U.S. Approves First Small Modular Nuclear Reactor, Beginning New Era for Atomic Energy

NuScale Power's tiny nuclear reactor could usher in a new era of cheap and clean power in the United States.
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Nuclear energy just took a tiny and modular step forward in the United States. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved the design of the first small modular nuclear reactor for use in the U.S. This is only the seventh reactor design cleared for use in the states and the first of a new generation of reactors that promise to make nuclear energy more widely used..

Traditional nuclear reactors are an incredible source of clean energy, but they’re also expensive and take years to build. Recent efforts to build nuclear reactors in America haven’t gone well. Small modular reactors (SMR) can be built faster, cheaper, and take up much less space than the gigantic cooling towers typically associated with nuclear energy.

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The smaller reactors generate less power than the old behemoths, but they can be manufactured quickly in a factory on demand. As a community’s energy needs grow, more reactors can be added. On paper, they’re also safer and have far fewer points of failure than a traditional reactor.

Dozens of companies have been working on the technology, but Oregon-based NuScale is the first to earn approval from Wahsington. The company was founded in 2000 using money and research from the Department of Energy. It previously cleared an important regulatory hurdle in 2020. 

"We are thrilled to announce the historic rulemaking from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for NuScale’s small modular reactor design, and we thank the Department of Energy (DOE) for their support throughout this process,” NuScale President and CEO John Hopkins said in a statement. “The DOE has been an invaluable partner with a shared common goal—to establish an innovative and reliable carbon-free source of energy here in the U.S.”

Nuclear power is an emission-free form of power generation that is typically more efficient than renewable forms of energy like wind and solar. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and several near-misses in the 1970s and 1980s made the public wary of the technology. Small modular reactors, if proved to be as safe and cheap as advertised, would represent a carbon-free advance in power generation. 

“SMRs are no longer an abstract concept,” Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dr. Kathryn Huff, said in a statement.. “They are real and they are ready for deployment thanks to the hard work of NuScale, the university community, our national labs, industry partners, and the NRC. This is innovation at its finest and we are just getting started here in the U.S.!”