Nuclear power is normally associated with gigawatt-scale facilities (that would be 1100 MW, or 1.1 GW) costing billions of dollars and run by armies of scientists and engineers (the army would be 1100 employees for a dual unit site, i.e., 2200 MW). But some in the nuclear industry have long argued that much smaller, unmanned reactors could play a role too. Such reactors, which would have power outputs of only a few tens of megawatts, would be particularly suitable for people or companies in remote parts of the world.
Now, however, Hyperion Power Generation — a US company based in New Mexico — has brought the dream of tiny nuclear reactors one step closer with its Power Module. This nuclear reactor — or "battery" as the firm calls it — is not much larger than a hot-tub and could supply thermal energy at a rate of about 70 MW. That could be converted into about 27 MW of electricity (thermal efficiency is about 33%), which would be enough to supply about 20,000 US households.
I deleted the technical explanation because I have not researched the accuracy.
The firm says it will have a prototype of its reactor fully-designed next year and that it has already secured an order for six units from a group of investors in Eastern Europe, including the Czech engineering company TES, who have an option to buy a further 44. It also claims to have other commitments from various parties — mostly energy utilities that currently use diesel generators in remote locations — for a further 100 units. The company expects to deliver its first reactor in June 2013.
Reactors would be configured and sealed at its factory, which has not yet been built, before being shipped to customers. Installation would take as little as six months and a reactor could remain in place for at least five years before the spent reactor would have to be returned to the factory and recharged with fresh fuel.
Hyperion believes that its reactors are ideally suited for companies needing a source of power in remote areas, such as mining companies or those wishing to extract oil from, say, the Canadian oil sands — an application that Altira has long been interested in. This is an energy intensive process that is currently fuelled by natural gas. According to Peterson, the large quantities of greenhouse gases that are generated during extraction could be reduced greatly if a Hyperion reactor were used — although the company has no firm orders from the oil industry.
About the author
Hamish Johnston is editor of physicsworld.com