Nuclear Power: December 2008 Archives

EU Wants Armenian Metsamor NPP Closed

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The European Union wants Armenia to close its Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, but the Armenians refuse to dismantle the facility until a replacement is operational. Metsamor currently provides 40% of the country’s electricity.

The Metsamor NPP was constructed during the 1970’s approximately 30 kilometers west of the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The facility was built with two VVER-440 model V320 nuclear reactors, but this technology is no longer considered acceptable by modern safety standards.

Metsamor is located in an eartthquake-hazard region, where strong earthquakes constantly occur. The plant is operated by Inter RAO UES, a Russian company, as part of a five-year deal to help pay off Armenian debts.

Armenia plans to build a new nuclear plant with a capacity of either 1,000 or 1,200 MW. Projected project costs are between $4 billion and $7.2 billion. Construction may start in 2011 and the new facility is expected to go online in 2017. The United States and France have indicated their willingness to help Armenia replace Metsamor. Russia is also expected to cooperate with the Armenian government.

The European Union is concerned about safety due to both the use of old technology and location in an actively seismic area. EU appears determined to close all nuclear plants using outdated technology as soon as possible, even if that means exerting huge pressures on the governments of countries with these old plants.

It will be interesting to see if Russia eventually takes the lead in building a new facility, instead of the US or France. This is one of those cases that confounds me - I hate seeing another new nuclear plant built in the world, but without a new nuclear facility, what would Armenia do to meet its energy needs? I feel the same way about Ukraine - I don’t want them building more nuclear plants, but they don’t have many sensible, clean alternatives either. If a country needs to use nuclear power, I would rather see them use new, safe technology than something outdated and dangerous.

Photo: Bouarf - Gnu Free Doc Lic 1.2

Russian Floating Nuclear Power Plants for Qatar

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Qatar General Electricity and Water Corporation (Kahramaa) has opened discussions with Russia about utilizing new Russian floating nuclear power plants (FNPP). Qatar is studying the possibility of adding up to 5,400 MW of nuclear capacity between 2011 and 2036. Qatar is also constructing the world’s largest solar power facility, which should be operational by 2013.

The country is also interested in using nuclear power for electricity so they can export more gas for additional income. Russia plans to only lease FNPP’s, but potential dependence on a foreign energy supply is not a concern. If Russia ever tried to put pressure on Qatar, the middle eastern country could always revert back to power from its gas reserves.

The Russian floating nuclear power plants are a good prospect for Qatar because they not only have the capability to generate electricity, but can also be used to desalinate water. Kahramaa estimates local daily water demand in Qatar could more than double by 2012 to approximately 681,000 cubic meters per day. FNPP’s can supply roughly 240,000 cubic meters of water each day, which would at least partially solve the problem.

The first Russian FNPP’s are anticipated to be online by 2011. These plants use two KLT-40S reactors similar to those used on Russian icebreakers and submarines. The expected capacity is 70 MW, enough to power cities of 100,000-200,000 people. Radioactive byproducts will be stored in special compartments and removed every 10-12 years during pre-planned overhauls.

Traditional land-based nuclear plants have been considered, but necessary safety zones make it inconvenient to locate a facility in such a small country. Also, it is not clear if the existing electricity grid can support the additional 1,000 MW from a large, land-based plant.

The biggest concern about such plants is safety and security. Rosatom director Sergei Kiriyenkosays says FNPP’s will be much safer than land-based facilities. The plants will have five radiation protection barriers and can withstand a 7-8 point earthquake, 100 mph winds or a falling Jak-40 jet. Transportation  will be without fuel, refueling will occur at special, secure shipyards and the plants are being designed with unspecified security systems to protect them from underwater sabotage.

That’s all well and good, but you know my feelings about nuclear power. A big problem with these plants is not only that radioactivity can be spread in the atmosphere, but also via ocean currents. It certainly is an interesting idea, but not one I can get behind.

Mini Nuclear Reactors Coming Soon to Your Community?

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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.