The destruction of Puerto Rico’s power grid by Hurricane Maria has put millions of people in the dark, likely for months. The situation has also caused some to start thinking creatively about how to restore power to that island territory with ideas that could have a broader application. Elon Musk is already moving to install his solar collector and battery systems and has already had discussions with Puerto Rico’s governor. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry has a longer-term idea, involving Nuclear Power Plants that can be shipped in the cargo holds of a C-130 transport and deployed relatively quickly.

How do modular nuclear power plants work?

According to the Washington Examiner, a number of ideas for a small, modular nuclear power plants exist. One such is one being developed by Gen4 Energy that can deliver 25 megawatts of electricity over ten years without being refueled. Such reactors are cooled by liquid salt or some metal combination instead of water as their larger cousins are. The smallest versions work more like a nuclear battery than a nuclear reactor. They are being touted as relatively safe and since they do not emit greenhouse gasses, environmentally benign.

The barriers to modular nuclear power

Besides the fact that commercial versions of modular nuclear power plants have yet to be built, a regulatory hurdle exists.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is set up to examine and approve designs for large, water-cooled power plants. The NRC lacks the expertise to do a regulatory approval process for the smaller, salt or metal cooled plants. Some companies are trying to design small, water-cooled plants that will more quickly pass muster.

While the smaller plants are relatively safe, one danger that has been touted is if someone were to try to open one of them while it is in operation.

The intense heat that would be released would vaporize anyone who tries to do so. The solution may be to establish these plants on military installations or some other secure location where they can be guarded.

How to make the idea become reality

Apparently, Perry and the Trump administration have some work to do before the smaller nuclear power plants can become a reality.

A streamlined regulatory approval process has to be devised so that designs for the plants can move from the CAD file to reality relatively quickly. People with expertise in such technology need to be hired by the NRC so that the process can be hurried along at due speed.

Then a prototype needs to be built and brought online, perhaps on an island like Puerto Rico that still gets its electricity from outmoded power plants. Once the technology can be tested, utility companies can start buying units and installing them.