Energy & Environment

Mini Nukes Could Help Meet Electricity Demands

The Tennessee Valley Authority, a public utility in the Southeast, is testing small nuclear reactors as a source for cheaper, cleaner energy.
by | September 2011

Small nukes could be the next big thing in clean energy. Some energy officials have begun looking into whether small, portable atomic reactors might help meet the public’s ever-growing demand for electricity. With a construction process similar to that of mobile homes, these scaled-down reactors could be partially built in factories, shipped by rail, assembled onsite and plugged into existing grids. Roughly the size of a freight rail car, these pint-sized power producers are about one-tenth the size of a traditional nuclear reactor.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) likes the idea of small nukes. The Southeast public utility has signed a letter of intent with nuke-maker Babcock & Wilcox to build six small, modular nuclear reactors, which could be assembled near Clinch River, Tenn., also home to the U.S. Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Nuclear power already provides about 70 percent of the nation’s clean electricity. The push to cut carbon dioxide emissions has driven something of a nuclear revival. (Unlike other types of power generation, nuclear energy doesn’t emit the gases linked to global warming.) Before the recession and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, 21 companies were seeking permission to build 34 new nuclear power plants from New York to Texas.

A large, twin-unit nuclear complex costs up to $10 billion. The price tag for portable nukes, on the other hand, is estimated between $500 million and $2 billion -- still a daunting chunk of change, but considerably more affordable. While a large reactor can take five to six years to build, these pack-and-play reactors can be up and running in three years. Plus, spreading the fuel across six plants mitigates the threat of widespread disaster, proponents say.

The proposed reactors are similar to ones Babcock & Wilcox already build for nuclear submarines. Built in pairs, each reactor is expected to supply enough power to support about 70,000 homes, about one-tenth the power of a larger reactor. That reduced output is actually a selling point of the new technology, according to TVA. “In general, the demand for power grows in smaller increments,” says Terry Johnson, a TVA spokesman. “Having a smaller option means we could grow our power supply at the same rate as demand.”

The downside is that no one knows what the ultimate cost of the electricity will be. Johnson says he expects it will be higher, at least initially, since the new technology lacks economy of scale. Additionally, these smaller reactors wouldn’t address any of the long-standing drawbacks to nuclear power -- public fear of a meltdown, security concerns and the lack of a permanent waste solution.

Still, the interest is strong. The Obama administration’s 2012 budget proposal requested money to help develop these small reactors. The Energy Department plans to invest more than $450 million in developing two designs for the small reactors, a move officials hope will spur companies to build off-the-shelf reactors that could become a cost-effective alternative to other forms of energy. The immediate goal behind championing the technology is to help the Energy Department meet its target for reducing carbon emissions. Argentina, China, France, Japan, Russia and South Korea are also reportedly exploring the idea.

TVA’s letter of intent doesn’t ensure these small nukes will be built, but it kicks off the necessary engineering should the utility decide to pursue them. “This is very preliminary,” says Johnson. “If it comes up that this isn’t a promising avenue, we’ll stop.”

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