Nuclear Power: Think Smaller?

Among many thoughtful comments on the last post, Debater Sully asks us to consider scaled-down plants that power just one small city, saying they would be "safer and easier to control."

It's an intriguing suggestion. So, let's consider.

Regardless of whether Sully's assumption about safety is accurate, the primary issue is cost. Seems like it would be more difficult to build several small nuclear reactors than one large one; in a large plant, the reactors would share infrastructure, such as the water source, while multiple smaller plants would require infrastructure to be built many times over.

Then again, perhaps it is just as expensive to construct and maintain reactors regardless of their size or concentration. Anyone have any insights into this?

Another consideration would be that more sites would mean more "not in my backyard" objections. Picture the overflowing city council meetings, the neighborhood petitions, the lawsuits. In the face of such resistance, finding suitable sites for these reactors could take years.

Debaters, what do you think of the idea?

By Emily Messner |  April 18, 2006; 11:05 AM ET  | Category:  Your Take
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Were I live at FPL has 2 nuclear generating plants and it requested to build one additional because of groth in the area. But of course we had that major NIMBY constituant show up at the planning board commitee meeting and they got it killed. Not more than a month later they were all crying about their electric bills. The thing is these plants are not that large and most people wouldn't realize that the 2 plants were nuclear just by looking at them. This is what happens when you get zellots of any type. They spread fear not facts and radiation has gotten a bad rap because of mishaps in the past, but if everything is built to specs. and inspectors do their jobs as well as the plant personell them their isn't the problems that plagued the previous reactors.

Posted by: Lab Rat | April 18, 2006 11:53 AM

Here's a good write up about the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor which is a leading design for small nuclear power plants:

Whatever direction plant designs take, the success of nuclear power in the US will depend on how it is regulated. A republican administration that listens to the economic concerns of industry before scientific and medical concerns is very worrying when it comes to licensing and regulating the nuclear power industry. A government that instead was more concerned for safety might make those who will have nuclear power in their back yards less nervous.

Posted by: Sully | April 18, 2006 02:28 PM

This is not the week's big issue. With all of the stuff going on in the nation and the world, this issue is tangential, at best.

Your earlier request th have Chris Ford email you is a larger issue than nukular power. Y'all need to get a (chat) room.

Chris and Emily sittin' in a tree...

I smell sex and candy.

Posted by: smafdy | April 18, 2006 03:00 PM

In our nuclear past, we tended to build nuke reactors like Detroit put out cars. Standard model which was then "customized" to owner specs. We went "bigger is better" to realize economies of scale, but found that made construction more expensive. Also, engineering issues like the propensity of neutron flux to chase around in different areas of a 12' by 12' 3500MW thermal, 1250MW electrical reactor. Whereas a smaller core had simpler nuclear physics, controls, and less operating constraints and much less decay heat to remove on shutdown.

So we had in effect "custom stick-built" plants that required people specifically licensed on only one or two unique plants, harder to regulate, siting limited to only initial application for a few plants, and existing plants using 60s technology.

We learned from that that there are greater economies in standardization, modular construction, and common licensing - as France and Japan do.

The exponential advances in materials technology, quality control, computer controls, modular construction, management theory, and engineering design since the 60s mean new plants can be constructed cheaper, safer. Part of the new 4th and 5th Generation nuke plants proposed is use of passive cooling systems that remove the need for huge, complex, and expensive active cooling systems that also required tremendous training on their use. Remove active cooling - and risk analysis found mode failures, and risk of fuel damage and rad release to containment went from very low frequency to near-negligable risk.

As part of that, we found optimum design for passive cooled - boiling water load following units, baseload pressurized water units, or the new pebble bed, sodium fast flux, and a few newer designs with superheaters or certain exotic technology components seemed to center on 400-800 MW electric capacity rather than the 1000-1300MW upscaled naval pressurized water reactor basic design.

