Toshiba's new reactor for small villages
JOEL GAY, Anchorage Daily News, reports:
A Japanese corporation wants to thrust the Interior community of Galena into international limelight by donating a new, unconventional electricity-generating plant that would light and heat the Yukon River village pollution-free for 30 years.
There's a catch, of course. It's a nuclear reactor.
Not a huge, Three Mile Island-type power plant but a new generation of small nuclear reactor about the size of a big spruce tree. Designers say the technology is safe, simple and cheap enough to replace diesel-fired generators as the primary energy source for villages across rural Alaska.
Such a plant would also have enough excess power to create hydrogen gas, proponents say. They envision Galena as a demonstration center for the highly vaunted hydrogen economy, in which cars and trucks could run on the clean-burning gas.
Department of Energy officials say the new technology is promising but enormous hurdles remain. A reactor of this type and size has never been built anywhere in the world, much less tested and licensed for use in the United States. The cost of building a prototype that meets stringent U.S. safety standards could kill it, said a nuclear engineer at the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Public skepticism is another potential barrier. The proposed plant would be the first commercial use of nuclear power in Alaska, but fears about potential accidents and about disposal of nuclear waste have chilled the industry in the Lower 48. No new commercial plants have been licensed since the late 1980s.
Supporters, including U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, acknowledge it will be difficult to persuade Alaskans to embrace nuclear power in Galena or elsewhere. But even environmental groups say the incentive to replace expensive diesel fuel as the source of electricity in rural Alaska is reason to continue investigating the small reactor technology.
"The word 'nuclear' makes me nervous," said Randy Virgin of the Alaska Center for the Environment. "But we've long seen the problems with diesel, and I'm pretty excited about the prospect of a clean source of energy," he said. "It sounds very promising, but I'd approach it with extreme skepticism."
The Galena design is part of a new generation of small nuclear reactors that can be built in a factory and transported by barge, truck or helicopter. A federal study, funded at Stevens' request and published in May 2001, found they are inherently safe and easy to operate, resistant to sabotage or theft, cost effective and transportable.
Toshiba Corp., the Japanese electronics giant, calls its reactor the 4S system: super-safe, small and simple.
Washington, D.C., attorney Doug Rosinski, who represents Toshiba, calls the reactor a "nuclear battery," although it has nothing in common with the typical AA cell. The power comes from a core of non-weapons-grade uranium about 30 inches in diameter and 6 feet tall. It would put out a steady stream of 932-degree heat for three decades but can be removed and replaced like a flashlight battery when the power is depleted, he said.
The reactor core would be constructed and sealed at a factory, then shipped to the site. There it is connected with the other, nonnuclear parts of the power plant to form a steel tube about 70 feet long with the nuclear core welded into the bottom like the eraser in a pencil, Rosinski said. The assembly is then lowered into a concrete housing buried in the ground, making it as immune to attack or theft as a missile in its silo.
The reactor has almost no moving parts and doesn't need an operator. The nuclear reaction is controlled by a reflector that slowly slides over the uranium core and keeps the nuclear fission "critical." If the reflector stops moving, the reactor loses power. If the shield moves too fast, the core "burns" more quickly, yielding the same amount of power but reducing the reactor's life, Rosinski said.
Because of its design and small size, the Toshiba reactor can't overheat or melt down, he said, unlike what happened in the 1986 accident at Chernobyl that killed 30 people and spewed radiation across northern Europe.
The nuclear reaction heats liquid sodium in the upper portion of the reactor assembly. It circulates by convection, eliminating pumps and valves that need maintenance and can cause problems, Rosinski said. The liquid is contained in a separate chamber so it isn't radioactive. Because the reactor assembly is enclosed in a thick steel tube, it will withstand earthquakes and floods, Rosinski said.
"What comes out (of the ground) are two pipes with steam that power a turbine," he said. "You wouldn't even know it's there," except for the steam generator building above it.
The Toshiba design looks safe on paper, according to Hermann Grunder, director of Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, a federal research facility that has investigated the new generation of reactors. Liquid sodium eliminates corrosion, which is a primary cause of nuclear power plant accidents, Grunder wrote to the Daily News in an e-mail.
