Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hyperion Power Generation Modular Nuke News

Image from NewEnergyandFuel

Hyperion Power Generation was featured in the pages of Inc. recently (h/t Brian Wang), with something of an update on its small nuclear reactor progress. The article follows Hyperion's John Deal to the UK, where Hyperion plans to set up its first modular reactor factory. Deal is on a sales tour of the UK.
Deal gives a quick sketch of how his nuclear plant works: A room-size reactor is buried underground, where the uranium fuel heats up metal, which in turn heats up water sent to a conventional electricity-generating steam turbine above-ground. "The specifics are boring," says Deal. "I'll send you a white paper with all this technical junk in it." This will be Deal's excuse for follow-up contact.

"The top question you'll get from your customers," he continues, "will be about safety and security." And that just happens to be Hyperion's strong point. He goes on to describe how the more conventionally designed mini nuke offerings from other competitors resemble "big teakettles," in which boiling water around the nuclear core provides cooling and heat transfer, with a "real potential for failure." (No turbine water runs through Hyperion's metal-filled reactor.) No nuclear power vendor wants to explicitly invoke the specter of a nuclear catastrophe, but Deal has doubtless said enough to help Barnes recall the sorts of radioactive steam plumes associated with the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents -- accidents that haunt the industry. "Our reactor is more like a battery," Deal says. Bad guys can't get at the sealed core, he says, and even if they could, they wouldn't be able to do anything with the molten, non-weapons-grade mess. "We're not quite as efficient as the others," he admits. "But who cares? We're about safety and security, and we make our price point."

...The reactor is sealed at the factory and shipped to the customer's site for burying. It runs for seven to 10 years, without requiring refueling or tampering with. Other reactors need human intervention, and that's where accidents tend to occur, Deal observes. After the Hyperion unit is spent, customers can swap in a new reactor "cartridge," simply leave it buried, or let Hyperion dig it up and take it away for recycling.

"There's plenty of heat available," Deal tells Barnes. "That's free energy, and Mace could use it to set up a water- or sewage-treatment business." Another profit-line suggestion, though it's an unlikely one -- most power plants give off heat, and the obvious opportunity is to provide warmth to buildings, not to clean water and sewage. As it turns out, though, water is one of Deal's obsessions. He sees nuclear power as a means to an end: to address the lack of clean water that leaves huge swaths of the planet mired in sickness, poverty, and even warfare. It's an obsession that drove him in 2002 to start a wind-power company in New Mexico. But unreliable winds, regulatory hassles, and objections from many locals to rows of hilltop wind turbines left Deal discouraged and the company in limbo.

That's when he ran into Otis ("Pete") Peterson, a scientist at the U.S. government's Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who had a design for a tiny nuclear plant (and who is now the company's chief technical officer). Deal wasn't a fan of nuclear power, but he wondered if a small-scale generator could be the key not only to green energy but also to clean water. Such a device, after all, could be easily shipped to and set up alongside any small town or village, where it could sit safely underground, cheaply turning out electricity for homes, factories, and irrigation -- along with water-cleaning heat.

..."We have great connections with the U.S. military, and they're not bound by regulatory agencies," he says. "We have political connections who see us as having a chance to be the ones who lead a U.S. nuclear renaissance. We're overcommitted on orders. We keep hearing, 'When will you be able to ship us one?' And we hear it in a lot of different accents. And we're not worried about the approval process. The reception from the agencies has been great, and we expect the process to take less than two and a half years. This thing was designed to be approved. We've got $200 million of U.S. National Lab research behind us.

Brian Wang also looks at research to develop advanced UO2 - BeO beryllium alloy fuel for nuclear reactors. It is claimed that the superior heat conduction properties of the beryllium oxide skeleton will allow the fuel to be burned longer and deeper -- resulting in more economical power production overall.



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