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By Lloyd McGraw on Feb 18, 2010 with 6 responses

Mixed Reactions To New Mini Nuclear Reactors

A single B&W mPower™ nuclear reactor module inside its own independent, underground containment.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama referred to a “new generation” of nuclear power plants. The President was either exceedingly prescient or he knew more than he revealed because one week later the new generation has arrived–introducing the Babcock & Wilcox reactor. The energy world is taking notice.

Three large utilities, Tennessee Valley Authority, First Energy Corp. and Oglethorpe Power Corp., signed an agreement with McDermott International Inc.’s Babcock & Wilcox subsidiary on Wednesday, committing to get the new reactor approved for commercial use in the U.S.

While the three companies have not yet committed to purchase any of the reactors, their commitment to obtaining regulatory approval for the enterprise is a critical initial step toward implementation.

Approximately one-tenth the cost of conventional nuclear power plants, the newer designs are smaller than a rail car, offer greater flexibility of site location and theoretically can be built in half the time. These advantages, most notably the price, make the Babcock & Wilcox reactor a more attractive nuclear option for energy companies than conventional reactors.

Traditional nuclear reactors may produce more energy than the new “mini-reactors” but they cost many billions of dollars. The Babcock-Wilcox reactor runs closer to $750M. “We think the probability that things will go wrong with these large projects is greater than the probability that things will go right,” said Jim Hempstead, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service.

Comparatively, the cheaper reactors offer less risk of financial ruin. The reduced risk translates into a self-fulfilling prophecy for an investing corporation’s financial future. Larger, riskier ventures are more apt to damage a corporation’s credit rating than a more “bite-sized” investment in smaller reactors.

Not every corporation moving toward nuclear power needs to rely solely on strong credit ratings for financing, however. President Barack Obama recently pledged to guarantee 8.3 billion dollars in loans for the construction of large nuclear power plants in Burke, Georgia.

The White House pledge was somewhat groundbreaking for a country that has not built a new nuclear power plant since the Chernobyl meltdown in the Soviet Union several decades ago. It was a particularly surprising development because President Obama is viewed by many as a leader whose primary focus is the environment.

Environmentalists are not happy with the President’s new trend. Between the President’s shifting toward off-shore drilling and nuclear power he seems to be turning on his own political base. The White House’s recent trending toward the right has not passed unnoticed by the left.

Friends of Earth President Erich Pica is not smiling about recent White House decisions.

“Green” enthusiasists like Friends of the Earth president, Erich Pica, feel that Mr. Obama’s recent policy emphasis amounted to “unilateral disarmament.”

“We were hopeful last year; he was saying all the right things,” Mr. Pica said. “But now he has become a full-blown nuclear power proponent, a startling change over the last few months.”

If eco-diehards are disgruntled now, that frustration is likely to build. Some experts believe that introducing small reactors to the industry could pave the way for more pervasive, nuclear power in the U.S. because more utilities would be able to afford them.

“There’s a higher likelihood that there are more sites that could support designs for small reactors than large ones,” said David Matthews, head of new reactor licensing at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The President has gone on record as saying, “the fact is, changing the ways we produce and use energy requires us to think anew, it requires us to act anew, and it demands of us a willingness to extend our hand across some of the old divides.”

That ideology is consistent with the new wave toward mini-reactors.

“If we can’t figure out how to build large plants economically, then small ones may be the way to go,” said Ronaldo Szilard, director of nuclear science and engineering at the Idaho National Lab, part of the Department of Energy.

  1. By Paola on February 22, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    One day everybody’s house is going to be powered by a mini nuclear plant.

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  2. By Djoni Sidik, Indonesia on September 7, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Indonesia has huge problems of electric power distribution to its thousands of islands. This country has 30 big and smaller islands plus 17.000 and more tiny ones. Small and Mini sized Nuclear Power Plants could be the ideal solution for the urgent need for electric power for its 240 million people spread among these isolated islands. We are very interested about this newest development in building commercial mini-sized nuclear plants. I would very glad to have more access to direct sources from manufacturers.

    With my regards,

    Djoni S Sidik, Indonesia

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  3. By Mike Dever on December 20, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    This could be great, in combination with wind projects, except they don’t run on Thorium. Are there any Mini’s that run on Thorium?

