Sunday, November 9, 2008

Our New Nuclear Future?

Barack Obama’s victory will certainly result in the government putting more emphasis on alternative energy. Unfortunately, my guess is that this will only result in more subsidies going to special interests to fund unworkable solutions, like ethanol, rather than in making real progress towards solving our challenges with imported oil.

I’ve written here before about the tremendous amount of venture capital that is being poured into Silicon Valley solar energy startups. I’ve also written about the Picken’s Plan to build a corridor of wind turbines in the Great Plains. Ditto with plug-in electric cars, like the Tesla Roadster, and fuel cells. Another part of the solution may be lightweight nuclear power stations.

A company in New Mexico – Hyperion Power Generation – has licensed some technology from Los Alamos National Laboratory to produce small, compact nuclear energy modules that can be transported to locations wherever electricity is needed.

Each energy module is about the size of a hot tub and can supply the electricity needs of 20,000 homes for 7 to 10 years, at a cost of about $150 per home per year.

The modules don't contain any moving parts. The modules produce energy via a safe, natural heat-producing process that occurs with the oscillation of hydrogen in uranium hydride. The modules cannot go “supercritical,” melt down, or get too hot. They maintain a safe operating temperature without the use of cooling rods. Think of them as kind of a big battery.

The modules are sealed in concrete and would be buried underground. Each module would be removed and refueled at original factory every 5 years.

The modules don’t emit any greenhouse gases. The fuel used in the modules cannot be turned into weapons grade material. The amount of waste after 5 years of operation is about the size of a softball.

The modules can be built in a tiny fraction of the time it takes to build a large nuclear plant. The company already has orders and they expect to ship their first product in 2013.

Plug-in electric cars and creation of hydrogen for fuel cells will require the generation of a lot more electricity than we generate today. Solar and wind are important part of the mix, but they can’t fulfill all of our growing needs. Nuclear needs to be part of the solution and this is a game changing technology to provide it.

Let’s hope that Obama’s proposed increase in the capital gains tax won’t dry up investments for this and other innovative solutions to our most pressing problems.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What we need is some form of technology neutral refundable carbon tax that captures the external cost of fossils fuels and levels out the playing field for all of the alternatives.

Early indications from the Obama camp are that's what we're going to get.

In that world, well-designed nuclear should be competitive and I expect we'll see a lot of it.

Hyperion's economic numbers seem optimistic by at least an order of magnitude, maybe two orders, which wouldn't surprise me given their provenance, but even at that, it still could make sense.

More power to them, and to us.