Quite a bit. In power systems of the future, it’s not just that smaller is better, smaller is essential.
Big centralized systems like power stations with vast physical grids for transmission are inefficient. It was great to get started – we could take advantage of the economies of scale.
Barely a third of the primary energy content in most sources is converted to useable energy. Solar and Wind are limited by physics. But in Fossil Fuels and Nuclear, most of the loss happens because we use the energy for a single purpose, such as producing electricity or thrust, rejecting the remaining two-thirds as waste heat. Only Combined-Cycle (~60%) or Combined Heat & Power (~80%) Natural Gas technologies use more than 40% of their heat. Beyond that in electrical storage, up to 30% of all kilowatt hours stored are lost and another 5% is lost during grid transmission from the plant to the end user.
A centralized power system must account for the highest potential demand anywhere and anytime in the system, so only 40-50% of the grid’s capacity is used to power our system. The rest is in reserve for short periods of high summer or winter demand. This results in significant underused capacity and unamortized debt. Intermittency in generation only exacerbates the problem.
In other fields, the concept of centralization is already obsolete. The telephone system of old, with phones wired back over hundreds of miles to a central exchange, manned by thousands of switch operators, has given way to the autonomy of a hand-held device connected via flexible networks to distributed servers, routers, and autonomous satellites in space – allowing systems to dynamically allocate and handle major fluctuations in data sharing needs.
This in turn has led to new markets, new opportunities and even new industries. There is no reason why the same factors and motivations that drove the digital revolution in communications and media should not drive a similar revolution in which power becomes small, mobile, safe, clean, and affordable. Change in energy and industrial systems and markets could soon mirror the scale of change we have witnessed in wireless and media.
That technology now exists as a micro reactor or Nuclear Battery. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have convened an industry collaborative called the Advanced Nuclear and Production Expert Group (ANPEG) to develop a Nuclear Battery to mesh with this modern market – factory production, modular package delivery, minimal site preparation, and standardized interoperability with processes that can utilize the heat and/or electricity to produce goods and services on-site directly for local consumption and trade, free from the need for fuel pipelines and large grids.
A Nuclear Battery is a streamlined object, about the size of a large automobile, that would fit into a standard twenty foot (6 meter) ISO shipping container. Like new cars, it would roll off an automated assembly line, one of thousands that have been industrially mass produced.
“Like new cars, the Nuclear Battery would roll off an automated assembly line, one of mass produced thousands,” says ANPEG co-founder Norman Foster. “Plugged into a similar-sized conversion module, its typical 10 MW output could power 8,000 homes or a cluster of skyscrapers, a mid-sized data center or a desalination plant for 150,000 people. Residual heat could be used locally for building heat or food production instead of being discarded. The transmission grid would be nano-sized and buried – no more pylons and overhead cables to fail during extreme weather events.”
This local flexibility is key to the developing world. These Nuclear Batteries could be delivered to any urban, rural, or even maritime location and put into service almost immediately to provide electricity, clean water, and other community-important services.
According to Iain MacDonald, also an ANPEG co-founder, “The Nuclear Battery is a fundamental energy advance in both form and function, shifting the way nuclear is perceived by the pubic and stakeholders and differentiating it from all other energy sources in its capability to address adaptation to climate change, and standard of living in one clean system.”
It’s not like this is a new concept. Westinghouse has already begun with their WEC eVinciTM Nuclear Battery (see figure above and video below). Since the 1960s, our military was hauling small nuclear reactors behind trucks (figure below). They were also underwater in submarines and in outer space powering satellites.
An ex-Liberty ship fitted with a nuclear battery powered the construction of the Panama Canal from 1968-75 (see figure). More recently, in a mere three years, a NASA/Los Alamos team, headed by ANPEG member Patrick McClure, developed Kilopower – a nano-scale, affordable fission nuclear system that could enable long-duration stays on the Moon, Mars and other planetary surfaces.
Next time you visit a hospital for an MRI, remember that is a very small nuclear facility.
Like a nested Matryoshka Russian doll, the nuclear power module has smaller modules within itself and only one of these, the control module, is accessible. The others are factory sealed with the fuel core already integrated, which is non-weapon grade, low enriched (5%) uranium (see top figure).
At the end of its 5 to 10 years- life when the fuel is exhausted, the sealed unit is shipped back to a centralized facility for refuelling and refurbishment. Most of the unit can be reused. As such, there is no need for high-level radioactive waste handling and storage at the user site. The timescale for installation or replacement is days, compared with the years required for a mega power station.
Importantly, the waste is ideally-sized for bore-hole disposal.
The Nuclear Battery has intrinsic safety features that prevents it from ever melting down or releasing radioactive material without any operator intervention, says Jacopo Buongiorno, nuclear engineering professor at MIT and another of ANPEG’s co-founders. With respect to security, it is much easier to secure and protect. And any intentional damage just requires replacement while the damaged unit is refurbished.
This pattern of progression has ensured that such units are the safest, cleanest, most compact and powerful source of energy we could have. In size, a module’s physical footprint is a tiny speck compared to the footprint of a similarly rated solar farm or windfarm and without any exposure to risk from the vagaries of weather (see figure below).
A recent study by the MIT Energy Initiative found that it is essential to rapidly expand nuclear energy in order to address the challenges of climate change and poverty. So the fact that we could manufacture these modules fast is key.
Nuclear Batteries could also play a major role in addressing the plight of informal settlements and slums. Currently, over a billion people do not have access to electricity for cooking, lighting, and heating, modern sanitation, clean water, or adequate shelter. If not addressed this could double by 2050.
It takes about 3,000 kWhs per person per year to lift someone up out of poverty. We generate 24 trillion kWhs per year, over 16 trillion is from fossil fuel. So the amount of clean energy we need to eradicate global poverty and mitigate climate change is enormous – over 35 trillion kWhs per year by 2040 – when the world’s population will top 10 billion.
If nuclear comprises only a third of this, we would need the equivalent of 100,000 of these nuclear batteries. Of course, larger nuclear plants on the order of 1000 MW are still being built in China, the Middle East, Russia and other places, five new large reactors came online last year. And over 100 of the large nuclear plants operating today will still be operating in 2040.
In addition, Small Modular Nuclear Reactors will begin being built in this decade and thousands should be online by 2040. The flexibility of SMRs and nuclear batteries will play a vital role in deploying power to where it’s needed the most.
So we have lots of possibilities to use nuclear power to address the world’s major issues. We just have to do it.