US Plans “Disposable” Nuclear Batteries

A US government-led plan to design small nuclear reactors for deployment in developing countries is continuing despite ongoing fears about security and proliferation risks.

The technology recognized is a self-stabilizing nuclear power source invented by Dr. Otis Peterson. It is a compact device capable of generating high levels of thermal power and is self-regulating to a constant temperature of operation.

The Bush administration has ear-marked $20 million in its 2009 budget toward the US Department of Energy’s efforts to design nuclear power plants in the 250-to-500 megawatt range as part of its Global Nuclear Energy Program (GNEP).

The money marks the first substantial commitment to building the new plants since President Bush announced the program in February 2006. The latest nuclear plants designed for US domestic use have capacities about 1300 megawatts.

GNEP, which now includes 21 member countries, hopes to begin construction of its first reactor in a country currently without nuclear power in 2015, saying the plants will provide a clean, safe source of electricity.
“These will be deployed in a responsible way that is safe and secure and offers the lowest possible risk for proliferation,” says Daniel Ingersoll of GNEP and the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Global energy demand is expected to be 50% higher in 2030 than it is today with 70% of this growth coming from developing countries. “They are going to grab whatever power sources they can,” Ingersoll says. “We think nuclear power offers a better option than fossil fuels and there is no way renewables alone will be enough.”

Countries that build the reactors would have to agree to use nuclear power for civilian purposes only and to forego uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities that can be used to develop nuclear weapons, GNEP says.
Nations with established nuclear capacity would supply fuel and collect spent material for reprocessing to ensure no fuel went missing. “Fourth generation” reactors could be built with a sealed load of fuel that lasts the lifetime of the reactor – like a disposable gadget with a non-replacable battery.

But Elena Sokova of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, US, is sceptical.

“At this point, there are no proliferation-proof reactors,” Sokova says. “If a country develops a reprocessing program, they then have the ability to turn the fuel into the plutonium needed to make a nuclear bomb.”

The “light water” reactor designs proposed require spent fuel to be stored on site at a plant for several years before radiation levels are low enough for shipping, she points out.

Floating reactors

Sokova says the GNEP plans may burden developing countries with challenges and responsibilities they are unprepared for. “If you are start pushing this technology, many countries are not ready for it in terms of highly trained personnel, maintenance, and security against terrorist threats,” she says.

“I think we should proceed with caution and make sure we are making good assessments whether there are good reasons for exporting this technology,” Sokova adds.

Countries worried about relying on others for fuel may want to develop reprocessing capabilities of their own, she says. Banks of fuel that are guaranteed by multiple countries could lessen such concerns, but do not yet exist.

Until the US and other GNEP member nations – including the UK, Canada, China, and Russia – act together, there is a risk other countries will go it alone with less transparent or secure alternatives.

Russia is also interested in alternative reactor designs, starting work last year on the first of seven floating reactors, some of which it hopes to export. Estonia has its own plans for underwater reactors.

Via New Scientist

More about the nuclear power source invented by Dr. Otis Peterson.