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By Rose Ragsdale
Mining News Contributing Writer 

Nuclear power for Alaska mines?

Initiative could lead developers to add small reactors to their bag of tricks for extracting minerals economically in remote operations


Last updated 4/24/2005 at Noon

Thanks to a gutsy move by the tiny Yukon River village of Galena, mine developers across the state could soon possess a new option for solving one of their biggest headaches - find a cheap source of power for their operations.

Galena, like most remote Alaska communities, is virtually held captive by high energy costs.

But nuclear power from a small 10-megawatt nuclear reactor could rescue the Bush village from economic bondage, according to a recent U.S. Department of Energy study of Galena's energy alternatives. Power costs could drop as low as 5 to 14 cents per kilowatt hour if the village got assistance with start-up expenses and to 15 to 25 cents per kWh if Galena pays for its own reactor.

By contrast, electricity from diesel generators costs 25 cents to 35 cents per kWh, and coal-fired power, using coal from a local source, costs 21 cents to 26 cents per kWh.

"If this works, our cost of electricity would drop down to about one-third what it is now," said Galena City Manager Marvin Yoder. The village currently pays 28 cents per kWh for power.

More power than community uses

The 4S unit, developed by Toshiba Corp., would supply far more electricity than Galena now uses. But ample, inexpensive power would allow local residents to convert homes from heating with expensive fuel oil to more affordable electricity and operate greenhouses that could grow vegetables and fruit year-around for the community, said Robert Chaney, a researcher with Science Applications International Corp.

Galena's potential good fortune stems from its city council's unanimous decision to pursue an offer from Toshiba last year to install a small-scale nuclear power plant in the community as a demonstration project.

Toshiba originally designed the 10 MW reactors to build a desalinization plant n the Middle East. Galena aims to capitalize on this earlier work as well as tests conducted in an Idaho laboratory, Yoder said.

The 4S reactor unit, also called a "battery," has no moving parts, and once installed, would need no replacement fuel, unlike conventional nuclear reactors.

The reactor unit is 50-60 feet tall and 6-8 feet in diameter. It would be built outside of Alaska, installed on site, encased in several tons of concrete and not be opened during its operating life, which is now estimated at 30 years.

Galena working on licensing

Toshiba wants the "nuclear battery" to be approved by the NRC as a commercial demonstration in a remote location.

Once the technology is approved for use in the United States, Toshiba believes there will be opportunities for sales worldwide, as well as in remote Alaska, according to Chaney.

Science Applications International Corp. coordinated a U.S. Department of Energy study of long-term energy supply options for Galena, including the Toshiba battery. The University of Alaska and Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory worked with SAIC in the study.

Galena aims to secure licensing from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the project site first, Yoder said.

The village is working with its Washington, D.C.-based attorney and preparing a series of white papers that will address every issue and question raised in recent months about the proposed project.

"Licensing this small nuclear power plant is only slightly more difficult than licensing an (environmental impact statement) for a large mine," Yoder told North of 60 Mining News.

"We're going for an early site permit that's good for 20 years. We're addressing issues such as what happens to the spent core, seismology, safety and how many security guards will be needed," he said. "In two to three years, all these issues will be addressed and then we will look at it and ultimately make a decision. We're thinking it will be 2008 when the community has all the information to say, 'yes, we're interested and ready to start applying for the full-blown plant.'"

Amount of time challenge for mines

Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association, said one of the interesting things about Galena's effort is the community's decision to seek a site permit first and then obtain a license for the nuclear reactor and other equipment.

This bodes well for using a similar approach in different places, including Alaska mining projects, Borell said. "The real challenge is the time it takes to go through the process to actually place it. Whether it works on a time scale with mining operations is another question," he said.

The size of the nuclear reactor could become another problem, Borell said. "Some operations, such as Greens Creek and Kensington, could use that power load, but 10 megawatts is not big enough for a large mine," he said.

The Fort Knox gold mine near Fairbanks, for example, uses 26 megawatts of power, while the Red Dog zinc and lead mine in northwestern Alaska requires 23 megawatts of juice.

Toshiba, however, manufactures a 50-megawatt version of the 4S design, which would be useful in powering a large mine in a remote location.

The cost and difficulty of supplying power are major obstacles for developers of two large remote mining projects currently under study - the Donlin Creek gold project near the Kuskokwim River and the Pebble gold-copper-molybdenum project near Iliamna.

If Galena succeeds in permitting its nuclear power plant, Borell said large Alaska mines may look favorably at the concept, perhaps adding a nuclear power plant later in a project's life to economically expand operations.

Nuclear power, however, poses some risks. One issue with the Toshiba 4S reactor is the use of liquid sodium as a heat transfer medium, according to researchers. Long-term disposal of radioactive waste is another thorny issue; however nuclear materials in the Toshiba batter would not be removed from a unit in Alaska.


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