Small modular reactors could help make nuclear power a universal power tool to combat climate change

It’s been nearly seven decades since the first nuclear power plant opened in Obninsk, Russia, but nuclear power is as controversial as ever – even for those who think that stopping climate change Post-planetary destruction means we must turn to alternative energy sources beyond fossil fuels. Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor at Penn State, told The Daily Beast there is a tribal element to the debate, where many vocal pro-nuclear people seem to want to distance themselves from “the left-wing environmentalists”, who may be vulnerable to supportive options such as wind and solar. As he describes it, this “hippie punch” is often more about identity than solution.

“I think people tend to be on a team and stick with the team. I see irrational excitement from some of my nuclear colleagues, but I see it with renewables as well,” said Todd Allen, professor of engineering and chair of the Department of Nuclear and Radiology at the University of Michigan. , told The Daily Beast. “I just think it’s human nature. I don’t think it’s helpful”.

This wouldn’t matter if we could all agree that solar and wind would save the world, but there are some concerns about putting all of our eggs in these few baskets. Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. That’s called “constant problem, ”And it can leave people stranded without power for hours or even days if there is no backup power to fix things. One solution to this is to use grid-scale batteries to store excess electricity generated by wind or solar when conditions are ideal so that it can be delivered when conditions are less than ideal. However, we still working to improve battery technology to make sure we can meet the energy demand for the long term if needed, so it will take some time.

Nuclear power can solve the problem of continuity. In fact, it could be used to meet ongoing energy needs — in theory, we can use it to power anything, all the time, without any serious limitations.

But the flip side of nuclear power’s potential is its history. 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster resulted in the evacuation of approx 150,000 won people and radiation spread all the way to California. Chernobyl 36 years ago, and We are still living with the consequences for human health and the environment. And skeptics often raise concerns around dealing with radioactive waste produced by nuclear reactors.

However, most experts object that safe modern reactor (Fukushima and Chernobyl were commissioned in the 1970s), and are specifically designed to ensure there is little chance of problems when they are operated properly. As for the problem of waste, Allen says it’s an often exaggerated problem. “Nuclear doesn’t create a lot of waste,” he said. “The problem is that the waste it generates has to be handled very carefully.”

In fact, the bigger obstacle to nuclear power may not be safety – but time and money. The ongoing nuclear power projects in the US are happening at breakneck speed. Two reactors under construction at the Vogtle Plant in Georgia since 2013 already have costs billions of dollars more than expected and still unfinished. The first reactor could be completed in about a year, though that is causing another delay.

“We built horribly [nuclear power plants],” said Allen. “The plants that we are building in Georgia are now running over time and over budget.”

When it comes to the future of nuclear power, a type of nuclear reactor that has received a lot of attention in recent years is called a nuclear reactor. small modular nuclear reactor (SMR). As the name suggests, these reactors are designed to be a fraction of the size of traditional nuclear reactors—up to 90 percent less. They will have fewer mechanical parts than traditional reactors, operate on less radioactive material, generate less heat and be able to operate underground with passive cooling.

All of those attributes not only make them easier and cheaper to build, but also allow SMRs to be safer than conventional nuclear power plants – at least in theory. The idea of ​​a Chernobyl-sized disaster happening with an SMR is essentially unworkable. In fact, SMR could alleviate many of the safety concerns that skeptics voice about nuclear power.

The hype was so great that even a wealthy man like Bill Gates jumped on board the SMR, founding the nuclear reactor company TerraPower in 2006. The company is currently building an SMR facility in Wyoming. can boast an output of 500 megawatts.

Oregon-based NuScale Power has become first company in the US for safety approval of its SMR design by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) by 2020. NuScale plans to put the first reactors into full operation. to 2030. The reactors will generate 720 megawatts of electricity in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The company believes that the plant can eventually provide energy hundreds of thousands of homes in the area.

While there’s a lot of excitement surrounding SMR, it’s still an unproven technology. Allison Macfarlane, a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told The Daily Beast that it could take a “long time” for the technology to develop.

Macfarlane told The Daily Beast: “Building the first reactor was a real challenge. “If you look 10 years from now, you won’t see a lot of new nuclei. Especially not these new designs”.

Allen echoed these feelings. “I think we’ll start seeing demos within a decade,” says Allen. “When will any of them be commercially deployed? We shall see.”

Indeed, the NuScale project has shown that there are challenges ahead. The company’s first project had a cost bubble to more than 6 billion dollars—Beyond what was originally expected.

But while SMR can get off to a rough start, Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Daily Beast, there may be reason to be optimistic that we’ll be able to move forward. Deploy this technology quickly after this initial hump.

“Technologically,” he said, “we know that these reactors work,” because they are more or less miniaturized versions of the 3rd generation reactors — the traditional reactors that we use. we build today. “These SMRs are miniature versions of things people know how to build and work with.”

While the potential seems huge to eventually convert non-believers to nuclear power, companies like NuScale will still have to demonstrate that SMR is a safe, reliable and cost-effective source of electricity. . We won’t have answers to these questions until one is crafted, Kammen said.

That could be a crippling obstacle to unleashing nuclear energy’s potential in combating climate change. The Biden administration has set its sights on bringing America run on 100% clean electricity by 2035. It was hard to see SMR or nuclear power in general playing such a big role in the future at the time. But the urgency of climate change means we have no choice but to do the best we can.

“What I think is that we need to decarbonize immediately. We should have decarbonized yesterday,” Macfarlane said. “We need to do it as quickly as possible, and whatever gets us there as quickly as possible is the right technology.” Small modular reactors could help make nuclear power a universal power tool to combat climate change


ClareFora is a Interreviewed U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. ClareFora joined Interreviewed in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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