When we think about renewable energy, solar energy and wind energy typically come to mind. However, there is one type of renewable energy that has seen less attention in recent years, which is nuclear energy. While solar and wind energy both depend on weather conditions, nuclear energy can be generated at any time, making it a reliable and steady source of energy.
Even though nuclear energy is one of the safest forms of energy generation, many people immediately question its safety, thinking back to events like Chernobyl, Fukushima and the Three Mile Island accidents. Along with poor public image, high upfront costs and lengthy construction times have also made it less attractive to build new nuclear plants in the U.S. over the last several decades.
Interest in building large-scale nuclear power plants likely won’t return. However, there is an alternative form of nuclear energy that takes up much less space, reduces construction costs and time, and could be even safer: small modular reactors (SMRs). SMRs are nuclear reactors that only generate up to a certain amount of energy and are designed with a modular functionality. As the name suggests, they are also smaller in size, and each module can be linked together to create a larger nuclear plant. SMR technology could solve many of the issues that have been holding back nuclear energy, and it has the greatest potential out of any technology to bring back the nuclear energy industry.
The size of SMRs allows them to be small enough to fit in trucks for transportation, making it much easier to mass produce the modules in one location, and then to ship them to different areas nationwide. Their small size also means they can be located in areas that otherwise wouldn’t be able to support an entire nuclear power plant, like a remote town or a mining area. By stacking or placing several SMRs side by side, the total energy output can be customized depending on the needs of the surrounding community. They can even be used alone or combined with other renewable energies, making them more flexible.
A huge benefit of SMRs is that they have much lower upfront costs compared to a large nuclear power plant. According to one study, SMRs could be somewhere between 15% to 40% cheaper than a traditional nuclear power plant that provides the same amount of electricity. While costs for nuclear energy have remained steady over the last few decades, costs for other renewable energies such as solar and wind have significantly decreased. SMRs could be a game-changer in making nuclear energy more affordable and competitive.
NuScale Power is one of the most prominent U.S. companies currently developing SMR technology. The company is planning to build the first SMR complex in the U.S. by the end of this decade. Before that happens, there are still several issues the company needs to address on safety and design after having their technology reviewed by the Nuclear Energy Commission. Several other companies are also developing their own SMR technology, such as TerraPower, X-Energy, Hyperion Power Generation and Terrestrial. These companies are also still in development stages, hoping to deploy projects in the next decade or so.
With all this in mind, it’s important to note that SMRs are not yet fully operational. A great deal of the current technology only exists as a computer model and hasn’t been built into a physical project. More testing and certifications must be done before we will see any commonplace SMR technology. Despite this, there’s great promise in the flexibility and affordability that SMRs can bring to the electric grid.
There’s no way to know how viable SMR technology will be once it is fully developed, but with potential to revitalize nuclear energy, this technology will be something to watch.
Maria Kanevsky writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national trade association representing more than 900 local electric cooperatives. From growing suburbs to remote farming communities, electric co-ops serve as engines of economic development for 42 million Americans across 56% of the nation’s landscape.