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A personal nuclear reactor? Not so fast!

Toshiba is proposing a small, low-cost reactor that could be used for individual commercial buildings and small residential neighborhoods. But do the numbers really work out?

I enjoy reading the personal blogs of Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert) and John Dvorak (PC Magazine columnist and host of Cranky Geeks), but I don't expect to learn anything there. The entertainment is value enough.

Today, however, I was surprised to see these two gentlemen linking to the same story on Next Energy News covering Toshiba's announcement of a "200 kilowatt" nuclear reactor only "20 feet by 6 feet" in size. Such a reactor could be installed in a garage-sized building and shared among the houses on just one residential block, the apartments in one large building, or a single good-size corporation headquarters. With maintenance-free operation and the price of the generated energy estimated at 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, this announcement appeared to undermine the usual arguments against nuclear power.

Run through the basic numbers, as one commenter on Dvorak's blog did, and you come out with annual operating costs around $87,500 and a total cost over 40 years of about $3.5 million. Heck, never mind powering the neighborhood; I know a lot of people in Silicon Valley who'd build one into their houses.

Alas, the rest of the important numbers--the ones not covered by Next Energy News--don't work out so well for the Valley's wealthy. According to some information I found on the Encyclopedia of Earth, the reactor in question is called the Rapid-L, and the 200-kilowatt electrical output is just a small part of the reactor's thermal power production of 5 megawatts.

So even if your McMansion is filled with enough electronic gizmos to use up that 200-kilowatt power rating, there's no way it can dissipate 5 megawatts of thermal power. That's enough to heat over 200 homes during a 27° F (-3° C) cold snap. You'll just have to share.

But if you're one of the Silicon Valley multimillionaires who built mansions in Idaho because you love fly-fishing, you may be in luck; just divert part of your trout stream to provide cooling water for the reactor. You'll never need to turn off that big plasma TV again, and even the fish will be happier in the warmer water.