Shape of things to come"Small is beautiful" comes to the nuclear power industry

Published 24 December 2008

The main problem facing nuclear power is not the fear of accidents or terrorism, or anxiety about nuclear waste disposal; it is cost (it takes about $4,000/kilowatt to build a nuclear power station); there is a growing interest in small, tub-size nuclear power units

In the 1960s they said that “Small is Beautiful” (this was the title of a 1973 influential book by British economist E. F. Schumacher; the book’s subtitle was “Economics as if People Mattered”). Is the same notion applicable to the nuclear power industry? The U.S. nuclear industry has not completed a new nuclear power generating unit in nearly three decades. The reason, though, has had less to do with the usual concerns about nuclear power (accidents; nuclear waste disposal; terrorism) and more to do with cost: Richard Stuebi writes that to achieve economies of scale, the optimal nuclear unit size has long been thought to be greater than 1,000 megawatts, which given the capital intensity of nuclear technologies (a November 2007 article in  Nuclear Engineering calculates that it costs at least $4,000/kilowatt to build a nuclear power station), means minimum investments of several billion dollars. What with the market and regulatory uncertainties facing electric utilities, few have been willing to step up to the nuclear plate and lay down such a huge bet.

Stuebi notes to recent articles — “Neighborhood Nukes” in Forbes and “Mini Nuclear Plants to Power 20,000 Homes” in The Guardian — which discuss small-scale nuclear power generating units. Both articles feature the New Mexico company Hyperion Power Generation, which claims to be developing a hot-tub sized unit of 25 megawatts capacity.

Hperion was spun out from Los Alamos National Laboratory, and its reactor design is intended to overcome many of the obstacles associated to date with nuclear energy. As the Guardian article summarizes, “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.” Forbes said: “Hyperion’s design uses uranium hydride instead of traditional uranium with control rods. The reactor gets rid of heat using thermal conductivity, which eliminates the big water-cooling systems and their containment bulwarks.”

Not that Hyperion promises an installed cost of $1,000/kw, and claims a sales backlog of $2.5 billion, with 100 firm orders.

All of this is promising, but Stuebi notes that the promise of nuclear power has been touted before. In 1954, Lewis Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, said that nuclear energy would in the not-too-distant-future make electricity “too cheap to meter.” Stuebi’s comment: “We’re still waiting.”