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New nukes: Floating, buried, or in your basement?

Pint-sized nuclear reactors have powered U.S. naval vessels for decades. Now proposals for smaller scale nuclear generators for civilian applications are multiplying. Two years ago, Rosenergoatom, Russia’s formerly state-owned, now privaate nuclear-energy company annoucned plans to build a 120-megawatt plant on a barge. Slated to float out in 2010, it will be towed to the White Sea, in Russia’s far north, to power mining operations as well as nearby towns. Drawing on designs for U.S. Navy nuclear reactors, the U.S. developed plans for nuclear barges in the 1960s, but abdononed them in the 1970s.

In the US, cold-war era nuclear nuclear technology has taken a different evolutionary path. Hyperion Power Generation, using technology spun off from Los Alamos National Labs, is developing a nuclear battery about the size of a how tub. The design is estimated to put out 25 megawatts, enough to run a small town, for five years or more. The advantage, its designers say, is that since the batteries is small enough that it can be buried, lowering risks of tampering and mishap. Plus, with no moving parts, it can get no “hotter” — radioactively or thermally — than the day it’s delivered.

And today brings news that Japan’s Toshiba, which recently acquired the vestiges of Westinghouse’s nuclear business, plans to commercialize a bus-sized reactor, that at 200 kilowatts, is just big enough to power some 200 households. At 20 feet by 6 feet, the reactor could power off-grid facilities, remote communities. Toshiba hopes to install its first mini-reactor in Japan in 2008, and market them in the West the following year.

These modular approaches to new nuclear reactors could deliver potentially much lower-cost power plants, thanks to standardized design, and lower manufacturing and assembly costs. Despite the industry’s efforts to drive down design, licensing, and construction costs, conventional nuclear power plants are just about the most costly power plants to build. Their financial advantage, over decades of generating life, emerges because fuel costs are so low relative to coal or gas plants. Here’s some instructive data I borrowed from the Nuclear Energy Institute.

These are the total costs versus the output over the lifetime of the plant. Costs include construction, operations & maintenance, fuel and decommissioning.

Source: International Energy Agency, “Projected Costs of Generating Electricity

”, 2005.

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