When It Comes to Nuclear Power, Companies Should Think Small

Take for instance the Hyperion Power Module, or HMP. Developed at, and then spun off from, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Hyperion is marketing the diametric opposite of the power companies’ massive and complex facilities. Hyperion’s reactor is a relatively tiny device, about the size of a dinky Smart Car.

Unlike large-scale plants requiring 24/7 monitoring by a small army of engineers and technicians, an HPM contains no moving parts, and is intended to operate for years with no human interaction to speak of. Hyperion reactors are actually intended to be buried underground during their service lives, with no hands-on maintenance at all between refueling cycles, which occur every 7-10 years.

Of course, a single Hyperion unit is hardly the equivalent of a Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, two of which are planned for the Votgle facility. One HPM generates only 25 MWe, while a massive AP1000 churns out an appropriately massive 1250 MWe or so.

But nobody ever said you have to buy just one. If we assume that a single new AP1000 costs about $7 billion  for 1250 MWe (which is not entirely fair as “sticker prices” go, since the $14 billion estimate for the Votgle plant upgrade includes financing costs as well as actual production), that works out to about $5.6 million per MWe.

A single HPM currently lists for $50 million (and I should note here that this is already twice the price Hyperion promised in its initial 2008 press releases). At 25 MWe per unit, we’re looking at $2 million per MWe, a little more than a third of the unit price of power from an AP1000.

Hyperion says its reactors aren’t intended to replace large-scale generation plants, but the engineer in me wonders, why not? HPMs are built on an assembly line, and Hyperion already has over 100 orders for them. Picking up my calculator again, I figure that in order to equal the output of one AP1000 reactor, I’d need to buy 50 HPMs.

At $50 million per unit (how about a bulk discount?), that would cost $2.5 billion. Now, I don’t have that kind of cash laying around myself, but you don’t need to be an accountant to see that $2.5 billion is a lot less than $7 billion. And that doesn’t count the untold millions I’d have to spend on the aforementioned army of maintainers for the AP1000 -- although either way, you’d need a sizable team of regular power plant workers to maintain the actual power turbines.

I’m sure that these simple, back-of-the-envelope numbers don’t reflect anything like every detail of big vs. small in nuclear power, but a Hyperion or similar small-scale reactor would have to get a heck of a lot more expensive to cost as much as big, traditional plants.

There would also be other benefits, in that you wouldn’t have to locate the entire power apparatus out in the middle of nowhere. Hyperion-style reactors can’t melt down, and are designed to be buried in small plots. Why not use that easy portability to distribute your power plants all over the place? Put a couple near your city’s main hospital, a couple more in your industrial zone, with single units scattered around the suburbs and residential cores, and you’ve got a redundant system that’s far less susceptible to, say, blackouts during bad weather, as opposed to running power across hundreds of miles of transmission lines.

So, Georgia Power, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, et al -- why aren’t you thinking small?