MIT Wants to Mass Produce These Floating Nuclear Reactors

MIT researchers have designed an earthquake and tsunami-proof nuclear reactor—and they say it's ripe for mass production.

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Apr 17 2014, 3:35pm
Image: MIT

MIT researchers want to go surfing with nuclear power. They’ve designed a floating reactor that promises increased safety—and the cost-effectiveness and mass reproducibility of Ford’s Model-T. 

The reactor is essentially built like a floating oil rig, and its designers, MIT professors Jacopo Buongiorno, Michael Golay, and Neil Todreas, promise that it will be able ride out tsunamis, earthquakes, and that meltdowns will be essentially impossible. According to Buongiorno, the ocean serves as an “infinite heat sink,” which allows for the core to be cooled passively.

Safety aside, the biggest selling point on the design appears to be how cheap it is. The reactor design is extremely reproducible, the profs say, as it solves construction issues that have made the reactors of the past costly to build. They can be built in a shipyard, which allows for increased standardization in construction.

In addition, these reactors can be made entirely out of steel. Concrete, the material of choice for nuclear plants before their surfing days, was a source of costliness and frequent delays. And, as the designers say, “the ocean is inexpensive real estate.”

The idea of building a nuclear reactor at sea isn’t new, however. Russia is building its own version now, but a plan was devised in the 1970s in America to do the same. According to Nuclear Regulatory Commission historian Thomas Wellock, in 1971 Westinghouse Corporation and Tenneco partnered up to build floating nuclear reactors off the coast of Florida.

Much of the alleged benefits of the 1970s plan align with the new MIT-led version. According to Wellock, Westinghouse President John Simpson touted their cost-effectiveness, and emphasized that they could be mass-produced. Their safety was also touted as an advantage, but Wellock notes that the scheme to put reactors at sea was really a way to get around mounting public concerns about nuclear safety.

The futuristic vision of the 2014 plant’s designers seems to be the fulfillment of those technological daydreams. The concept is “flexible,” according to Buongiorno, and he envisions reactors at sea ranging from small, 50-megawatt plants to gigantic 1,000 megawatt plants.

If this scheme catches hold, in the future we could see mass-produced nuclear power plants, ranging in size, powering many of America’s coastal cities. For now, however, the design team has their eyes set on Asia, specifically Japan, as an area which has a growing need for power sources that can withstand tsunamis.

Yet floating reactors have an unmistakably ominous quality to them, not unlike the Titanic. Although meltdowns may be “virtually impossible,” they are certainly not impossible, and the big question is what happens if one of these cores goes, well, nuclear.

The 1970s plan for nuclear energy at sea got about this far, as well, before it was shot down by a slew of environmental, economic, and social concerns. At the time, there was an outcry over the potential environmental impact of a core meltdown at sea. John O’Leary, a Department of Energy secretary, delivered what a staffer called a “grim—even alarming report.” After the Three Mile Island disaster, the curtains had closed on the plan to build reactors at sea. Until now, that is.

In light of the resurgent idea, it’s worth considering the words of philosopher Paul Virilio—who has often fixated on nuclear energy as a destructive force—in The Original Accident:

Given that the declared objective of the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century was precisely the repetition of standardized objects (machines, tools, vehicles, etc.), in other words, famously incriminated substances, it is only logical today to note that the twentieth century did in fact swamp us with mass-produced accidents one after the other.

We can only hope that the Model-T of nuclear power at sea can uphold its promises of safety—if it’s ever built, unlike its ill-fated 70s ancestor.