Nuclear Generator Movable By Cargo Plane. Not Only Possible, But Proven In Early 1960s
Last week was National Clean Energy Week. On Tuesday, there was a wide ranging symposium with talks about nuclear energy, wind, solar, biomass, hydroelectricity, carbon capture and sequestration and natural gas.
Early in the day, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke participated in a panel discussion moderated by former New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte. During that discussion, Sec. Perry spoke about the human tragedy that has been unfolding in the Caribbean since the islands were attacked by two major hurricanes in rapid succession. Naturally, he focused on the U.S. territories, but the same, or worse conditions exist in independent nations, British territories, and Dutch territories.
He spoke earnestly and with obvious emotion. Here is a partial transcript of the above video.
“I want to talk about an opportunity that we have right now. The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are devastated. Maybe one of the most tragic events in recent history with the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico. 3.5 million Americans who are without electricity. We’re trying to get micro generators down there. We’re trying to get fuel down there. Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of a C-17 aircraft, transport to an area like Puerto Rico push it out the back end, crank it up, plug it in that could serve tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people very quickly. That’s the type of innovation that’s going on in our national labs.”
That statement intrigued other participants enough that they brought it up at least twice in later panels.
For example, Charles Hernick of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions was the moderator of a panel discussion on innovation, research and development. He asked Marc Nichol, the senior project manager for the Nuclear Energy Institute’s program on new reactor deployment, small modular reactors and advanced reactors to help the audience understand how real that scenario might be.
Nichol responded by describing the fact that there were at least 20 different companies in various stages of developing new reactor designs, some of which are much smaller and more flexible than currently operating plants. He also described how some of them are specifically being designed for independent operation in small grids where the plant can be kept operating and ready to supply power as soon as off site power lines can be restored.
Skepticism From An Energy Pundit
Dr. Joe Romm, a Clinton Administration Department of Energy official, was dismissive of Perry’s description of future SMRs in a piece written for his Think Progress blog.
“Such small nuclear power plants are not expected to be commercialized until the mid-2020s, and even if they are, they are projected to be wildly expensive — just like current reactors — and not that small (650 tons). Nobody’s going to be “literally” putting one in a C-17 and pushing it out the back end on a small island ready to go. The U.S. territory doesn’t have time for such political pipe dreams.”
Dr. Romm has a different prescription for providing power to areas devastated by natural disasters.
“Microgrids built around cheap renewable power and battery storage are now the fastest and cheapest way to restore power — while at the same time building resilience into the grid against the next disaster.”
Who Is Right?
There are no air transportable nuclear plants available now. They are not expected to be available until sometime after the mid 2020s. Perry wasn’t suggesting that such systems were on the shelf.
Romm is also correct in noting that areas devastated by the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria need power now. They cannot afford to wait two weeks, much less two months or ten years.
He is provably wrong, however, to describe Perry’s vision as a pipe dream and also to imply that there was no way anyone could literally put such a system onto an aircraft. It’s been done before. There’s video evidence from an era before computerized special effects that show actual hardware in the act of moving into and out of an airplane.
Army Produced Electricity With Air Transportable Nuclear Generator In September 1962
In the 1950s through the mid 1970s, the U.S. Army had a nuclear energy research and development program. That program, implemented at a time when there were many World War II veterans in decision making positions, was aimed at taking advantage of the incredible energy density of uranium fuel to solve a well understood logistical problem.
As noted in the above public information movie released by the Army in 1963, moving fuel represented 50% of the logistical effort of supporting a field army. At the time, about 1/8th of the fuel moved was dedicated to producing electricity.
One of the systems that the Army developed, the ML-1, was specifically aimed at providing a capable electricity generator that could be transported by air, rail, ship or truck. The designation, ML, stood for Mobile, Low Power Reactor. The ‘1’ meant it was the first of a kind.
Because of its evident potential for low weight compared to steam plants, the ML-1 used a closed Brayton Cycle compressor and turbine as the power off take system. It used nitrogen as the working fluid to transport heat from the reactor. The hot, pressurized nitrogen could spin a turbine, which was coupled to an electrical generator. After leaving the turbine, the nitrogen would be cooled and fed back into the compressor that pushed the gas through the reactor cooling channels.
The main part of the system fit on two skids, each weighing about 15 tons. One skid held the reactor, the other held the compressor, turbine, generator and heat exchanger. With a total weight of 30 tons, the two skids could be loaded onto a single truck. Cables and a control van would be carried on separate trucks.
With the state of material engineering and gas turbine machinery technology available in 1962, the ML-1 was expected to be able to produce 300 to 500 kilowatts of electricity. It’s fuel was expected to last at least two years before needing to be replaced. Set up time was measured in hours. Relocation after operation would have to wait a day or so while short lived fission products decayed.
