Colorado’s mini nuclear power plants could help power space


(TNS) – The mini nuclear power plants being developed as a source of clean electricity for the United States – and for deployment in space – would be smaller than standard shipping containers.

But the amount of electricity generated by a single unit, when subatomic neutrons bombard uranium rods inside, could sustain up to 10,000 people – without emitting the heat-trapping gases that accelerate climate change.

Nuclear engineers from the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado working at federal facilities say they are racing to get these mini-power plants perfected as soon as possible. President Joe Biden’s administration this month gave the go-ahead, granting $61 million for projects at 40 universities, reflecting an emerging consensus that there is an urgent need to harness nuclear power.

“The urgency is that Lake Powell is nearly running out of water (threatening hydropower in the West). Climate change is real and we are feeling the impacts,” said Jeff King, a nuclear engineer from the Colorado School of Mines, director of CSM’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Center, and a member of Colorado’s Radiation Advisory Committee. King also recently chaired the American Nuclear Society’s committee on the deployment of nuclear power plants on the moon and other planets to allow space exploration.

“We need all of our low-carbon energy technologies as soon as we can get them. Every day we wait delays the solution,” King said. “We need to bring nuclear into the mix. Or, we have to accept the consequences of runaway climate change.

His team is working this summer at the federal center west of Denver and at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico on a key hurdle. They focus on how moderators inside reactors can slow down the neutrons produced when uranium atoms split. Slower neutrons can improve the energy production process.

Solutions in this subatomic domain should improve nuclear power plants, long controversial and heavily regulated, but which are now attracting renewed interest as global warming forces people to move away from coal and other fossil fuels more quickly. Large nuclear power plants cost tens of billions. Nuclear industry leaders say smaller, mass-produced “modular” reactors, typically generating less than 300 megawatts of electricity, will be much cheaper, safer and cleaner.

Huge questions remain around the radioactive waste from the mining and milling of uranium in the Western Rockies and the operation of the reactors. Spent uranium fuel rods must be insulated for hundreds of thousands of years. A recent search study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that smaller reactors could increase, not decrease, overall volumes of radioactive waste.

Colorado is nonetheless emerging as a hub with $800,000 directed to the Colorado School of Mines and $385,000 to the University of Colorado at Boulder (to develop nuclear material analysis capabilities needed for greater security).

US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said federal investment in nuclear technology and a new generation of scientists “will spur innovation and continue to lead us toward our zero-carbon future.”

Conventional nuclear power plants — about 93 in the United States today — produce about 20% of the electricity Americans use. Nuclear power plants generated approximately 88,000 tonnes of spent fuel and other low-level radioactive waste. US officials have failed to develop a central facility to isolate the waste, which is currently stored at reactor sites, after decades of spending billions to plan a repository in Nevada.

Around the world, around 440 nuclear reactors generate around 10% of the world’s electricity. They are the largest providers of relatively clean electricity, emitting very little carbon dioxide which accelerates global warming.

Electricity demand in general, especially clean energy, has grown rapidly.

As wind and solar power expand, government and industry officials say these renewables may not be enough soon enough to offset the decline in electricity once generated by burning coal. In Colorado, coal-fired power plants generate 36.7% of the electricity consumed by residents, compared to renewable sources, primarily wind, which generate 35.7% of the electricity. Methane combustion provides 25.9% of the electricity used in the state, according to federal records.

Filling the gaps where renewable wind and solar sources may be lagging behind is a growing challenge, not only in the United States, but also in fast-growing China and India, where coal is emerging as a critical source as as demand increases.

Nuclear proponents envision widespread use of small “modular” nuclear power plants that could be transported by trucks, trains and planes. The smaller ones were originally designed to help meet the US military’s needs for reliable electricity at remote bases around the world. Medium and large nuclear power plants could also be deployed safely, although Nuclear Regulatory Commission approvals are likely to be delayed, King said.

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