A nuclear station for every city: could this solve the energy, climate change & economic crises?

Article 1: 80% cut, Article 2: EU climate summit , Article3: Portable nuclear .

Ed Miliband, the UK’s first climate change and energy secretary, has announced today a commitment by the UK to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Mr Miliband told MPs the government accepted all the recommendations of the report from Lord Turner’s Committee on Climate Change. No express committment has been made as yet however to including aviation and shipping.

But how exactly is this to be achieved? Well of course no one is quite sure. Over in Europe the Climate Change summit has agreed to stick to the 20% target for 2020 for CO2 emissions reductions. They have left off the table however any discussion of the detail as to how this target will be reached as the world is currently experiencing an economic crisis.

Countries like Poland and Italy have threatened to block a package agreed last year for deep EU-wide cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, Poland because 90% of its energy comes from coal and Italy because its economy and politics are in a mess as per usual.

Nuclear stations to go

In steps a bold plan from America, reported by the US Department of Energy; the self-contained, portable nuclear reactor. That’s right folks, those Americans could be onto something.

The concept is called SSTAR, a small, sealed, transportable, autonomous reactor. SSTAR is designed to be a self-contained reactor in a tamper-resistant container. The goal is to provide reliable and cost-effective electricity, heat, and freshwater. The design could also be adapted to produce hydrogen for use as an alternative fuel for passenger cars.

Most commercial nuclear reactors are large light-water reactors (LWRs) designed to generate 1,000 megawatts electric (MWe) or more. Significant capital investments are required to build these reactors and manage the nuclear fuel cycle. The DOE claim that the SSTAR use automated controls, require less maintenance work, and provide reliable power for as long as 30 years before needing refueling or replacement. 

The DOE focus particularly on the security question and the suspicion that countries like Iran & North Korea are looking to create nuclear weapons. SSTAR aims to provide a tamper-resistant reactor to a nonnuclear state while still safeguarding the nation’s sensitive nuclear technology. SSTAR will also secure the nuclear fuel because, after its operation, the sealed reactor will be returned to a secure recycling facility for refueling or maintenance.

According to project leader Craig Smith, a nuclear engineer in Livermore’s Energy and Environment Directorate, the reactor will be about 15 meters tall by 3 meters wide and will not weigh more than 500 tons–small and lightweight enough to be transported on a ship and by a heavy-haul transport truck.

SSTAR also offers potential cost reductions over conventional nuclear reactors. Using lead or lead–bismuth as a cooling material instead of water eliminates the large, high-pressure vessels and piping needed to contain the reactor coolant. The low pressure of the lead coolant also allows for a more compact reactor because the steam generator can be incorporated into the reactor vessel. Plus with no refueling downtime and no spent fuel rods to be managed, the reactor can produce energy continuously and with fewer personnel.

There are several significant design challenges which you can read about by clicking on the ‘Article 3’ link above. Scroll down to the section entitled, ‘Tackling the Design Challenges’.

But just imagine the impacts of this technology in other areas. Assuming uranium is supplied in sufficient quantities for massive expansion of nuclear across the world we could see a lot of jobs created (sorely needed right now), CO2 emissions reduced, security assured and more energy wealth for poorer nations (and they don’t even have to deal with the N-waste).

Looks good doesn’t it. Just think, a nuclear reactor not much larger than a large truck could be popping up your neighbourhood soon, rather like … well, a mushroom.

Thank you to Stephan Smith, our freelance Science correspondent, for news on SSTAR.

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