But that is no impediment if construction makes standardized units and you have "4-packs", "six-packs", as the French do..even future "8-packs" now contemplated. Siting objections are not substantially different for a nuke facility that puts out 3600 MW from 6 reactors, or one that has two "bohunka" nukes and puts out 2450 MW. Standardized units mean you can more easily move technicians, engineers, maintenance, management, and operations people between plants to make running the units easier, with lower cost and regulatory difficulties. Even have a few different reactor types on site for peak load following AND baseload and a new technology demo plant ---as long as they are standard in other locations, so you can fly a few hundred engineers and techs into a plant shutdown from one area of the country, even from a foreign country using standard a plant shutdown for refueling or repairs...

The economics are there. As indicated by China and India's rush to develop a massive nuclear electric generation infastructure rather than follow the "turkey guts to oil", windmills, "beautiful solar energy - it's so cool!" approach the Greenies advocate.

Because they think it is safe, will clean up their air pollution considerably, and is very cheap compared to other alternatives. And best, nuclear energy is renewable and can keep them going for many centuries. With the proper reactors, you make more fuel than you burn, and with recycling, you reduce radwaste volume by 95% and recover 95% of unused nuclear matter for reuse in future core burn cycles.

The main opposition is political and from an American education system that churns out graduates unable to assess risks of any phenomenon objectively and generally ignorant of technology. We and the Euros have a propensity to grasp onto an issue and convert it into an Article of Holy Faith that something is entirely "good" or entirely "bad" despite the facts.

Once a "Cause" group has decided something is good or bad, they are frequently unable by their nature to admit what they committed to as dogma is "not so bad" or "not so good" - without emotional rage or outright rioting. Several German Greenies were seriously injured in a riot when the debate about genetically modified crops devolved into fistfights between those willing to consider certain GM food crops might benefit humanity and those of the "never, never, never!" persuasion.

Other cultures can be irrational. Japan has an inordinate fear of mad cow disease. Indians like soybeans over the taste of lentils when offered them in blind tastings, the economics favor soybeans over lentils, but for 2,000 years Indians have eaten lentils and by golly, lentils it will stay! Drives American and Brazilian soybean producers trying for decades to open India up to soybean exports absolutely nuts...

Nuclear will be aided if global warming from CO2 is confirmed as an incontrovertable fact. And if people finally realize that the enviroweenie mantras of "solar", "wind power", "conserve by banning RVs", "recycle your kitchen grease!" are absolutely trivial sideissues - and when they recognize that wrecking major parts of the environment for ethanol, solar farms, mountain ranges and coastlines festooned with windmills and piles of dead birds at the bases isn't going to solve the problem. That only coal (if we don't care about or don't believe in global warming) or nuclear will address the preponderance of the world's and America's - future energy needs.

Posted by: Chris Ford | April 18, 2006 03:25 PM

As I was reading your post above I was nodding until you disparaged solar farms. I have been watching the solar roof market for the past few years and it needs lower costs but has tremendous potential considering every rooftop could be producing electricity. Here's a link to California's effort to promote rooftop solar:
I agree it won't solve the oil problem and neither will ethanol or wind completely, but every feasible solution should be encouraged.

Posted by: Sully | April 18, 2006 03:41 PM

I beleive that until there is a way to get rid of "WASTE" that is stockpiled now, there is no point in making more waste that has a lifespan of 150 years,that takes up "massive" amounts of water. The people of this planet need to get a grip on their consumption practices, we have become a throw away society. A thousand years from now there will be no digging up of pyramids only garbage dumps.

Posted by: Terri Robson | April 18, 2006 04:36 PM

Terri Robson writes "A thousand years from now there will be no digging up of pyramids only garbage dumps."


Sigh, if only I could watch the wonder and curiosity of archaelogists as they explore what was once New Jersey.

Posted by: Geb | April 18, 2006 05:14 PM

Sully -

I agree that if costs and technology problems ever make solar viable as a power generator, people should and will reconsider it. And the other rooftop use that is being considered is to paint them white so cities aren't 5% hotter than surrounding areas in the summertime to cut down on AC energy use.

