Portable power

When you are far from the electricity grid and you need electric power what do you do? Typically, you use a generator. Those usually run on diesel, or gasoline, or even bottled gas like propane. These days you can get portable solar arrays that can be used in remote applications, but these depend not only on the weather but on good energy storage, by which I mean batteries. Solar and wind power both have the dreaded “intermittency” issue, that is, they can’t guarantee the lights will be on 24/7. This is why battery research is so big right now. With proper storage technology renewables can indeed replace fossil fuels in many applications. A good example is the electric car—the batteries are now robust enough that an EV can fulfill most driving needs.

The electric grid here in the West depends on big power plants. They burn natural gas, mostly, some still burn coal, and a bunch are hydroelectric. The big plants provide grid stability and make it possible for spikes in demand to be met at any time. This is good news for folks in cities and living and working in places that are close to transmission lines.

But imagine a remote mine. Or a community above the Arctic Circle. In the first case the energy needs might be quite large. In the second case the winter sun might not be sufficient for solar generation. Fossil fuels are noisy, messy, smelly, polluting, not all that efficient, and costly to transport. What might work instead?

How about a small nuclear reactor? Not the kind you might find in a generating station. Those things are huge and meant to stay in one place. What if the reactor could fit in a shipping container? Or better yet, the back of a pickup truck?

It sounds like sci-fi, but it is not. There is genuine interest in this idea, not to mention several companies and countries developing applications. Up in Oregon we have NuScale, which makes SMRs (small modular reactors) that can be deployed singly or in clusters depending on the power needs. The reactor designs are new, but the technology is not. My father-in-law spent a year at Oak Ridge National Lab in the 1950s learning how to build nuclear power plants. These things are older than I am!

Nuclear power is increasingly falling out of favor with the general public, mostly due to the infamous events at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The result, though, is not that nuclear power will fade away, but will instead become more dispersed.

Batteries used to be big, ugly things filled with nasty chemicals that were dangerous to work around. Later they got miniaturized and now we drive around with them in our automobiles. Tiny ones power our phones which we carry in our pockets. Even tinier ones power things inside of us like pacemakers. You can get wall-mounted picnic cooler-sized batteries from an outfit like Tesla that you stick in your garage, charge with PV panels, and keep as a backup for your home needs. Batteries are just another piece of furniture!

Motors used to be big, ugly things filled with nasty chemicals that were dangerous to work around. Now we’ve got them in everything from scooters to semi-trucks. We bring our little power plants with us wherever we go, spewing our pollution along the way.

Computers used to be room-sized behemoths, now they are pocket-sized. Any technology of sufficient importance will eventually be made portable. The same will be true of nukes.

When I was a student at Berkeley in the 1970s there was a small nuclear reactor in one of the engineering buildings on campus. Get this—professors and their students used it for experiments! Nobody really noticed this particular nuke, or if they did, they didn’t care. The generating station in Rancho Seco (Sacramento County) got all the attention, and it was eventually shut down in the 1980s. The small nuke on campus met its end as well, but from a lack of funding and not public opposition.

With fossil fuels squarely in the cross-hairs due to the pollution and the climate impacts, people are looking at alternative sources of energy. One of those is nuclear. The likelihood that big nuke plants get built again might be pretty low, but you can bet the small, portable reactor will see new life. The US Navy, for example, powers its entire submarine and aircraft carrier fleets with nuclear energy. Shipboard power plants are by definition portable!

Like all energy sources, nuclear power has some big drawbacks. Cost for one. What to do about the spent nuclear materials (I refuse to call them “waste”) for another. But demand for electricity is only going to increase. It will likely require all of our technology to meet our future needs. Nukes could play an important part. We might not ever have the gigantic power plants of yore built again, but we could have briefcase-sized nukes scattered about, silently churning away, mostly in secret or at least under-the-radar.

Would that be better?

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