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For nuclear, good things come in small packages

The days of the behemoth nuclear plants may be numbered, King writes. There is a movement to design and build smaller nuclear reactors that are more affordable and flexible.

By Llewellyn KingGuest blogger / August 21, 2013

A nuclear plant is shown in Holly Springs, N.C. The future of the nuclear industry may be in Small Modular Reactor technologies.

Gerry Broome/AP/File

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To build a car, basically you need a wheel at each corner, after which you can do what you like. Flexibility comes in how you use the vehicle.

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For nuclear power, the reverse of that truism applies. There are many, many ways of building a reactor and fueling it. But its purpose is singular: to make electricity. And making electricity is done in the time-honored way, using steam or gas to turn a turbine attached to a generator.

Around the world, some 460 reactors are electricity makers. Even allowing for events like the tsunami which struck Fukushima Daiichi, they are statistically the safest and most reliable electricity makers.

Yet they are large and built one at a time; one-offs, bespoke. They rely predominantly on two variations of a technology called “light water,” originally adapted from the U.S. Navy. This has left no room for other designs, fuels and materials. 

Now there is a new movement to design and build smaller reactors that are not as wedded to the light water technology, although that is still in the game.(Related article: Nuclear Power Opportunities Move East)

The U.S. Energy Information Administration calculates the demand for electricity will double by 2050, which means that the demand for nuclear-generated electricity with its carbon-free attributes should soar.

To understand the heft of a nuclear plant, which range from about 900 to 1,600 megawatts of electrical output (MWe), one needs a visual comparison. Most of the windmills that are now seen everywhere generate 1 MWe, or a little more when the wind is blowing. So it takes 1,000 or more windmills to do the job of just one nuclear power plant. That stark fact is why China, in environmental crisis, has the world’s largest nuclear construction program.

But the days of the behemoth light water reactor plants may be numbered.

The challenge comes from what are known as small modular reactors (SMRs), rated at under 300 MWe. Stimulated by a total of $452 million in matching funds from the U.S. Department of Energy, the race is on for these smaller reactors. Call them the new, improved, front-wheel drive reactors.

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