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  4. By ramon Leigh on March 30, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    I don’t see how a person can be anti-nuke and still claim to be concerned about carbon emissions. Nuclear power is the ONLY way in which carbon emissions can be substantially reduced. Most anti-nuke arguments that I’ve heard are rather preposterous and amount to fear mongering without any sense of reality as to the actual dangers presented by nuclear power, especially modern nuclear power. After 60 years of continuous service, nuclear power has hurt practically no one, a fact that anti-nukes seem
    incapable of digesting. They think with there emotions, not their brains, is my opinion. I see the Chinese are unfazed by Japan’s problems, as well they might be – their safety systems make Fukishima’s look totally inadequate (which they were – they had
    but one back up generator to run the cooling systems – an unbelievably sloppy and optimistic assumption. Now they’re paying the price. ) . Now we see why the Chinese are so far ahead of the West in their engineering capabilities. They have hundreds of times more engineers than we do. Our people are spending their time observing the antics of Charlie Sheen. Gee, I wonder why we’re losing the economic war with China. Gee, that’s a tough one

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  5. By Tom R on May 27, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    @Ramon,

    First of all, nuclear power generation is NOT the only way that carbon emissions can be substantially reduced. Generating electricity more efficiently and using it more efficiently are often more cost-effective than building new power plants. For example, coal power plants generally operate at about 31% efficiency, meaning that 31% of the energy in the coal is transformed into electricity, with the rest being dumped into cooling towers, ponds, or rivers as heat. Transmission and distribution losses were estimated as 6.5% for 2007, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The power supply in your computer is between 50% and 80% efficient. The point is that changing the way electricity is generated with coal might almost double the amount of power delivered to the grid (Energie-Falken wrote that they believe 55% efficiency is achievable using technologies currently being developed). Over the 10 years between 1997 and 2007, transmission and distribution losses dropped by .1%. That’s a small percentage, but of a very big number (all the electrical power generated and transmitted in the U.S. for a year). In addition, technologies like Led lighting and 80+% efficient computer power supplies offer consumers the ability to lower their electrical usage, reducing their carbon footprint. There are lots of other efficiency opportunities.

    “After 60 years of continuous service, nuclear power has hurt practically no one…” Would you say the people of Ukraine are “no one”? Look up Chernobyl. Ask the people who lived in towns around Fukushima, who may never be able to go back, who have lost their homes, businesses and farms. If nuclear power is so safe, why does the U.S. government STILL insure the first 625 million dollars worth of damage from a plant accident. If it’s safe, commercial insurance companies should be happy to insure nuclear plants, just as they insure coal, natural gas, oil and hydro generating stations. After all, it’s business, right?

    As far as safety and backup systems go, you might want to look into the fire safety waivers that the NRC has been giving U.S. nuclear plants for years. And you can Google “Browns Ferry” and fire.

    I’m not anti-nuclear. I think that we should be building research scale Thorium reactors now (like the Chinese and other people are). Supporting a technology (current U.S. nuclear fission reactor technology) that allows any nation with a nuclear plant (like Iran, for example) to extract material for nuclear bombs from the spent fuel seems insane. Thorium reactors appear not to have that problem OR the spent fuel storage problem.

    For the most part, China is NOT ahead of the U.S. in it’s engineering capabilities (yet). More engineers is not the same as better engineers. But by manufacturing most of the stuff designed by U.S. engineers in China, we teach Chinese engineers things a lot faster than they could learn them from scratch AND we lose experience to be gained by seeing the consequences of a design in the factory. Not a good thing.

    American engineers are most likely not paying any attention to Charlie Sheen. What about you.

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  6. By tom on August 27, 2011 at 12:23 am

    The politics of Anti-nuclear agendas are never reasonable. Our civil infrastructure has less nuclear energy compared to coal/oil. Yet the environment would green up if Nuclear technology had the scale of the coal and oil utilities! I’d like to see the price drop out on oil and coal where it had no economic utility, because nuclear engineering can run an economy without strip mining the country side or drilling on the continental shelf. The US would have no security need to go to the Oil fields of SouthWest Asia, because it wouldn’t be a resource or commodity that needs to be strategically controlled! Just before we get commercial fusion, I imagine we will be able to make radiogenic atoms in any quantity or useful type as cheap as aluminum or steel? Why do we have so many prohibited cost in civil nuclear engineering? Because of proprietary commitments of Defense, government with political agendas rather than commercial/technical sensibility, an absence of candor in classification and restriction of this field of knowledge to the lay public! If we did cars and airplanes the same way we do with nuclear knowledge, we’d be traveling by horse and the only aviation would be in carrier pigeon!

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