I exchanged email with Hyperion Power Generation (the maker of the new power generator. They indicate that the Sante Fe reporter made a mistake. The output is about 25-17 MW ELECTRIC [This statement was also consistent with the patent which talked about tens of MW in electricity.] They also said that the containment vessel will be dense enough that no radiation will escape even if it is not buried in the ground. So in addition to the regular electric generation there would be probably double that amount of thermal power. Which could be partially converted to electricity using thermoelectronics. 30-66% with better technology like powerchips
UPDATE: The blunting and delay in peak oil would operate in the following way. This technology make it three times cheaper and faster (less infrastructure and piping) to tap 1.1 trillion barrels of oil that is in the form of oil shale in the USA. Increasing US oil reserves by 30-40 times and perhaps eliminating the need for oil imports in 10-15 years. Helping to more economically unlock global oilsands and oil shale. Plus it would at the same time allow up a 100 year transition to a lot more nuclear power and renewables. It would be possible for a shorter transition with less air pollution and fossil fuel use as well by eliminating coal. It would provide for 20-50 times more efficient use of Uranium and allow for the use of Thorium.
The nuclear device uses uranium hydride crystals and hydrogen isotopes to create an internal, self-regulating balance.
Nuclear battery schematic
Another schematic of the self contained uranium hydride reactor
The initial claimed ($1400/kw) prices look similar to the cost of latest generation 3.5 of large scale conventional nuclear reactors. I believe Thorium reactors would be better in terms of fuel efficiency (lack of waste), however, the nuclear battery could get up to 50% fuel burnup compared to 1-2% for conventional reactors which is very good. Thorium hydrides could also be used. A Thorium molten salt reactor could achieve nearly 100% burnup of the fuel.
I have looked at the patent for the Hyperion reactor. It is different from regular nuclear reactors but it is not like the radioisotope thermal generators.
The present invention is based on and takes advantage of the physical properties of a fissile metal hydride, such as uranium hydride, which serves as a combination fuel and moderator. The invention is self-stabilizing and requires no moving mechanical components to control nuclear criticality. In contrast with customary designs, the control of the nuclear activity is achieved through the temperature driven mobility of the hydrogen isotope contained in the hydride. If the core temperature increases above a set point, the hydrogen isotope dissociates from the hydride and escapes out of the core, the moderation drops and the power production decreases. If the temperature drops, the hydrogen isotope is again associated by the fissile metal hydride and the process is reversed.
They have many good features Hyperion also offers a 70% reduction in operating costs (based on costs for field-generation of steam in oil-shale recovery operations), from $11 per million BTU for natural gas to $3 per million BTU for Hyperion. The possibility of mass production, operation and standardization of design, allows for significant savings.
Because of the inherent properties of uranium hydride, Hyperion is "cleaner," producing only a tiny fraction of the waste produced by other types of reactors. Water is not used in the process, so there is no danger of pollution to local water bodies.
One of the greatest energy conundrums is accessing the estimated 500+ billion barrels of recoverable oil in U.S. oil shale fields. Hyperion would change the current almost self-defeating cost-production ratio caused by the use of natural gas to power steam engine extraction and refinery machinery. Over five years, a single Hyperion reactor can save $2 billion in operating costs in a heavy oil field.
I have examined the use of conventional nuclear reactors to assist with extracting oil from the oilsands.
I also looked at the impact in regards to water usage for conventional reactors. These nuclear batteries would not use water.
I believe that the Hyperion reactors would be 25-50% of the cost for the energy sources compared to the CANDU reactor approach. The Hyperion site claims to be 30% of the cost of natural gas approaches to insitu recovery of oil shale. (70 Hyperion reactors to equal the nearly 2000 MW of thermal energy from the CANDU) The Hyperion reactor would have the advantages of not need to use water and the numerous small reactors could be used in a more flexible way to directly heat the oilsands or shale. This flexibility and direct heating would further reduce the costs of oil extraction with the need for less additional infrastructure (no pipes for the steam or to bring in water etc...)
So there are definitely good and large energy niches for the Hyperion reactor. Smaller reactors with similar per KW costs as larger reactors allow for more distributed power and less losses in transmission.
If they can hit the $40 million per 27 MW unit, that would be very good. Ultimately I believe the Thorium molten salt reactor is better, but both technologies are useful. The molten salt reactor would also be made smaller, safer, cleaner and cheaper and more fuel efficient.
I hope the Hyperion proceeds, it is definitely a lot better than coal and oil and natural gas. 4000 of them would double the energy in the USA from nuclear power. At $100-160 billion, (lower end cost based on lower prices from mass production efficiencies.) they would be worth it and would be great for helping the US blunt peak oil by better tapping oil shale and Canada to tap the oil sands.
Even if one wanted to use uranium hydride for a bomb it would only be as powerful as the largest chemical bombs. 200tons of TNT equivalent
Here is the patent for the Hyperion nuclear (uranium hydride) battery.
Uranium hydride has been demonstrated as a reactor fuel (G. A. Linenberger, et al., "Enriched-Uranium Hydride Critical Assemblies", Nucl. Sci. & Eng. 7, 44-57 (1960)), it has heretofore been unknown to exploit the volatility of the hydrogen as a control mechanism for the fission activity.
The invention is preferably limited in operation to the temperature range from approximately 350.degree. C. to 800.degree. C. for UH.sub.3 based fuel, where the dissociation pressure, shown in FIG. 5, of the hydride is in the range that permits efficient gas transport. The data comes from "The H-U System," Bulletin of Alloy Phase Diagrams, 1, No. 2 (1980), pp. 99-106. This temperature range is fortuitous because it includes the near optimum temperature for operation of steam boilers, i.e., the mid-500.degree. C. range. Samuel Glasstone, Principles of Nuclear Reactor Engineering, D. Van Nostrand Co. (1955), .sctn.1.24.
The "C" curve for 4.9% enriched uranium is the most appropriate for estimating the critical mass for this device. The line from 15 kg past 30 kg has been extrapolated from the published data and the critical mass for the hydride power source can be estimated from this extrapolation to be approximately 30 kg of U.sup.235 for the H to U.sup.235 ratio of 61, which is characteristic of UH.sub.3 enriched to 4.9%. This value is approximately double the critical mass measured for 93% enriched uranium hydride: G. A. Linenberger, et al., "Enriched-Uranium Hydride Critical Assemblies," Nuclear Science and Engineering: 7, 44-57 (1960).
Thorium hydride may ultimately be even more attractive than uranium hydride because separating the fissile components from the fertile components would be a chemical separation instead of an isotopic separation. Furthermore, the fissile product of thorium absorption of a neutron is U.sup.233, a very attractive fissile fuel for reactors.
Thorium also permits higher temperature operation of the reactor because of its high melting temperature, 1755.degree. C. The higher temperature operation offers the possibility of higher efficiency conversion of the thermal power generated by the reactor to electrical power. The high melting temperature would complicate the zone refining processing of the spent fuel, however, alloys of thorium and uranium would reduce the melting temperature. For a wide range of compositions on the uranium rich side of the phase diagram the melting point of the alloy is a fixed value of 1375.degree. C. On the thorium rich side of the phase diagram, the melting temperature is approximately linear with thorium content from the 1375 to the 1755.degree. C. point for compositions from 50 to 100% thorium.
Fissile fuel burnup of at least 50% should be achievable with adequate design.
MIT has looked at the many small nuclear reactor concepts.
UPDATE: I have written an article on combining this reactor technology with Vasimr plasma engines to enable fast (39 day) trips to Mars.