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Adios, Cooling Towers: The Energy Department Wants Plug-and-Play Nuclear Reactors

You want energy independence? What if you could group together with your neighbors to buy a small nuclear reactor? It doesn't sound as sci-fi as it used to, thanks to an "Energy Department announcement":http://www.ne.doe.gov/newsroom/2012PRs/nePR01201...
January 23, 2012, 9:01pm

You want energy independence? What if you could group together with your neighbors to buy a small nuclear reactor? It doesn't sound as sci-fi as it used to, thanks to an Energy Department announcement that it plans to make funds available for the development of small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) as part of the agency's push for the development of low-carbon advanced energy tech.

While residential applications of SMRs are likely a long way off – not to mention a large squeamishness factor – they are touted as having a lot of potential for cheap, secure energy production for commercial applications.

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The DOE says small reactors would be about the third of the size of current plants, and have the major advantage of being modular; in other words, rather than designing and building massive one-off plants, which require massive amounts of money and red tape, SMRs could be built to spec in a factory, reducing design and construction costs, while offering more effective quality control by virtue of standardizing the manufacturing process and utilizing modern technology. It's a way of thinking that has launched a similar program in China, which is building more new reactors than anyone, and is already the bogeyman of America's clean energy fantasies.

Rendering of a small molten-salt reactor (credit: Popular Science)

Apart from their size, the designs and fuel cycles of these reactors – from pebble bed to liquid fast metal breeders – offer safety that the aging, massive reactors we use today simply can't. (Underscoring the point, perhaps a little too heavily, are the names of some of the proposed designs like GE's Power Reactor Inherently Safe Module, or PRISM, and Samsung's sodium-cooled Super-Safe, Small and Simple Reactor. Who wouldn't want one of those in their basement?)

The goal is to get SMRs to the point that, once off the assembly line, they could be delivered, set up and run on location with all of the flexibility and ease of the enormous diesel generators and portable power plants used off-grid now, with none of the dirty emissions. The DOE hopes that, if SMRs do end up proving good on their promise of higher flexibility and lower costs thanks to modularity, it will usher in a new era of nuclear production that doesn't rely on finicky, superbly complicated and proprietary tech still clunking along from the 50s.

Of course, we've been hearing about SMRs for some time now, and the DOE has only announced the draft of its funding announcing – it's waiting on the input from industry and the public before taking applications for funding. Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, still reeling from Fukashima and that little near-Fukashima in Nebraska, hasn't made any plans to begin reviewing new reactor designs, not yet at least (and not everyone is going to like them). But especially in the wake of the Japanese disaster, this is a bigger push in the nuclear realm than we've been accustomed to lately. It may actually be the first official sign we've had that the nuclear renaissance isn't actually over. And maybe, just maybe, thorium won't just be a dream.