But we use 107 Quads, will need 127-28 by 2030 due to Open Borders.....and solar accounts for 0.063 Quads. It hasn't grown in the last 30 years despite all the championing of it and research grants given. So it's still in the "wouldn't it be nice" category - whereas our energy choices have to be "what works" category - not what "might work, or might be commercially viable" reliance on future predicates we don't know the answer to or which investors and governments have adequate confidence in to risk the future or their money for.

It may well be that solar will generate enough electricity with new technology and cost reductions that people flock to buy units. It may well be that cold fusion will be discovered to exist and we can use that future discovery to completely revolutionize world energy use. Or that quantum wormholes can control dark matter flows which form an endless cost-free generation of DC electricity.

But we don't know. And we are all smart enough to have a certain skepticism about advocates that insist if we only throw enough money at a problem, it will be solved so base your present day and future days on the "fact" solutions are guaranteed. Like - "smoking is OK because if only we put more money into research we will soon find a cure for lung cancer", or -if only enough money went into "sensible, mandated, organic" agriculture and educating people that Agribiz is bad - "then we could make all our food organic so our bodies are purer and longer-lived."


Sully, the other objections to desert solar farms are coming from people that believe that such farms over widespread areas would have "devestating" impact on delicate desert ecosystems. I saw one such article claim an experimental solar station did harm to several species. I don't know...we have lots of desert...and if I favor sticking nuke waste on 3,000 acres of it, I don't see loosing 100 or so square miles of it to solar. Chances are if something better comes along or people find solar is not economically competitive and tire of taxpayer subsidies and get rid of it, the "delicate desert ecology" will return.


I do know I had a different reaction to one of our boondoggle trips "advising" government people on energy investment. We went to visit a wind farm out Wst because the government people in an Eastern state were excited about adding wind because a few "wind entrepreneurs" had told them how great they were and about the government tax breaks and funding. Kind of a funny story. When we got there, we found the site in a low mountain pass was swarming with rattlesnakes eating dead and maimed birds. I was pissed. But Boss Lady said keep it out of the discussion later and stay on economics and view of the technology. As luck would have it, the 3rd or so question we got at the gov't panel was from a woman who had read about "bird kills" in her Audubon Magazine and wondered if we saw dead birds. So Boss Lady had to answer and watch the horrified expressions following her talking about rattlers with little bird feet poking out of their mouths. And explain why we didn't save the "wounded birds" to a followup question. Seemed like a NIMBY problem with that panel...and Boss Lady didn't like my suggestion that maybe at future meetings wind farms could be cast in a more positive light if the birdkill question arose as "snake-friendly places for snake lovers to visit". (We weren't advocating any power source, just what was a good blend given transmission capabilities, resources, and demand...the panel with the bird questions went with "committing to study" a new nat gas plant, a new 345KV line, and "more research into alternative energy"...)

Posted by: Chris Ford | April 18, 2006 06:16 PM

I dunno Chris....I gotta sympathize with the Boss Lady trying to keep you on her message :o)

Might that pass have been on US 80 between Oakland and Sacramento?

I took due note of your observation about that dumb (like a fox) populist leftwinger Chavez. I also read the story about the Venezuelan reserves a couple of days ago. Ecuador has the same very heavy crude east of the Andes in the Amazon basin. It does bring up a very important point. Reserves are a function of price, i.e. the lower the price the less reserves there are, the higher the price the more reserves there are; all that with no new drilling. That extends to other things besides oil, too. Like gold, tar sands, oil shale, silver, platinum, natural gas, coal, uranium, etc. Makes me kind of wonder how these kinds of changes get reflected on balance sheets of companies holding big reserves.

But it necessarily makes it quite difficult to project out how many years supply of oil we have since you get a different answer for every price you choose. Not so? Similarly for other energy sources like natural gas, coal, tar sands, etc.

