If EF Schumacher was right and “Small is beautiful”*, what would he have made of the mini-nuclear power stations being developed in the US, especially now that Bill Gates has teamed up with South Korea to build them.
One suspects, like most environmentalists, not much, even though nuclear power emits no ghastly CO2 – except in the manufacture of the parts.
But these new nuclear-powered generators – and there are more examples than the ones Gates is interested in – are really small. A mini power station is about the same size as a large shipping container.
So confident is Gates that he has signed loan guarantees to Toshiba of $8 billion (R84.5bn). It will work with Terra Power, which has links with privately held venture capital company Intellectual Ventures.
What is planned is a travelling wave reactor, which will produce much smaller amounts of waste than conventional nuclear power stations. It will run for anything up to a century on depleted uranium. That is the stuff ordinary reactors produce, which is difficult but not impossible to store safely.
There is no shortage of this fuel. The US has about 70 000 tons of it.
So, if Gates and Co produce travelling wave reactors in the next decade (their target) it means a supply of electricity for the world that could last almost forever.
There will be a bonus in that none of the waste products can be used to build bombs.
Mini nuclear power stations are highly unlikely to get the nod from the green lobby, even if they tick a number of boxes:
- They are modular, so you can add another when electricity demand rises;
- They can be in their own sealed vaults buried on site;
- They are far cheaper than the large ones we seem determined to build;
- They can be delivered by road or rail direct from the factory and can be taken away equally easily for servicing;
- They can operate far from any power grid or attach to an existing set of pylons, wires and transformers;
- They do not emit CO2 or smoke;
- They can provide cheap heating in cold climates;
- They do not need water for cooling;
- They do not burn fossil fuels;
- No tsunami or earthquake can damage them;
- They cannot be sabotaged; and
- They use fuel that cannot be used in bombs.
Given the prevailing public hysteria surrounding any nuclear waste, many otherwise rational beings will be outraged if mini nuclear power stations ever reach the market. But they might anyway and quite soon, too.
So, while the comfortable Western middle classes are burning rush candles and feeling virtuous about their concern for the planet, the masses in the developing world will probably be using these handy mini power stations.
They will produce cheaper electricity than the diesel-burning generators they mostly use today.
Mini power stations are aimed not only at the developing world but also at ecologically conscious people who live off grid.
Industries that have grown tired of their dependence on irregular electricity suppliers such as Eskom, and those working in remote areas, such as oil and gas companies, are possible buyers too.
The potential is large. Some estimate the number of people without electricity at 1.4 billion.
Mini nuclear power stations are modular. Put 12 together and they could provide electricity for 500 000 homes. (And those are US homes, not noted for their frugality when it comes to electricity usage.)
Mini nuclear power stations are the wave of the future. They are at the cutting edge of nuclear design. Now that even the International Panel on Climate Change is talking of living with a warming planet rather than trying to banish the modern world, who knows – maybe the green lobby will embrace them.
Even if it does not, mini-nukes prove one thing – the infinite nature of human inventiveness.
*Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by EF Schumacher.