One of the arrows often slung against nuclear fission power is that the technology is only useful in extra large sizes. For people of the small is beautiful mentality, that thought provides a strong negative connotation and a reason for battling against the forces of wealth and power represented by centralized power stations. (Of course, there are also engineering types that get excited by the idea of building the biggest, most productive power stations, but that view of the world seems to be limited to either a minority or simply a less vocal group.)
With a certain amount of amusement, I experienced an interesting juxtaposition of articles during my morning reading. The first article, titled Marshall set to test moon power supply described a project that is aiming at building a nuclear reactor that is about the size of a propane tank for a backyard grille. That reactor will be cooled with a sodium-potassium (NaK) mixture. The hot NaK will be pumped to a Stirling engine and then back to the reactor. The project team will be testing the heat engine part of the system using a simulated, probably electrical heat source. The total budget for the development project is just under $10 million per year.
The system Marshall is testing is designed to generate 40 kilowatts of electricity – enough to power about eight standard houses. It could be easily expanded as the moon base grows.
“We’re at the very low end of what can be done with reactors,” said Houts, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on space reactors. “The technology has tremendous potential for space exploration.”
The very next link I clicked led me to a Greenpeace anti-nuclear blog with a post describing how nuclear power plants are incredibly large and how that size prevents the industry from scaling up fast enough. I think you might enjoy the quote:
And that’s another of the major problems with nuclear power and why a so-called nuclear ‘renaissance’ will be impossible to achieve: the nuclear industry has no economies of scale. You cannot increase production of nuclear power stations anywhere near quickly enough to fulfil the promises made by the industry and save us from the worst of global climate change.
Wind turbines and solar energy couldn’t be more different. You can build a working wind turbine in two weeks. The renewable energy industry is a hugely scaleable one. Smaller and more readily available components make it far, far easier to expand production. Want a hundred kilometres of solar cells produced in a day? Mass-produced printable solar cells are already being trialled. The renewable energy technologies are ever improving.
This particular charge against nuclear power is easy to blunt if we keep reminding people that the size of any particular nuclear power system is a design choice, not a technical requirement. Nuclear fission reactors can be almost as big or as small as desired. They can be smaller than most wind turbines and most definitely smaller than any wind farm, especially the ones that can claim to sell power for less than 10 cents per kilowatt hour.