Saturday, November 21, 2009

Not an Encouraging Development

A while back, I wrote about an interesting little reactor to be marketed by a company that calls itself Hyperion. I had a number of questions, some of which were answered, many not. I also had a reservation about Hyperion's approach to its publicity.
It is that “baffle ‘em with bullshit” approach that I sense in those Hyperion claims. If Hyperion's attitude is the sameold sameold of the nuclear industry, this enterprise will fail too. That would be too bad, because there appear to be many positives for little reactors like this one.
Well, Hyperion is still likening its reactor to a battery, which is inaccurate even if catchy. At some point, someone will use this against them as being misleading. I don't think they intend to mislead, but a reactor, as I said, is not a battery.

But even worse, Hyperion has now changed the fuel and perhaps the coolant in the reactor. This is relatively easy to do now, since the reactor is still only plans on paper. There will have to be a fair bit of calculating to complete a redesign, though.

Here's another warning signal:
Although no fuel has been tested or manufactured for the project, Deal said that fuel burns would begin before the end of the year. He said that Los Alamos National Laboratory, from whom Hyperion has licenced some of the technology, has researched uranium nitride. It said that the Russian military has used uranium nitride fuel and the lead-bismuth coolant.
"Researching" a fuel is not the same as developing production methods. It might be, but I've worked with overenthusiastic researchers at that very same Los Alamos National Laboratory.

It's a continuing attitude, and not just at Los Alamos. Superfreakonomics finds pumping sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere easy and without deleterious effects. Freeman Dyson imagines genetically engineered carbon-eating trees to solve global warming. Next problem. All that is easy to do, as long as you don't have to do it, just have the bright idea.

It goes back to the Manhattan Project, and I was entwined in a project where it ran rampant. The problem would be solved over Fourth of July weekend! Well, Labor Day! And so on. It never quite worked, and not only because hydrogen production of metal in acid (an overfilled beaker and a bolt on my optical table) was a new discovery to one of these genius researchers. Early on in the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer thought that fifty or so physicists could produce an atomic bomb.

Is that overenthusiasm operating at Hyperion? It's beginning to look that way.

The new design is quite different from the old one. The neutronics will be different. It looks like these guys are designing this on the fly.

Dan Yurman tells us that Hyperion plans to submit its design to the NRC in "late 2010 or early 2011." That's just a year away. We'll see what the story is then.

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