Friday, November 02, 2012

The Advantages of Building Small

There is an ongoing trend in industrial design to build a smaller infrastructure. There are many reasons for this trend, but here are three possible forces at play:
First, new computing, sensor, and communication technologies make high degrees of automation possible at a very low cost, largely eliminating the labor savings from large units. Second, mass production of many small, standardized units can achieve capital cost savings comparable to or even greater than those achievable through large unit scale. And third, small-unit scale technology provides significant flexibility—a benefit that has been largely ignored in the race toward ever-increasing scale and one which can significantly reduce both investment and operating costs.

This trend—observable in nascent form in several industries ranging from small, modular nuclear reactors, chlorine plants, and biomass energy systems to data centers—is resulting in a switch from large to small optimal unit scale, the authors found. The shift mirrors a similar revolution that began thirty years ago in the supercomputer industry. _Columbia Business School
The computer analogy used in the article above is a useful one, with which most people can identify. The size of computing devices -- even supercomputing devices -- has shrunk rapidly over the past decades, and is likely to shrink even faster in the future. Likewise, much industrial infrastructure is also likely to become viable in smaller sizes, becoming more scalable.

Here is more on how small modular reactors might eventually be fitted into overall power schemes:
Are small modular reactors the wave of the future for the nuclear industry, or will we still see companies proposing full-scale plants?

I think it could be both, but I do think small modular reactors will have their place. For a company our size, the overall cost — as long as the small modular reactor folks can keep it competitive from a dollars per kilowatt-hour perspective — that’s a lot more palatable from a risk perspective. Also for our customers. They want to know what’s coming and why. That’s where I see the small modular reactors having an advantage over the bigger ones.

Is there an advantage to being the first utility to build one of these small reactors?

Not much. You’re definitely going to learn some things the hard way if you’re the first. Somebody’s got to be the first, though. I think that by the time you get to No. 3 or No. 4, you’ll get some cost benefits. The thing we’ll have to be very transparent about is what the costs are, what the expectations are to the customers. I want to make sure we do that. _Ameren's Adam Heflin
Heflin seems to be adopting a pragmatic, somewhat cautious approach to the adoption of small modular reactors -- as one would expect from the chief nuclear officer of a large utility company. But he also seems to expect that SMRs will be utilised.

Gen4Energy is one of the frontrunner designs in the US race for SMRs.

The Gen4 Module is a next generation design that uses a liquid metal cooled, uranium nitride fueled, fast-spectrum reactor that employs control rods for reactivity control. The reactor has been designed to deliver 70 MW of heat (25 MW of electricity) for a 10-year lifetime, without refueling.

Key advantages of the Gen4 Module design are:

Advanced reactor design – Use of advanced reactor concepts provides for a safer and simpler reactor, elimination of many potential accident scenarios that affect LWRs, and elimination of complex reactor systems.
Small reactor – A smaller reactor is more appropriately sized for smaller generation requirements, can directly replace existing diesel fueled generators, and requires no upgrade to existing small electricity distribution systems.
10-year power module replacement – The Gen4 Module provides 25 MWe continuously for 10 years on its initial fuel load (compared to an 18 to 24 month cycle for current light water reactors). No on-site refueling is required. After 10 years the entire reactor module is replaced.
Underground containment vault – The reactor is sited in an underground containment vault to provide isolation from the environment, prevent intrusion or tampering, and avoid harm from natural disasters.
Factory-assembled transportable power modules – Factory assembly allows for standard designs, superior quality control, and faster construction and on-site deployment. _Gen4Energy
SMRs should be better able to compete with natural gas power plants, both on a cost basis and on a scalability basis -- to better fit a particular utility or energy market.

Other types of small industrial energy design, would include small gas to liquids (GTL) plants. These scalable GTL plants could be located offshore, or near the wellhead of stranded gas resources.

Of course, big industrial plants are nowhere near to going obsolete. One example of this is Hitachi's recent purchase of Horizon Nuclear Power.
The Japanese technology giant bought up Horizon Nuclear Power for £696 million ($1.1 billion) this week from German utilities EOn and RWE, complete with 90 staff and rights to land at two current nuclear sites, Wylfa and Oldbury. The purchase will be completed by the end of this month.

...The subsidiary Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy will manage the engineering and manufacturing of the Horizon ABWRs while three engineering firms have signed memorandums of understanding with Hitachi to explore cooperation: Rolls-Royce, Babcock International and SNC-Lavalin.

In May 2011 Hitachi won the tender to build Lithuania's Visaginas project, unusually agreeing to take a 20% stake in the project which will produce around 1350 MWe from a single ABWR. However, Hitachi's investment in Horizon stands to be many times bigger - at present the company has 100% ownership of a project that could grow to 7800 MWe from six ABWR units. The new push into overseas markets is not a reaction to Japan's moves against nuclear energy in domestic markets, said the company told WNN. _World Nuclear News
But on the contrary, Hitachi's push into overseas markets is clearly a reaction to the Japanese government's stupid actions against the domestic nuclear markets. Both Japan and Germany have behaved very stupidly -- even suicidally in an energy sense -- to the earthquake/tsunami triggered disaster at Fukushima.

But as smaller, cleaner, safer, more reliable, more affordable, and more scalable new nuclear reactors become available, we should expect many governments that once rejected nuclear power, to reconsider.

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