When I read this, I question where will all the radioactive material go once the ten years are up?


Small and Nuclear

Say the words “nuclear reactor” and you probably imagine a vast complex with cooling towers, radiation symbols plastered everywhere, and Homer Simpson asleep at the controls. That’s not what John Deal has in mind. Deal, the CEO of year-old New Mexico startup Hyperion, has licensed technology from the labs at Los Alamos that lets him build safe, small reactors that fit on the back of a flatbed truck. The reactors will go for about $25 million a pop, and power up to 100,000 homes for up to 10 years without refueling.

Last week, Hyperion announced its first sale, to a Czech Republic-based infrastructure company. The first six units will be delivered in 2013 and will be installed in Romania. Hyperion also says it is in talks with companies in Panama, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands. With $100 million in venture funding, Deal can afford to take his time getting to the 4,000 orders he hopes to have for his first model.

So should you cross those countries off your list of holiday destinations? Is Deal really selling bomb-making equipment? How safe is this technology? Very safe, Deal says: the fuel, uranium hydride, is only 10% uranium 238, which is the active ingredient in nuclear reactions. (Nuclear weapons contain at least 90% uranium 238.) You’d have a hell of a time trying to turn it into a bomb, he says, and “might as well start with yellowcake.” The licensed fuel is self-cooling: if the reaction ever gets too hot, the offending atoms decay so fast that they turn off the reaction. “We’re finalizing the design so that it’s repeatable, it’s replicatable and it’s got a high degree of quality control behind it,” Deal told the Tech Rockies website in September. “Because, quite honestly, unlike a lot of products out there, we are extremely regulated. And I’m glad. It’s nuclear energy, after all.”

Like an iPod, the mini-reactor is designed not to be opened. But unlike iPods, these units are built to last. Every ten years or so, the idea goes, you ship your reactor back to Hyperion, which refurbishes it, replaces the fuel, and ships it back to you. Hey presto: limitless, non-carbon-spewing energy for your community forever, for $25,000 $2,500 per person. The waste fuel removed every ten years is about the size of a football. Deal doesn’t seem to have any firm plans on what to do with it yet, only that he won’t be dropping it in a nearby lake. Give him a decade, and he might figure it out. Yucca mountain, anyone?

Reactors like this play right into the debate now raging in the environmental movement. With wind and solar still too unreliable for the massive numbers of megawatts our world needs, nuclear is the only way to go if you want to retool our energy generation right now. Is it worth it, to stop global warming in its tracks? Should we decentralize the electric grid, and give each town its own mini-reactor? Do we have to do this now to save the planet, and worry about those footballs of spent fuel later?

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