ML-1 worked. It generated electricity for the first time in September 1962. However, it did not work very well because the designers had no experience in matching compressors to turbines for systems where the gas had to flow through nuclear reactors and exhaust through heat exchangers instead of directly into the atmosphere. Instead of the hoped for 300-500 kilowatts, the first of a kind (FOAK) unit produced a maximum of about 180 kilowatts.
After testing the system for a few hundred hours of operation, the designers were ready to make improvements. Unfortunately, Army budgets in 1963 cut research and development funds to nearly zero in order to fund increased operations in Vietnam. In an era of “guns and butter” budgets, no one made room for nuclear energy research and development in the Army.
Regulations And Public Perceptions
As Secretary Perry noted, there are now regulations that would inhibit the development and operation of systems like the ML-1. As he also noted during his talk, many of those regulations have been imposed based on technological misunderstandings. Perry was not correct in blaming the public for those misunderstanding.
The public’s knowledge of nuclear energy and its potential is largely based on what the experts, the activists and the authorities have told them. Since the actual nuclear experts are cautious, speak very softly and mostly to each other, public knowledge has largely been shaped by more aggressive activists and by authorities who were moved by efforts of the vocal activists.
The compact nature of nuclear fuels is a matter of undeniable physics. So is the fact that nuclear fission does not produce any air or water pollution and the fact that hardened nuclear power plants have operated reliably in the most stressful environments available on earth and in space up to the limits of our solar system.
Though Romm cited a few examples of using solar power and batteries to supply small quantities of power in the aftermath of power outages following a hurricane, those systems cannot provide much electricity and they do not necessarily represent an improvement in resilience for withstanding future storms. That is especially true for “cheap” versions of the technology.
Here is a thought provoking photo of a large solar farm located near Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricane Irma.
There are ways in which currently available nuclear energy systems can provide some comfort, safety and power for the devastated areas hammered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria – nuclear aircraft carriers have a long history of exceptional response in humanitarian crises. Not as well known, but reasonably well demonstrated is the fact that nuclear submarines have some capacity to supply electricity to islands.
The U.S. should do everything it can to assist and provide power now, but we should also diligently pursue responsible commercialization of the small nuclear power systems that were initially developed and proven possible by past generations.
Note: A version of the above was first published on Forbes.com. It is republished here with permission.
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Perry says: “Wouldn’t it make abundant good sense if we had small modular reactors that literally you could put in the back of a C-17 aircraft, transport to an area like Puerto Rico push it out the back end, crank it up, plug it in that could serve tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people very quickly. That’s the type of innovation that’s going on in our national labs.”
Is this work really going on at the national labs or is this “alternative facts”? Sure the labs are involved in NuScale review and probably have some special purpose reactors under development for the DOE, but I am unaware of monies being spent on practical devices like Rick mentions. Plus, wasn’t DOE funding reduced recently?
If you [promise to] build it they [talented, idealistic engineers] will come.
Puerto Rico probably doesn’t want a nuclear power station, although it would suit them well. When will they ever get their act together?
The Oak Ridge National Lab and the Idaho National Lab are doing a lot of enabling work for companies like Oklo and X-Energy. Their steady, patient development of TRISO based fuel is nearing the point at which the fuel can be qualified and support the direct cycle gas turbine that Adams Atomic Engines, Inc. developed and would still like to pursue.
One of the reasons that company was put to sleep and then shut down completely was that there was no commercial U.S. source of the fuel we need. We briefed Bill Magwood and a cast of about 20 DOE/lab/contractor employees in about 2008 about our design. They were attentive and interested, but then informed us that the fuel developed by GA for Ft. St. Vrain had not been properly documented and could not be reproduced at a high enough quality to suit NRC. They showed us the program and the timeline for correcting that problem.
It ran through 2021. That was way past the end of our runway and part of the reason that I decided to accept an employment offer by one of the people involved in the fuel development program. You might remember him as Jeff.
Under the unusual leadership of people like David Petty and Madeline Feltus, that fuel qualification program has remained almost exactly on the timeline they showed us and should achieve its goals within a few months of the end date projected back in 2008.
BTW – Puerto Rico once had a nuclear plant called the BONUS. Unfortunately, the Atomic Energy Commission and its contractors thought it was a good idea to build a unique new design on an island with a poor infrastructure, logistical limitations and inadequate resources for development and repair.
I believe in deployable nuclear generators, but they should be finished products before considering using them in remote areas.
At last a nuclear power discussion that does not tout low CO2 emissions!
Something that just struck me about the ML-1 relates directly to the cooling issue: it needs to get rid of a lot of heat.
Sometimes heat is the exact thing you need. For instance, you have a bunch of refugees and they have to bathe once a day. Steam tables for serving chow lines. Just plain space heat to keep people from freezing to death after a winter disaster which puts them in tents.
Yeah, 3 million BTU/hr would come in mighty handy in a whole bunch of situations. 180 kW wouldn’t hurt, but 3 mmBTU would be a literal lifesaver.
