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Saturday, September 04, 2004

The 200-megawatt Energizer Bunny(TM) of the future?

Some years ago I used to hang around a tobacconist shop owned by Ye Olde Phart. One of the semi-regular customers was a guy whose ostensible income (so he claimed) was stock promotion (this was in the bad old days when the Vancouver Stock Exhange, considered by many to be one slight step above "bucket shop" status, was still running). He was a slick talker, always dressed in sharp suits...the whole schmear.

One fine day, near closing time, Ye Phart and I were sitting discussing the general state of the universe when the guy (let's call him Phil) came in. I don't think it was much more than 30 seconds before Phil was literally pushing his latest promotion attempt under Ye Phart's nose. As Phil kept up a running spiel about what a great opportunity he was giving us (and he did actually use the phrase "getting in on the ground floor") Ye Phart read the document (it was all of about six pages) and then silently handed it to me.

What Phil was actually flogging was an investment prospectus for a company that was "about to be listed on the Alberta Stock Exchange". That was the first warning that rang bells in my mind (at that time the ASE was considered to be the place for those not legitimate enough to work the VSE).

Essentially the proposed company was intended to build and sell a fire- and reaction-suppression system for nuclear reactors. The mechanism was ostensibly simple: A pressurised container containing CO2 gas would be attached to the side of the reaction chamber and connected through a plate-glass diaphragm to the chamber interior. In the event of a fire or runaway reaction the increased heat would melt the diaphragm, allowing the CO2 to flood in, thereby putting out the fire and/or suppressing the reaction. The document specifically mentioned that the CO2 would absorb the excess neutrons produced by (and feeding) the runaway reaction, thus stopping the reaction and reducing the radiation hazard.

It was, to say the least, a masterpiece of psuedo-scientific bafflegab. I told Phil that the thing was a flat-out fraud (and explained exactly why it was), designed to suck money out of scientific illiterates, little old ladies seeking retirement investments, and the just-plain-greedy. I'm afraid I twisted the knife a little by pointing out that the word "diaphragm" had been spelled six different ways in the document.

We didn't see Phil in the store for quite some time (and when he did eventually show up again, he didn't brag about his promotions - at least not while Ye Phart or I were around).

What brought this reminiscense to mind was an article I found in New Scientist:
US plans portable nuclear power plants
14:15 03 September 04

A nuclear reactor that can meet the energy needs of developing countries without the risk that they will use the by-products to make weapons is being developed by the US Department of Energy.

The aim is to create a sealed reactor that can be delivered to a site, left to generate power for up to 30 years, and retrieved when its fuel is spent. The developers claim that no one would be able to remove the fissile material from the reactor because its core would be inside a tamper-proof cask protected by a thicket of alarms.
A version producing 100 megawatts would be 15 metres tall, three metres in diameter and weigh 500 tonnes. A 10-megawatt version is likely to weigh less than 200 tonnes.

The US will deliver the sealed unit by ship and truck and install it. When the fuel runs out it will collect the old reactor for recycling or disposal. The DoE hopes to have a prototype by 2015.
Leaving aside the field day the anti-nuclear crowd will have with this one, I can't help but think the US is running a little behind on this concept, if this other article from New Scientist is any indication:
Mini nuclear reactor could power apartment blocks
19:00 22 August 01

A nuclear reactor designed to generate power in the basement of an apartment block is being developed in Japan. In the past few months government-backed researchers have been testing a fail-safe mechanism for the reactor, which will close down automatically if it overheats.

The Rapid-L reactor was conceived as a powerhouse for colonies on the Moon. But at six metres high and only two metres wide this 200-kilowatt reactor could relatively easily fit into the basement of an office building or apartment block, where it would have to be housed in a solid containment building.
If I had the bucks, given the three year lead that they seem to have, I'd consider putting it on the Japanese...

Thanks to Tristero (who's finally back from holidays) for the lead.