Nuclear power in Alberta II: time to think small, and time for small to think big

Alberta could use nuclear power. Canada’s current economic engine is like one of those carbureted big-block V-8s from the 1970s: impressive power, but lousy fuel economy and lots of emissions. This is because Alberta’s electricity sector is mainly fossil-fired, and because the oilsands use enormous amounts of natural gas.

Almost everyone agrees Alberta could and should use nuclear energy to cut the massive emissions from both its electricity generation and petroleum sectors. Bruce Power, Canada’s only private-sector nuclear utility, is looking for a site to build a large (1,000+ megawatt) reactor in Alberta, and hopes to have one selected by mid-2009.

One large reactor is about all the Alberta grid could handle at this time. And since a machine this size isn’t exactly mobile, its ability to provide heat for oilsands processing will be limited to oilsands sites in the vicinity. Will it also produce hydrogen, a commodity vital for upgrading the heavy hydrocarbons, and which is currently supplied by splitting natural gas? The reactors currently under review by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission have all been designed to produce only electricity. None is designed for both power and hydrogen.

But that shouldn’t be the end of the discussion. Nuclear power in Alberta doesn’t have to come in only one size. The so-called nuclear battery—a small, self-contained, sealed reactor that can run for 5–30 years without refueling—appears uniquely suited to produce small-scale, zero-carbon, proliferation-resistant, and possibly even mobile, power and hydrogen in Alberta.

There are several nuclear battery designs out there. Most are on the drawing board, and some are closer to physical reality than others. Here are brief descriptions of some of the more vigorously promoted ones.

Toshiba 4S. In two sizes, 30 MW and 135 MW (10 MW and 50 MW electrical, respectively), this sodium-cooled design appears more defined and closer to commercialization than the others. Toshiba, through its U.S. subsidiary Westinghouse, is working hard on the U.S. equivalent of a Vendor Pre-Project Design Review, and has attracted the interest of a remote community in Alaska; see article). If there is an official website for this machine it’s hard to find. Apparently Toshiba is happy to let others, including potential competitors, paint its picture. Rod Adams, of Adams Atomic Engines (see below), has obliged Toshiba in this department; see article.

Hyperion Power Module. At the design stage, and close to review by the U.S. regulator. I’ve talked about the Hyperion in other posts. Though Russian competitors say it is a non-viable reactor concept (according to this BBC report), it is being promoted by what seems to be a serious company with serious backers. Judge for yourself; see www.hyperionpowergeneration.com.

The Adams Engine. In the design stage. This is a graphite-moderated nitrogen gas–cooled nuclear reactor which powers a closed-cycle gas turbine. No steam plant and hence (according to its developer) less maintenance, though if you really like steam you could add a heat recovery steam generator. Fuel is based on the TRISO pellet. See www.atomicengines.com.

SVBR-75/100 lead-bismuth fast breeder reactor. This design is well known to the IAEA (see article) and its promoters say the first commercial unit will go critical in 2020. Based on the same technology that powers, or used to power, Russian Alpha-class submarines. For this reason, the developers of this technology can claim their design is based on a machine with 50 reactor-years of actual service. Its promoters should get a web site.

NuScale Power. At the advanced design stage, and the company hopes to file for design certification with the U.S. NRC in 2010. This is a small light water reactor (LWR) to be sold in self-contained modules of 40 MW each, so that it can serve markets of varying grid capacity. This is not exactly a nuclear battery, since its refueling interval would be the similar to that of other LWRs; i.e., roughly two years. (If fuel-leasing ever becomes a reality, then Alberta wouldn’t have to worry about hosting an on-site spent fuel repository.) The proponent hopes that the NRC’s familiarity with LWRs gives it a regulatory leg up on non-LWR small reactor vendors. See www.nuscalepower.com.

Bruce Power has been pitching large reactors in Alberta. Though it currently operates only CANDU reactors, and bought the company with the rights to market the advanced CANDU in Alberta, it has signalled willingness to get into the light water business. Well, an LWR is radically different from a CANDU. If Bruce Power is willing to try something new, then what about one of the small reactor designs above? Small might be the better nuclear answer in Alberta.

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[…] I have pointed out, people should take a hard look at small reactors (see article). Though the big machines get all the attention these days, and carry major economies of scale in […]