Most of the plants that the Army developed, built and deployed as part of the Army Nuclear Power Program were cogeneration units that produced both electricity and useful heat or water distillation. It’s easy to understand the motive when you know the locations where the systems were operated. Greenland, Alaska, Wyoming, Antarctica, Idaho (2), Arlington, Panama Canal Zone.
Would not be hard to size the LP Turbines to the proper size so as to be at the proper temperature for operating a still. Then add on a Lithium Bromide chiller for plant and community cooling. Years ago I read of a new shopping center that was given an exorbitant price for construction of the needed power lines by the local power monopoly. The engineers did the calculations and proved that it was cheaper to use a NG power DG to generate the electricity and use the waste heat of the Diesel to provide the heat to operate the LiBr Chiller to cool the Shopping Center – which needs cooling most of the year due to the body heat. Similar concept should work for facilities of that size.
Rod – apropos your last point about parking a naval vessel in a remote location to provide power…there is some precedent for this – in the late 1930’s either the USS Lexington or Saratoga docked in Tacoma WA and plugged the engines into the city’s electric grid for a few weeks…which was going through an extended blackout. I’m sure there are more recent examples…
Rod – thanks for the post. I found a complete version of the Army Nuclear Power Program video at youtube.com/watch?v=HPWDMHH4rY4 (23:28) that also mentions the desirability of manufacturing hydrocarbon fuel using the mobile reactors.
SwainS – you’re certainly right. I found videos of the the MH-1A Sturgis, a 10 MWe reactor constructed in a Liberty ship. See Floating Nuclear Power Plant January 31, 1967, Universal Newsreel (0:55) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IsZWveYyRk. According to wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MH-1A) it supplied the Panama Canal Zone with 10 MW of electricity from 1968 to 1975. Also see the documentaries MH-1A STURGIS Construction Report (23:10) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7t_AtWQazM and STURGIS barge (history and decommissioning, 3:45) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YhVFXP4ahCo.
Ships have already been used to supply electricity. IIRC one of the USA’s nuclear aircraft carriers provided shore power in Indonesia following the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. Wikipedia confirms that the carrier Abraham Lincoln was there, but there’s no mention of providing electricity.
Rod – Back in the early 1970’s I was a load dispatcher on board the USS Enterprise. A number of us worked with our Electrical Officer to see if we could supply emergency shore power for a humanitarian effort following a typhoon. Unfortunately our shore power design was engineered to supply the ship’s minimum loads while we were in port and our engineering plant shutdown. The capacity on our shore power breakers was limited to what was needed to start up our ship. Perhaps the newer ships have improved the design and have additional capacity available.
Wow, thanks for stimulating a new thought.
The most recently launched aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford, has an all electric power plant that uses electric motors instead of reduction gears and drive shafts.
Of course, there are technical details that matter and that I do not know, but it would seem immediately apparent that USS Ford has far larger electrical generating capacity. It MIGHT be able to supply a lot more power to shore than the Nimitz class carriers can.
That’s not much use in Puerto Rico’s case since its power plants are not damaged. Their issue is that a large portion of the power lines are down.
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled,” Feynman
Looks like Dr. Joe Romm has been fooled by someone.
If work had continued on these portable reactors in time since the 1960s, think of all the folks who could have been helped by them since then.
“If work had continued on these portable reactors in time since the 1960s, think of all the folks who could have been helped by them since then.”
“Hurricane Irma destroyed almost all of the 16,748 panels in this solar farm September 17, 2017”
Now consider the acreage, or should I say Sq Miles since it would be about 1/3 of Texas, of solar panels to provide “100% Renewable.” the sheer number and size of these farms means that there will be at least a 50/50 probability that they will be wiped out when a tornado crosses the tornado or a hurricane hits any of the typical east coast targets. 30 years experience in commercial power generation, Have worked in five different states with high potential for these types of natural disaster and never have the plants been knocked off line other than the NRC push to shut them down out of precaution. !00% renewables guarantees 100% probability for brownouts/blackouts for extended periods of time, regardless of how overbuilt the renewables and storage systems are.
Even better …
A nuclear powered C-17 dropping off a nuclear reactor.
In Larry Niven’s and Jerry Pournelle’s novel “Footfall” from 1985, a nuclear craft of some type (can’t remember if it was a submarine or ACC) is used to supply substantial electrical power to a shore installation.
Those two usually researched their novels pretty carefully. It would be interesting to know what they based that usage on.
Unfortunately, Pournelle (also of “Byte Magazine” fame) passed away recently. Niven is still around. I’ll ask on the Niven email list. Sometimes he posts to the fan list.
The guys over on the Larry Niven list were very helpful. Apparently there was a plan to use a nuclear submarine to supply electricity to one of the Hawaiian islands after a hurricane in 1982. However, the plans were dropped when portable generators arrived from California. Whether the plan was realistic or not, the article does not say.
See the 7th paragraph.
Off topic but this MOF for scrubbing iodine appears to represent progress:
As always with a MOF one has to ask how many cycles it is good for but that might not matter much in this application.
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