Could mini-reactors be the real future of nuclear power? Presently, the U.S. government is investing significantly in these, building them in the hundreds, with the intent of placing them all over the nation as well as exporting them worldwide.
The design of the unit, as NPR reports, is pending Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval. However, what distinguishes these mini-reactors is that everything—core, cooling system, and all other essentials—are self-contained in a steel cylinder. They can be put together in a factory, and can be shipped around on trucks.
As far as power goes, they can generate around one-tenth the power of an average nuclear plant.
NPR quotes Assistant Energy Secretary Pete Lyons:
"One of the features of these small reactors is that they can be entirely manufactured here in the United States," Lyons said. "They can literally be made in the USA. With the large plants, that's simply physically impossible."
"We are trying to jump-start a new U.S. industry," he says. "That's my goal: a U.S. industry, U.S. jobs, clean energy."
This could be an interesting future option for developing nations without the millions—often billions—needed to invest in and develop a full-scale nuclear power plant.
Back in November, the Energy Department invested in Babcock & Wilcox mPower (developers of a prototype, located in Virginia). The government hopes to invest in excess of $400 million altogether in this new venture.
However, concerns abound in the scientific community, principally focusing on safety issues. With smaller reactors, the chances of decentralized, spread-out contamination grow. Large, isolated nuclear reactors are expensive, but they come with the hefty technology that proves essential in case of major operational failures.
However, the industry contends that these “plug and play” models are indeed the future. We’ll see.