In Focus: Modular Nuclear Reactors
Within hours of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, most of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants (which had supplied 27 per cent of Japan’s electricity) were shut down on orders from then Prime Minister Naoto Kan.
Japan is now burning fossil-fuels to replace the missing electrical generation capacity and has recently signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia to purchase three times their total 2010 oil imports.
In the interests of public safety and for the peace of mind of residents who live near the numerous, but widely-scattered nuclear plants in Japan, the government has ordered “stress test” inspections of all nuclear plants in the country.
Even so, due to rising political pressure from ordinary citizens and the growing anti-nuclear power protest movement there, not every plant which has been “stress-test approved” may restart.
With Japanese newspaper headlines in mind, the government of Japan and power plant operators are discussing the lengthy and hugely expensive decommissioning process for the Fukushima plant, which may take more than 50 years to achieve, at a cost estimated to between 15 and 45 billion (US) dollars. It looks like Japanese taxpayers are stuck paying for the decommissioning costs.
As you may be aware, Germany is decommissioning all of it’s nuclear power plants by 2022 – although in typical German fashion, they are ahead of schedule.
Many of Germany’s nuclear power plants are decades old, have been problem-plagued and would have required a staggering amount of investment to meet contemporary safety standards. In Germany’s case, it was less costly over the long term to employ a temporary feed-in tariff scheme to speed earlier adoption of solar and wind energy, rather than constantly upgrade 17 old nuclear reactors to ever-changing standards.
Italy got out of the nuclear business in 1987 as the costs to retrofit their old power plants with better technology exceeded any profit they would have realized during the rest of their power-producing lifetimes. Switzerland has committed to scrapping their nuclear power program by 2045.
The United States, Russia and Canada are all in the same boat as they continue to operate many old, lower-tech, and very costly to upgrade, large nuclear power plants.
However, a new hope for the nuclear power industry has arrived in the form of a brand-new nuclear power plant design — known as a small scale “modular” nuclear reactor which arrives at a pre-approved site on a semi-trailer, is already factory-assembled and is ready to begin producing power as soon as it can be lowered into place and hooked to up water supply and electrical lines.
Modular reactors range between 45 and 300 megawatts and are microscopic when compared to conventional monster-sized nuclear power plants that range between 1100 and 1300 megawatts. Best of all, they all feature 21st-century architecture with many simple redundancies built right in, such as gravity-fed cooling systems which remove the problem of cataclysmic coolant pump failures as happened at Fukushima and at other nuclear disasters.
The modular nuclear reactor – with its low profile, easy location requirements, tiny nuclear fuel and water appetite, very low installation costs, easy grid connection, uber-safe design, and ability to generate both power and profits in a dramatically shortened time frame is going to be a tough competitor to beat.
This is a profoundly better answer to the astronomical cost of upgrading old nuclear plants widely-scattered around the world – most of which are long overdue for major refits.
The last behemoth conventional U.S. nuclear power plants which are presently under construction, will be completed next year (upgraded with safety and design elements adapted from the modular nuclear reactor design) at the nuclear power plant in Votgle, Georgia, and a smaller, single unit in North Carolina. After those plants go online it is expected further U.S. plants will be tiny modular nuclear reactors between 45 and 300 megawatts.
The brilliance of modular is that they mesh seamlessly with PV-solar, and wind turbine power. Along with sustainable energy, the dream of “all clean electricity – all the time” is at the very least within our grasp. Modular nuclear reactors will be an important and welcome partner of solar, wind and geo-thermal.
By the time those nuclear plants in Germany have been completely decommissioned, we should be at “all clean electricity – all the time” in most of the industrialized world.
Follow John Brian Shannon on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JBSCanada
Image credit: Bill & Vicki Tracey via Flickr
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