Mini Nuclear Reactors Offer Promise of Cheaper, Clean Power

The nuclear industry is trying to recover after decades of shrinking, and shrinking nuclear reactors could be a key to success.

By combining new technology, advanced engineering and a market-friendly approach, reactor manufacturers are developing new systems that produce less electricity but are much smaller and less expensive than existing nuclear reactors.

The bad luck: small modular reactors or SMRs that can be housed in compact containment structures and work safely with less shielding and control. SMRs could allow power plants to ditch their giant hourglass-shaped cooling towers, and in some designs the reactors would be submerged in water to prevent overheating.

Dozens of drafts are now on the table, a handful of which are under preliminary scrutiny by the US and Canada after billions of dollars of private and government investments. A Utah utility company hopes to operate the first U.S. SMR by the end of the decade. China is investing heavily in the development of SMR, and Russia last year lit an SMR on a ship and touted it as a portable power plant.

SMRs may not be an easy sale given the safety and environmental impact of nuclear energy. However, proponents of the new technology are putting up cheap, potentially unlimited electricity that, unlike power plants that burn fossil fuels, does not cause greenhouse gas emissions and is more reliable than wind or solar power.

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