Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Don't take that train

I found a copy of this week's Time Magazine in the EUROSTAR train between London and Brussels this morning, and read their two-page story "Nuclear Batteries: Tiny reactors have energized the nuclear industry. Can they help save the planet?"

The story is about a US firm, Hyperion described as "a spin-off of the Los Alamos National Laboratory", which says they'll soon be ready to build 25 megawatt atomic reactors "about the size of a refrigerator [...] designed to power subdivisions or towns with fewer than 20,000 homes, as well as military bases, mining operations, desalination plants and even commercial ships, including cruise liners."  The battery is "not quite compact enough for cars", but the story suggests that it's part of the business plan: "Think of us as the iPhone of nuclear reactors; there are many exciting applications", says Hyperion's CEO John Deal.

Time Magazine also says that "the nuclear battery is so small, it can be transported on the back of a truck." However the use of the present tense appears to be abusive, because the product only exists on paper. Time Magazine also says that because the product is unlikely to meet US legislation requirements, Hyperion is seeking to build and market it abroad, suggesting that what is envisaged is another case of hazardous technology tested on countries with weaker regulatory systems, less accountability mechanisms, and/or less transparency. In many ways, Hyperion's project is the same kind of things post-soviet nuclear scientists have got us used to, like the floating nuclear reactors currently under construction in Russian shipyards. When the floating nuclear reactors started to be discussed and promoted in Russia, at the turn of the century, no-one (or very few people) took it seriously. Most people thought that it was likely that it was the product of the fertile imagination of a consortium of research institutes who had found nothing better to attract public subsidies and rip off Russian taxpayers with plans that would never see the light. But this was ignoring that when public and/or private funds are poured into a project, vested interests are created and the longer it takes for civil society to wake up and ask questions, the more it becomes difficult to stop -- regardless of whether the project is useless, uneconomic, or frankly dangerous for the environment or human health.

As I was in a train this morning, I could not help making a parallel with a Russian nuclear powered train project I read about last week. The Vice-president of Russian Railways (RZhD), Valentin Gapanovich has announced that they will present at the end of this year the layout of a train consisting of eleven wagons powered by a small fast breeder reactor.

Until now, the only mobile nuclear reactors that have been in operation have been on board nuclear submarines, nuclear aircraft carriers, plus a handful of former Soviet nuclear ice-breakers. I don't like them, but at least these have been manned and control by disciplined military (and armed) personnel. In contrast, the thought of countries, including private enterprises, competing to sell as many civilian mobile applications as they can as they can (on wheels, at sea and -- who knows? -- maybe even in the air) is very scary.

Don't take that train.