There have been a lot of reasons bruited for the interest in small reactors; two are that they are less expensive than a full scale reactor while providing the same clean air benefits and most of the proposed designs can be built in a factory and sent fully constructed to a site. Oh, and a third reason: the site can serve a locality that would not necessarily benefit from a full-size reactor or even might want to use them off the main electricity grid (think army bases). So all that favors continued interest.
But business is business and small reactor makers have to make deals and show they are serious and make sure we know about it.
Power generation company Babcock & Wilcox Co. said Tuesday it plans to open a testing facility for its new class of mini nuclear reactors at the new Center for Advanced Engineering and Research Center in Bedford County.“Mini nuclear reactors” sound like flux capacitors to us – they’re small, yes, but not pee-wee.
Bedford County is in Virginia and the testing facility will bring in some needed jobs. I found this detail a bit amusing:
The Virginia Tobacco Commission, which promotes economic growth and development in tobacco-dependent communities, approved a $2.4 million grant for the project.Well, better a grant for this purpose than for tobacco, yes? In fact, the description tells the tale. The commission moves former tobacco-growing counties to new areas of interest – including small reactor testing. A net good, I’d say.
You can read more about mPower here.
Well, it will produce energy, but we won't use this energy and make electricity out of it. The energy that we produce will be released into the atmosphere. We won't be using this energy in any commercial way. It's supposed to produce 10 times as much energy as we put into the plasma. That would be about 500 megawatts. That's quite a bit. About enough to feed a medium-sized city.Indeed. Speaking is Norbert Holtkamp, ITER’s principal deputy director general, and what he’s talking about is thermonuclear energy and the application of plasma physics to electricity-generating nuclear fusion plants.
Whenever I think nuclear fusion, I think hobby, because it’s something you can do at home – if you assemble the pieces and don’t mind watching your electricity meter spin like a top when you flip the switch on your reactor. It takes a lot of energy to generate a little energy through fusion. Well, it does in your tabletop reactor, anyway.
But the ITER project takes a different approach – I think. Read this description by Holtkamp on how it works:
The ITER is a tokamak, and a tokamak is a magnetic confinement device. What that means is big magnetic coils with very strong magnetic fields enclosing plasma. Through the plasma in the tokamak, one has to drive a very high current to heat up the plasma to 150 million degrees Celsius, which is about ten times the temperature of the sun's core. At this temperature the nuclei start to fuse. That's why it's called a fusion reactor. In the fusion process, energy is released (which we can use) later on to produce electricity.It’s not the “very high current” that arouses curiosity – that’s well understood in the fusion community – it’s stabilizing the plasma once you get there.
Holtkamp doesn’t directly answer that question.
Frankly, I fully expected this statement:
ITER is the first fusion reactor that will produce much more energy than it uses.to be directly followed with this one:
That still is a step that needs to be proven and there are scientific and technical questions that need to be answered and will be answered through the construction and operation of ITER.Fusion does not need to be proven only proven practical. Thus has it always been.
Funning aside, ITER is fascinating and full of all kinds of potential – regardless of whether that step is ever proven – and if proven and made practical, would be a tremendous breakthrough in energy generation. I must confess a weakness for big dreams that seem all kinds of impractical – they always seem the firmest basis for human progress.
See here for more – a lot to explore at the ITER site.
A cutaway view of the ITER tokamak. See here for a better cutaway and a description of parts of the tokamak.