostonmediawatch

    Interesting, but everything on their web site smells like a penny stock pitch, although it’s all venture capital so far.The only news in this story is that they got an order, or rather, a letter of intent.

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