Mini Nuclear Reactors Coming Soon to Your Community?

I guess this really should come as no surprise, but a Santa Fe, New Mexico company will soon be providing nuclear power to communities across the United States. Hyperion Power Generation (HPG) has obtained developmental rights to produce hot tub-sized nuclear generators using technology originally pioneered at the US government’s Los Alamos laboratory.

These miniature nuclear reactors will be powered by low-enriched uranium fuel. Each Hyperion Power Module will generate 25 Megawatts of electricity, enough to reliably supply power to 20,000 standard American homes for 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

Currently, suggested applications include:

  • Industrial, such as oil shale and sands drilling and processing;
  • U.S. Military facilities;
  • Primary power for small remote communities in developing nations, including water pumping and processing.
Each unit will cost approximately $25 million and are small enough to be transported on the back of a lorry. They will be factory sealed, buried underground and “guarded for maximum security.”

Hyperion claims these reactors have no risk of meltdown because there are no moving parts and the fuel will instantaneously cool if the units are opened.

Quoting from Hyperion’s website:

The core of the HPM produces energy via a safe, natural heat-producing process that occurs with the oscillation of hydrogen in uranium hydride. HPMs cannot go “supercritical,” melt down, or get “too hot.” It maintains its safe, operating temperature without the introduction and removal of “cooling rods” – an operation that has the potential for mechanical failure.

Often referred to as a “cartridge” reactor or “nuclear battery,” the Hyperion HyperDrive is self- regulating with no mechanical parts to break down or otherwise fail. The inherent properties of uranium hydride serve as both fuel and moderator providing unparalleled safety among nuclear reactors. Sealed at the factory, the module is not opened until it has been returned to the factory to be refueled, approximately every five years or so, depending on use. This containment, along with the strategy of completely burying the module at the operating site, protects against the possibility of human incompetence, or hostile tampering and proliferation.

Each module is expected to produce a softball-sized amount waste every five years and will release no greenhouse gases. The waste materials is considered a good candidate for fuel recycling.

Hyperion already has 3 factories around the world working on production of the initial 4,000 units. The first 100 have already been allocated to industrial enterprises operating in remote areas.

Well, this really makes me nervous. Am I really supposed to believe a meltdown is impossible?

Hyperion says burying the module protects it against the possibility of human incompetence. What about incompetence at the production plant?

I also don’t believe Hyperion can honestly guarantee 100% that all units can come out of the factories in absolutely perfect condition, with no bad parts included. Any production process is likely to produce some bad components - that’s just a fact.

Is nuclear energy as an industry where that risk can be considered acceptable? I don’t think so. Yes, these units will be underground, which should minimize terrorist threats, but if a problem occurs, and at some point something will go wrong, it could effect the water table.  Worst case scenario could be an explosion that blows up through the ground and exposes the unit to the atmosphere.

If you want to know what could happen, I researched uranium hydride and found an OSHA website that indicates this material is spontaneously flammable in air, and contact of the hydride with strong oxidizers may cause fires and explosions.  Further, contact of uranium hydride with water forms flammable and explosive hydrogen gas.  Contact with halogenated hydrocarbons can cause violent reactions.

Perhaps these modules will be safe, but 100% safe with absolutely no chance of a major problem ... I highly doubt it. They may be factory sealed, but can the seal stay secure for five years in every single unit?

As expected, there is not enough information on Hyperion’s website to allay my fears. I hate to say it, but Hyperion merely telling me these units will be safe is not good enough for me.