America’s nuclear industry isn’t healthy. Thanks to the rise of cheap shale energy, four nuclear plants have closed so far this year. Older reactors can’t compete with today’s energy market conditions, but a new generation of nuclear technology promises to breathe new life into the industry. NuScale Power has plans to shrink containment vessels down to just two-fifths the height and an eighth of the diameter of industry standards. It’s a move that reflects a potential sea change in nuclear power: smaller, cheaper, less powerful reactors that would compose a more distributed (and therefore more robust) energy network. And, as the New York Times reports, these new reactors would be safer:
Afraid of big pipe leaks? The NuScale reactor has no pipes bigger than three inches. Worried about pump failures? Eliminate the pumps and rely on thermodynamics, because the NuScale reactor is small enough to rely on the natural, cooling circulation that occurs because hot water rises and cold water sinks. Afraid the emergency diesel generators won’t work? This design doesn’t require them.
But the industry’s regulatory environment (not the technology) might be the limiting factor in this equation. For obvious reasons, there are plenty of hoops to jump through before receiving permission to build a nuclear power plant. And the permitting process isn’t just stringent, it’s expensive—one preliminary step could cost as much as $1 billion. That’s prohibitively expensive for these kinds of smaller reactors.There’s a lot to be excited about in the world of nuclear energy. Researchers are making progess in nuclear fusion, thorium reactors are getting the backing of Silicon Valley giants and Chinese princes, fast reactors and molten salt reactors are getting funding, and now we’re seeing private firms competing with one another to shrink reactors down. Nuclear power is ultimately green, and if we can figure out how to make it cheaper and more distributed, we’ll be living in a much brighter energy future.[Nuclear reactor image courtesy of Shutterstock]