For Nuclear Reactor Safety, a U.S. Company Thinks Small ; Device Nested Inside Tank of Water Would Be Able to Cool Itself in an Accident

By Wald, Matthew L | International Herald Tribune, October 14, 2013 | Go to article overview

For Nuclear Reactor Safety, a U.S. Company Thinks Small ; Device Nested Inside Tank of Water Would Be Able to Cool Itself in an Accident


Wald, Matthew L, International Herald Tribune


A proposed design calls for a reactor small enough so that if there is a loss of electric power, as happened at Fukushima, the tiny core will cool on its own, and quickly.

Jose N. Reyes has a surefire way to make certain that in case of accident, his nuclear reactor is surrounded by plenty of cold water: Install it at the bottom of a giant swimming pool.

After the triple meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in March 2011, a swarm of new ideas about nuclear power drew attention. One of those is the brainchild of Mr. Reyes, who came up with a plan to make a reactor small enough so that if there is a loss of electric power, as happened at Fukushima, its tiny core will cool on its own, and quickly, the way a small cup of coffee chills faster than a big pot.

His reactor, which so far exists only in computer designs, sits inside a containment vessel that looks like a steel thermos bottle and measures 82 feet in height and 15 feet in diameter, or 25 meters by 4.5 meters -- a mini version of reactor containments 200 feet in height and 120 feet in diameter at American nuclear plants now under construction.

Although Mr. Reyes's reactor delivers only one-twentieth the power of conventional reactors, his design is such that more reactors can be added as more power is needed.

His reactors would rest inside 10-million-gallon, or 38-million- liter, tanks of water, mostly below ground, which Mr. Reyes says will lower the chance of meltdown to a thousandth of the risk of conventional reactors. Should all go wrong in one of his reactors and it boils over, he said, the resulting steam would hit the cold outer wall that borders the pool and condense back into water to cool the core.

"The goal was simplicity," said Mr. Reyes, a co-founder and chief technology officer of NuScale Power, located here on the edge of the campus of Oregon State University, where the company operates a simulator to try out some of its key concepts.

By industry standards, his concepts are far from the beaten path. Afraid of big pipe leaks? The NuScale reactor has no pipes bigger than three inches, or 7.6 centimeters. Worried about pump failures? Eliminate the pumps and rely on thermodynamics, because the NuScale reactor is small enough to rely on the natural, cooling circulation that occurs because hot water rises and cold water sinks. Afraid the emergency diesel generators won't work? This design doesn't require them.

Outsiders see virtues but also pitfalls. "You can pull it off if you have a small enough thermal mass," said Revis W. James, director of energy technology assessment at the Electric Power Research Institute, a utility consortium. Mr. James was referring to the hot core of the reactor. A small reactor could thus achieve a defense against meltdown that would be impossible in a larger one, he said.

The downside is that getting a new design licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an essential precursor for sales in the United States, could cost as much as $1 billion. No one in the industry is really sure, however, because no one has done it in many years.

In addition, the level of opposition, and the difficulty in getting approvals and permits, might not be much different for a small reactor than for a big one, some experts say, diminishing the logic of going small. …

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