Could you by any chance point me towards web sites that might have or lead towards some reserve data I could dredge up relative to prices?

Posted by: Cayambe | April 19, 2006 03:53 AM

I have seen reserves described as "X million tons recoverable at todays prices" and "X million tons - net". Which try to say to investors what is available and what exists as potentially minable. Then there is the gray area of "estimated reserves".

And I have seen oil companies like Shell play games with their listed reserves in all categories - not that I suspect they manipulate their data to better position their quarterly numbers and stock option triggers. Oh, no! That would be wrong! I do know there are lots of commodity websites, can't point you to any single one....but be conscious there are two levels of knowledge - one for the stupid little investor and gen public - one for the people with the big bucks that pay for premium knowledge so as to better exploit the "free market". Of course KSA and other nations are thought to keep two books, same with Shell and other companies on a insider-outsider basis.

Actual sites? Morgan Stanley and Barclays have stuff up that the lower classes can access. And the commodity exchanges have links. Oil and gold have lots of "schlock" brokers and data, gold companies listed on the Toronto and Vancouver exchanges are notorious for lying and stock price manipulation so their data is suspect. I'd say look around in a thinner traded, unsexy commodity like tin or palm oil, note the firms and gov't websites with data and see if they are good, no-hype stuff. Chances are they are more responsible than a hype-site that offers you millions for trading in the "exciting gold and oil" markets. But still you don't get what the "Big Boys in the network", "members of the politically powerful/Ownership Class" do in the way of reserves, demand, and trends.

Anyways, I like El Presidente Chavez's proposal. It would make Venezuela a bigger listed source of available oil than KSA. Pity we have let Israel and ME oil & terrorism dominate or diplomacy and news cycles to the extent the average American is unaware of the big changes in Latin America, Mexico, China, Russia - that in the big scheme of things matter more than crappy little ME nations.

Didn't know Ecuador had unrecoverable (for now) heavy bitumin. Thanks for the info.

Posted by: Chris Ford | April 19, 2006 11:44 AM

There is a very small village in central Alaska named Galena. Toshiba has offered to put a small nuclear power plant in for the village for free as a demonstraton! I believe it delivers 10 MGW, which is enough for Galena. Considering that most villages in Alaska are powered and heated by oil and the price is sky high, there has been a lot of support by the people in Galena for this. It is my understanding that the plant will not need to be refueled for 30 years and that Toshiba has agreed to dispose of the fuel after the 30 year time period, so the people in Galena don't have to deal with the spent fuel.

I guess I find this just a little disturbing. Toshiba plans to sell the small power plants to other places in Alaska and the United States if the "experiment" in Galena works. Still, they have not divulged, as far as I know, what the plan is for the spent fuel, but they have to go through the same permitting process as large nuclear power plants do, which is very expensive.

Posted by: anpw | April 19, 2006 02:38 PM

There is a very small village in central Alaska named Galena. Toshiba has offered to put a small nuclear power plant in for the village for free as a demonstraton! I believe it delivers 10 MGW, which is enough for Galena. Considering that most villages in Alaska are powered and heated by oil and the price is sky high, there has been a lot of support by the people in Galena for this. It is my understanding that the plant will not need to be refueled for 30 years and that Toshiba has agreed to dispose of the fuel after the 30 year time period, so the people in Galena don't have to deal with the spent fuel.

I guess I find this just a little disturbing. Toshiba plans to sell the small power plants to other places in Alaska and the United States if the "experiment" in Galena works. Still, they have not divulged, as far as I know, what the plan is for the spent fuel, but they have to go through the same permitting process as large nuclear power plants do, which is very expensive.

