The Army Nuclear Power Program was established as part of the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954. It was charged with the responsibility of developing reactors suitable for providing electrical power to remote bases and outposts.
Some of the people associated with the Army Nuclear Power Program saw essentially unlimited potential for small, transportable reactors. Most of these visionaries had extensive experience in geographic locations that were far from the electrical power grid that helps industrial societies function.
The visionaries had first hand experience with requisitioning diesel fuel and waiting for deliveries that sometimes did not come. They knew what it was like to spend weeks or even months in areas where hot water was not available, where food was cooked on a tiny fire, and where adding or subtracting clothes was the only means of climate control.
In short, many of the supporters of the modular power reactor program were soldiers and explorers, not suburban bureaucrats or large corporation engineers. Unfortunately, they were not entrepreneurs, either. Though modular reactor supporters could see many uses for their inventions, they were not temperamentally suited to developing plans to bring a useful product to the mass market.
Need for Business Focus
The act of creating a technology is different from that of creating a market. Inventors, engineers and scientists often strive so hard for perfection that they ignore machines that are good enough to suit the desired purpose.
In cases where the market accepts new technology, inventors normally partner with an experienced businessman to turn raw ideas into products at the right price. Unlike inventions that languish on a shelf, products actually affect people’s lives.
Often, inventors and scientists trained in the second half of the 20th century have a distrust of the market and even a dislike of the very concept of profit. However, there is a very important benefit from a business focus. What a good businessman can do is to focus the inventor on the customers’ needs.
Remote Customer Needs
Power system customers in remote areas have selection criteria that are somewhat different from those in other areas.
- Transportation of any product that must enter or leave the area is a significant expense.
- There are too few people for specialization; products must be simple enough to be used by generalists.
- Parts stores are not readily available; durability is more valuable than is usually the case.
- Bulk materials are often available on site.
- Hard currency can be difficult to obtain, but other items of value may be available for trade or barter.
- Back-up power is often not available and people’s lives can be threatened by a loss of power.
With these needs kept firmly in mind, designers of modular nuclear systems can use the unique characteristics of nuclear energy to significant advantage compared with their fossil fuel competitors.
Unlike the solar or wind systems that are often advocated as appropriate for serving the needs of remote areas, nuclear power plants can provide continuous power under the control of the operator, not the vagaries of the weather.
Like those other non-combustion power systems, however, fuel transportation is essentially eliminated. The total weight of fuel used over several decades will be measured in kilograms for a nuclear plant with a power output of several thousand kilowatts.
Small atomic systems can be simple enough to operate unattended for days to weeks at a time.
They have been proven to be reliable in the world’s harshest climates and most difficult operating conditions.
The heaviest portion of any reactor system is the shielding, but that is normally made of simple materials like concrete, water, steel, or lead that can be found on any site. There is little need for shielding in the modules that have to be transported. Until the reactor is actually operated, all the parts, including the fuel, can be handled safely with gloved hands.
The price, of course, of the nuclear system must be competitive with that of alternative power systems. Since large, well-run nuclear plants can produce electricity for approximately 2 cents per kilowatt hour, small plants designed for assembly line manufacture should be able to compete in locations where electricity produced by diesel generators and cost 10, 15, or even 25 cents per kilowatt hour.
Some of these potential customers are in the United States and other nations that are normally considered to be fully developed. At the top of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire, for example, electricity for the weather station is provided by a diesel generator using fuel that must be moved up a very steep grade. This power is obviously far more expensive than that which is available from a coal burning power plant located at the mouth of a coal mine. other possible customers including mining operations, large ranches, resorts, lumber towns, disaster areas, island nations, and rapidly developing countries.