"The probability of radioactive material leakage for this system would be extremely low," he wrote.
Toshiba's design is based largely on existing reactor technology and appears technically feasible, Grunder wrote. "The main roadblock, if any, would be the cost."
Rosinski agreed. The biggest hurdle is winning approval by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he said, which will require Toshiba to finish its design, then build a prototype. He estimated the work would cost $600 million or more and take six to eight years. The Galena plant could be online by 2010, he said. Once the first one is complete, Toshiba believes it can build additional plants for about $20 million each, he said.
Galena was selected as the demonstration site largely for economic reasons, Rosinski said. Toshiba hopes to market its reactors where electricity is expensive and power lines don't exist, he said, such as rural Alaska. Gasoline in Galena costs $3.35 a gallon, and diesel-generated electricity is roughly twice as expensive as in Anchorage, even with the state power cost equalization subsidy.
Galena was also selected because of its environmental attitude, Rosinski said. The community has a history of environmental awareness, ranging from a plastic bag ban to water quality protection on the Yukon River. With the Toshiba reactor in place, the village could eliminate the hazards of transporting, storing and burning the nearly 700,000 gallons of diesel it uses annually to generate electricity.
But another reason for selecting a small Alaska village is political, Rosinski said. Toshiba will need financial aid from the U.S. and Japanese governments to develop the 4S technology.
"We know we can build 100 of them, but the one-time costs to meet all the licensing is beyond any one company or country," he said.
In addition, the federal Energy Department has focused past research almost entirely on large-scale nuclear power.
"We have to make the policy arguments to get our piece of the funding" for small-reactor study, Rosinski said. "That's where the strength of the Alaska delegation is important."
Stevens said recently he was glad to hear Toshiba's proposal but figured the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will determine whether it's technically feasible for rural Alaska. But even federal licensing may not be enough for Galena to go nuclear, he said.
"The real problem ... is public acceptance," Stevens said.
He noted that the Air Force had to remove 10 small generators powered by a radioactive source in the northeastern Interior in 2001 after the nearest villagers learned about the material and complained.
Between local concerns and opposition from environmental groups, "I don't know what we're supposed to do" to replace diesel fuel in rural Alaska, Stevens said, "unless we get the possibility to deploy small-scale nuclear reactors."
Nuclear watchdog and environmental groups said they know little about Toshiba's small reactor. But while several said the technology sounds promising, they note that the nuclear power industry has a history of making bold claims it couldn't back up.
"Back in the 1950s, they said (nuclear power) would be too cheap to meter," said Norm Buske, director of the Seattle-based organization The RadioActive Campaign. Toshiba's claim that its reactor will run trouble-free for 30 years sounds good, he said, but projections for unproven technology are just guesses.
"And what if something goes wrong?" Buske asked. Nuclear power plants don't usually have small accidents. "If it goes bad, it tends to go really, really bad," he said. "One hopes nothing will go wrong, but one wants to ... make sure it's all insured."
Galena is an open-minded village and would love to shake its diesel habit, but it will need convincing before it embraces nuclear power, said Peter Captain Sr., chief of Louden Tribal Council.
"Like anything new, it's going to have to be studied pretty closely before we agree to bring it in," Captain said. "We're not going let them bring it in and suffer the consequences afterward."
Though Toshiba says it will engineer the reactor to withstand earthquakes, forest fires and floods, Captain is reserving judgment.
"Sure they say it's impossible to spill (radioactive material) for it to get out. But nothing in this world is impossible," he said.
On the other hand, the technology holds promise, he said.
"If it works and it works to perfection, great; it might be a starting point for lowering the high cost of living all over the place," Captain said.
Galena is moving carefully, city manager Marvin Yoder said. The town had started a long-range look at alternatives to diesel when the Toshiba proposal hit town.
"This opened our eyes to brand-new possibility," he said, all of which will be investigated.
If nuclear power doesn't seem right for the village, Galena won't balk at turning down a $20 million gift, he said. But if residents like the idea and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gives its blessing, the Yukon River village won't hesitate to go nuclear, Yoder said.
"Somebody has to test that first one," he said.
Daily News reporter Joel Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 257-4310.
(Published: October 21, 2003)