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November 10, 2005

Non-nano technology: Mass produced small nuke reactors to solve energy crisis

Self-contained power plants could supply growing energy demand in poor countries is discussed in a MIT technology review article. This year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mohamed ElBaradei is a proponent of small nuclear reactors. In a talk at MIT last week he cited a new report from the International Energy Agency that said world energy demand will increase by 50 percent in the next 25 years. Global warming emissions (CO2) will increase by the same percentage. Nuclear power could provide a significant amount of that power, without producing the carbon dioxide. One solution being proposed, according to ElBaradei, is to build hundreds of small nuclear power plants, each designed to serve a single town. Such plants could be built for a fraction of the cost of the current large-scale regional ones. And they could be installed without the need to also build an extensive and expensive power grid.

I think this is a good bridging plan until better technology becomes available.

Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, IL, described a concept for such a small-scale reactor this summer. One of the safeguards is a passive cooling system, which continues to work even if power goes down. The reactors could also operate for 30 years without refueling, which would mean fewer deliveries that could be hijacked. And stealing the fuel while it was in the reactor would require bringing to the site extensive heavy equipment, which would be easily visible by satellite, according to David Wade, Senior Technical Advisor at Argonne and one of the developers of the concept.

On the downside, building small reactors means losing out on the economy of scale that has driven a trend toward bigger and bigger reactors, says Wade. He hopes to make up for this by creating ways to mass-produce the reactors in modules that can be quickly assembled on site.

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