BRICKS TO BABEL: One little box could revolutionize energy

Matt Haemmerle

Around 1.5 million people, or more than a fifth of the world’s population, have no access to electricity.

A billion more have only an unreliable and intermittent supply of electricity. Of the people without electricity, 85 percent live in rural areas or in areas on the margins of cities where extending energy grids would be expensive.

It would require $35 billion-40 billion to be invested every year until 2030 for everyone on the planet to have electricity for cooking, heating, lighting and other productive uses like schooling and managing small businesses. Current trends show no hope for improvement.

But technological innovation is on the cusp of something revolutionary that just might transform the entire global energy market.

Imagine a small box about the size of a refrigerator with enough power to provide electricity to a small town. The box can produce 50 megawatts and does not require any transmission lines; it offers the possibility of providing power to isolated communities where it is otherwise too expensive to deliver electricity.

This box is also known as a small nuclear reactor, and it is being developed for commercialization by several companies, most notably Hyperion Power Generation and TerraPower, which have received $50 million of investment from Bill Gates.

To begin with, is nuclear power a safe and sensible means to produce electricity? If the world intends to address the threat of climate change and still satisfy its growing appetite for electricity, there is no other choice.

Electricity accounts for a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear power plants, the largest of which generate 1,455 megawatts and can power 1.5 million households, produce virtually no carbon dioxide, sulfur or mercury. As it is, the 104 nuclear power plants in the United States generate a fifth of the nation’s energy, while wind and solar each contribute less than 1 percent. In addition, nuclear power can meet energy demands 24 hours a day.

What about economics and safety? The high cost of building and financing nuclear power plants is misleading. Because no new plant has been started since 1977, lenders are wary of financing any new plant because of uncertainty over political and regulatory delays.

Also, a shortage of parts and skills is raising the cost of new plants. As more nuclear plants are constructed, it will become cheaper to finance them, and companies will increase supply to meet demand.

Concerning safety, Americans still have distorted judgments of nuclear power from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. America’s plants are much safer than they have been in the past.

They have more safety features and better trained personnel, and the reactors have been redesigned so that accidents are far less likely to occur.

Even in the event of a serious accident, plants are contained inside a huge structure of reinforced concrete walls that prevent any radiation from being released into the atmosphere.

Living near a nuclear reactor is safer than living near a coal-fired plant where dangerous chemicals are released into the air. Coal plants carry 100 times more radiation into the surrounding area than a nuclear reactor producing the same amount of energy. The only visible emission of a reactor is steam, and radioactive materials can be safely disposed of deep underground where waste is prevented from entering the environment.

Aside from being cheaper, small reactors are even safer than large reactors by virtue of their size.

It is impossible to use a small reactor to produce a nuclear bomb. Current nuclear reactors require the enrichment of U-238 until 3 to 5 percent of what’s left is U-235 which is used to power a reactor. Keep concentrating the U-235 to the 90 percent range, and you can make a bomb.

In contrast, the small “traveling wave reactors” that are being developed are powered almost completely by fuel rods containing depleted uranium, the concentrated U-238 that enrichment plants throw away after extracting U-235. A small amount of U-235 is split, and this releases neutrons that are absorbed by the depleted uranium fuel rods. The collision results in a new form of uranium that decays into plutonium which, upon contact with more neutrons, releases vast amounts of energy.

Hence, small nuclear reactors have huge potential to reshape global energy markets, especially in remote communities in the developing world. Small reactors are not just a product – they represent a service industry.

The production and sales of small reactors to governments, private businesses and civilians is accompanied by installing, servicing and educating people about the reactors. With any luck, this small box will lead to big changes.

Matt Haemmerle is a junior political science and economics major from Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. He can be reached at [email protected].