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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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What Miniature Nuclear Reactors Could Mean For The World

What Miniature Nuclear Reactors Could Mean For The World

Even as the future of grid-scale nuclear reactors seems to be in flux with the mainstay producers like the Japanese and French seemingly unsure about the future of atomic power, new applications for nuclear technology are being developed all the time.

Traditional nuclear power plants cost billions to build and, as Japan discovered, can be very dangerous. Of course nuclear power, despite its dangers, is also one of the most efficient energy generation technologies on the planet. It is little surprise then that nuclear power advocates are excited about a new area of technology in the industry: miniature nuclear reactors.

The basic idea behind miniature nuclear reactors is that by building a small scale reactor in a modular cube, the system allows for cost savings, better flexibility to move power where it is needed, better protection from terrorists and natural disasters, and a simpler operating design. Related: The $5 Billion Vote Of Confidence In Wind Power

There are a variety of parties working on designing new nuclear reactor types from corporations to government-funded research groups and even periodically, teenagers. Of course, relatively small reactors already exist and are used to power naval vessels like submarines and aircraft carriers. As a result, it’s not a huge leap to imagine a similar approach being successful elsewhere. And there is definitely global interest in the technology.

What remains unclear though is exactly what the new applications for modular nuclear reactors might be. Flexibility in power applications and a decentralized power grid are obvious options. Similarly, expanded use of reactors on naval vessels to power directed energy weapons and railguns clearly makes sense as well. But those applications could be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Related: Toxic Waste Sullies Solar’s Squeaky Clean Image

Two unorthodox applications for modular reactors are in the transportation arena. Russia has announced the development of a nuclear powered train. The basic idea is that a nuclear powered train would not need to be refueled for years at a time. As a result, it would be much better able to operate effectively in remote areas without refueling stations or even electricity. For Russia in particular this makes sense, but other large countries with sparsely populated areas might find the idea useful as well.

In addition, Boeing has recently patented a nuclear-powered plane engine. The engine uses laser combustion and, if it could be effectively implemented, the system would allow a plane to literally travel for years without stopping. Of course pilots would need a break periodically and so it’s more likely that the technology would be combined with a drone-style pilot. From a military perspective, this would be an enormous advance, and with Boeing serving as a major defense contractor, investors can bet that the company will be looking closely at this option. Related: Schlumberger Vs. Halliburton: Which Is The Better Buy Right Now?

In addition to defense applications though, there is also another possible use of a nuclear engine – in a space craft. To the extent that a nuclear power source could be effectively used in a space-craft it might pave the way for cost effective space operations that people have been talking about for years. For instance, asteroid mining and deep space flights could both be a lot more effective if powered by an efficient small nuclear reactor. Again though, as in the defense realm, Boeing is a big player in the commercial space field.

With Boeing being pressed hard by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Orbital ATK, the company will surely be looking for any advantage they can get. It’s still early days in the modular nuclear reactor arena, but it is possible that in a few years, the technology could be a major boon to Boeing and others that can come up with unconventional ways to effectively capitalize on new developments.

By Michael McDonald for Oilprice.com

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  • Bob Wallace on July 25 2015 said:
    In the US new nuclear is running about 3x the price of new wind and 2x the price of new solar. Over the next few years that gap is expected to expand.

    The Vogtle reactors are expected to produce 13 c/kWh electricity (with subsidies). Nuclear, like wind, is generally cheaper as the plant/turbine gets larger. Why would one think that building smaller reactors might drop the price of new nuclear to under 5c/kWh and make it competitive?
  • Ono on July 25 2015 said:
    Hi Mr. McDonald,

    (1) You say that nuclear power plants are "the most efficient energy generation technologies on the planet."

    You must not know about all of the "NRC events" generated almost daily on something that has gone wrong with a nuclear power plant.

    In addition, the list of employees of nuclear power plants who are failing "fitness for duty" tests is frightening:

    http://enformable.com/?s=fitness

    (2) You mention a nuclear powered train. You don't see the insanity in that, as train derailments/rail accidents are numerous:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rail_accidents_(2010–present)

    (3) You mention nuclear power in space.

    Are you not aware of accidents from nuclear powered space missions already:

    "Of 28 U.S. space missions using plutonium, there have been three accidents, the worst in 1964 in which a plutonium-powered satellite fell back to Earth, breaking up and spreading the toxic radioactive substance widely."

    Source: NASA FINALLY ADMITS PLUTONIUM DANGERS, OCTOBER 4, 2006, By Karl Grossman

    (4) Small modular reactors are even more dangerous than full-sized ones, imo, because:

    (a) they will be mass-produced, and there is zero quality control in anything manufactured today

    (b) there is only one containment building instead of two which makes small reactors more dangerous in the event of an accident

    (c) small reactors will be trucked and trained around countries. See list of train derailments above, and just drive to the grocery store, for example, to see how unsafe roads are

    (d) small reactors will be strung together like Christmas lights, meaning in the event of a problem, it could cause a domino effect

    (e) small modular reactors still create nuclear waste and nuclear waste is the largest form of long-term debt that any country with nuclear energy will ever have.

    The cost to store nuclear waste is infinite.

    (5) You mention a nuclear powered engine.

    I again defer to the common-sense voice of Dr. Karl Grossman on the insanity of that:

    http://enformable.com/2015/07/nuclear-powered-airplane-plans-should-remain-grounded/

    (6) Nuclear powered anything only works in a world of perfection, and since humans are perfectly imperfect, the fantasy world of nuclear powered anything is an "accident waiting to happen."

    Nice chatting with ya.
  • ArtM72 on August 05 2015 said:
    A major application of mini nukes would seem to be thermal generation for the mining and processing of oil sands/bitumen. Currently much of the necessary heat (and consequent carbon footprint) for that process is natural gas. Burying mini nukes in the remote tar sand fields of Alberta would seem an efficient and scaleable application of this technology.

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