Mini nuclear power plants under development as a source of clean electricity for the United States — and for deployment in space — would be smaller than standard shipping containers.
But the amount of electricity a single unit generates, as sub-atomic neutrons bombard uranium rods inside, could sustain up to 10,000 people — without emitting the heat-trapping gases that accelerate climate change.
Nuclear engineers at the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado working at federal facilities say they’re racing to be able to perfect these mini plants as soon as possible. President Joe Biden’s administration this month gave a green light, awarding $61 million for projects at 40 universities, reflecting an emerging consensus that taking advantage of nuclear energy is urgent.
“The urgency is the fact that Lake Powell is nearly out of water (threatening hydroelectric power in the West). Climate change is real and we are feeling the impacts,” said Colorado School of Mines nuclear engineer Jeff King, director of CSM’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Center and member of Colorado’s Radiation Advisory Committee. King also recently led the American Nuclear Society’s committee on deploying nuclear power plants on the moon and other planets to enable space exploration.
“We need all of our low-carbon energy technologies as soon as we can get them. Every day we wait is putting off the solution,” King said. “We have to get nuclear in the mix. Or else, we have to accept the consequences of uncontrolled climate change.”
His team this summer is working at the federal center west of Denver and at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico on a key hurdle. They’re focusing on how moderators inside reactors can slow down neutrons produced in the splitting of uranium atoms. Slower neutrons can enhance the process of producing energy.
Solutions in this sub-atomic realm are expected to improve nuclear plants, long controversial and heavily regulated but now attracting renewed interest as climate warming compels a faster shift off of coal and other fossil fuels energy. Large nuclear power plants cost tens of billions. Nuclear industry leaders contend smaller “modular” reactors, mass produced, typically generating less than 300 megawatts of electricity, will be far cheaper, safer and cleaner.
Huge questions remain around the radioactive waste from mining and milling uranium in the Rocky Mountain West and from running the reactors. The spent uranium fuel rods must be isolated for hundreds of thousands of years. A recent research study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that smaller reactors could increase, not decrease, the overall volumes of radioactive waste.
Colorado nevertheless is emerging as a hub with $800,000 directed to the Colorado School of Mines and $385,000 to the University of Colorado in Boulder (to develop nuclear materials analysis capabilities necessary for greater security).
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the federal investment in nuclear technology and a new generation of scientists “will spur innovation and keep driving us toward our carbon-free future.”
Conventional nuclear power plants – about 93 in the United States at present– produce about 20% of the electricity Americans use. Nuclear power plants have generated an estimated 88,000 tons of spent fuel along with other low-level radioactive waste. U.S. officials have failed to develop a central facility for isolating the waste, which currently is stored at reactor sites, after decades spending billions to plan a repository in Nevada.
Worldwide, roughly 440 nuclear reactors generate about 10% of global electricity. These are the largest providers of relatively clean electricity, emitting very little of the carbon dioxide that accelerates climate warming.
Demand for electricity in general, especially clean energy, has been increasing rapidly.
While wind and solar electricity is expanding, government and industry officials say these renewables may not be sufficient soon enough to make up for the declining electricity once generated by burning coal. In Colorado, coal-fired power plants generate 36.7% of the electricity residents use, compared with renewable sources, mostly wind, that generate 35.7% of electricity. Burning methane provides 25.9% of electricity used in the state, federal records show.
Filling in the gaps where renewable wind and solar sources may lag is a growing challenge, not just in the United States but in fast-growing China and India where coal looms as an essential source as demands rise.
Nuclear proponents envision wide use of smaller “modular” nuclear plants that could be transported on trucks, trains and planes. The smallest initially were designed to help meet U.S. military needs for reliable electricity at remote bases around the world. Medium-size and large nuclear power plants also could be deployed safely, though approvals by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission likely would lag, King said.
The same technology developed for boosting electricity in the United States would be used for putting nuclear power plants on other planets, he said.
“Solar energy works very well in space – but only in certain locations. And there is no wind in space. Nuclear will be our best option for constant, high-power production of energy.”
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