Posted by: anpw | April 19, 2006 02:39 PM

The ability to control a reactor is a cubic function of the size of the unit. There is a reason that our miliary units on our carriers are 550 MW. The typical carrier has two. The doubling up is not for operational availability but for reliability of control. The USS Enterprise originally had three, but never needed more than two and the third was removed.The Nimitz carriers all have two in a standardized design. We could build and intall these safely in our communities til the cows came home. Chernobyl and 3 Mile were in the area of 950 to 1050 MW. When control on these units started to go they could not be recovered. 550 to 650 is the smart size. Everything else is politics and emotion.

Posted by: Bob Nixon | April 19, 2006 04:27 PM

Having lots of small plants can help to prevent blackouts of the scale we recently saw on the East Coast. More small plants, closer to the energy demand, can help to reduce the huge amounts of energy lost in transmission (at least 30%). So it may not be cost effective when you initially build them, but over time you save money by having to produce less electricity in the first place, and you have a more stable and reliable power grid.

Posted by: Ella | April 19, 2006 06:18 PM

My my, so many power experts. There are economies of scale that make bigger components more economic. ALL power plants need cooling, as they reject about 66% of the total megawatt rating (how they are licensed) to water and air. (Quick tip: If you are talking about a 1300 MWe plant, double that and you get approximate heat rejection (assumes 33% efficiency). Thus, 2600 rejected, 1300 electricity and you get about 3900 MWthermal rating of heat source (neglects pump heat).) Years ago, US nuclear license limit used to be 3800 MWt.

Maybe the French, ROK, and many other countries of the world "get it." Nuclear: clean, safe, efficient, economic, reliable.

Posted by: Ed Trottier | April 20, 2006 12:44 PM

Sorry, but USS Enterprise, CVN-66 I think, had eight (8) reactors. Two per engine room, 4 engine rooms and 4 shafts. Reactors started out at about around 264 MWe, I think. The issue of control is not related to size, but core physics and control rod speed. Military reactors are typically in the 90+% range. This allows them to run longer between refuellings. They must have quick response for maneuvering and catapults, for example.

Posted by: Ed Trottier | April 20, 2006 12:54 PM

Yep, there was a movement to medium sized nuclear plants (maybe 600 MWe range) years ago. Anyone (anyone at all) wonder what happened to them and why the latest are without fail (ALL) up around 1000 MWe to even 1500 MWe? Even the latest "darling" ESBWR (advanced reactor) is about 1550 MWe.

Maybe the folks ordering these units are familiar with "economies of scale."


Posted by: Ed Trottier | April 20, 2006 01:01 PM

Though there are economies of scale that lead to lower overall electric power costs for large plants, there are also some disadvantages that might not favor large plants in every situation. There are also certain production cost advantages that come from larger volumes of smaller plants.

Large plants can be disruptive to local power markets if the capacity that they produce is more than the growth in power demand. The plant will have to run at something less than full power or will push otherwise profitable production facilities out of the market.

As is pointed out in previous posts, all heat engines need a heat sink. For very large plants, the only real choice is to throw the heat away as fast as possible using either large bodies of water or massive cooling towers. With smaller plants that can be flexibly sited, there is a possibility that the waste heat from the electric power production can be effectively used for space heat or even factory process heat in a cogeneration mode.

In many of the world's electric power grids, the total grid capacity is either below or within a factor of two or three of the size of "standard" 1000 MW plants. These grids are too small to accept a large nuke without causing the grid to be vulnerable to collapse if the nuke has a problem. It is normally best for grids to have at least 5-10 separate generating sources with similar capacities in order for stability and redundancy. In other words, smaller nuclear plants have the opportunity to enter into more markets than do large nuclear plants.

Finally, smaller nuclear plants can be used to directly replace oil burning plants on board ships and in generating plants in remote areas. Since oil is the competitive fuel in these markets, the scale diseconomy is not as important as it would be in more established markets where the incumbent power source is a cheap coal plant or a large nuclear plant.

Adams Atomic Engines, Inc ( expects to build plants sized between 10-50 MWe.

Posted by: Rod Adams | April 20, 2006 11:17 PM

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