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Nuclear power: Obama team touts mini-nukes to fight global warming

Miniature, mass-produced nuclear power plants, along with other alternative energy sources, can help the US address global warming, says Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Critics see that plan as raising the risk of proliferation of nuclear materials.

By Staff writer / March 30, 2010

Two cooling towers at Vogtle nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Georgia, are shown in this February 17 file photo.

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To fight global warming, Energy Secretary Steven Chu is calling for the US to pursue solar, wind, clean coal, and nuclear power plants – including relatively tiny "bite-sized" nuclear reactors that critics argue are a proliferation risk.

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Rather than building expensive huge reactors, smaller utilities might find a better option in small, more affordable mass-produced nuclear reactors, Dr. Chu said Monday in a speech at Georgetown University in Washington, ClimateWire reported. The idea is to fill gaps in carbon-free power generation until nonnuclear renewable energy is widely available.

Dr. Chu had previously made a pitch for "small modular reactors" in an opinion piece published last week in The Wall Street Journal. He envisions SMRs that would be less than one-third the size of existing plants.

IN PICTURES: Nuclear power around the world

With compact designs, SMR reactors "could be made in factories and transported to sites by truck or rail. SMRs would be ready to 'plug and play' upon arrival," he wrote.

In addition to dispensing federal loan guarantees for new nuclear plants, President Obama has requested $39 million for a new program targeting small modular reactors. Although the Department of Energy has long been a booster for advanced reactor technologies, this is the "first time funding has been requested to help get SMR designs licensed for widespread commercial use," Chu wrote.

"If commercially successful, SMRs would significantly expand the options for nuclear power and its applications," Chu wrote. "Their small size makes them suitable to small electric grids so they are a good option for locations that cannot accommodate large-scale plants. The modular construction process would make them more affordable by reducing capital costs and construction times."

A small modular reactor, by Chu's definition, would be 300 megawatts or less – perhaps much less. Small "pocket nukes" for power in remote locations are not a new idea, but they remain controversial. Proponents say the modular designs would be foolproof. But nuclear nonproliferation experts say any reactor can be manipulated to make bomb fuel.

Pocket nukes are "just another bombmaking threat," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. If pursued by the US, he says, such a program "would open up the door for France and Russia to also start selling these small reactors to nations around the world."

Still, the idea of building a "nuclear battery" to provide heat and power for communities in remote locations has its allure and was embraced by the DOE during the Bush administration. Galena, Alaska, population 700, made waves in 2008 by signing up for a 10-megawatt unit from Toshiba – though it would not be installed before 2012 or until licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. A small reactor once provided power for researchers in Antarctica in 1962, but was decommissioned and cleaned up just a decade later.

A handful of companies are promoting pocket nukes. One startup company, Hyperion Power, touts a "hot-tub"-size 25-megawatt reactor for about $25 million that could be transported to a site, buried underground, and used to power 20,000 homes. Others worry that anything that can be buried can be dug up and misused.

"If sabotaged, even a 20-megawatt reactor could release a substantial amount of radiation," says Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Do we really want a nuclear reactor on every island in the Indonesian archipelago?"

IN PICTURES: Nuclear power around the world

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