< Are Very Small Nuclear Reactors the Future of Electricity Production?
By Hai Do
19 February 2023

New, very small nuclear reactors are changing the way people think about the complex form of renewable energy.

Such reactors produce one hundredth of the electricity produced by nuclear power plants. They are small enough to be moved on a truck.

However, very small nuclear reactors can produce enough electricity to run a small college, a hospital or a military base. Some universities are taking an interest.

A cross-section of a prototype reactor is shown inside Last Energy's microreactor demonstration unit, Jan. 17, 2023, in Brookshire, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A cross-section of a prototype reactor is shown inside Last Energy's microreactor demonstration unit, Jan. 17, 2023, in Brookshire, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

"What we see is these advanced reactor technologies having a real future in decarbonizing the energy landscape in the U.S. and around the world," said Caleb Brooks. He is a nuclear engineering professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The small reactors have some of the same problems as the large ones. These problems include how to deal with radioactive waste and how to make sure they are secure. Supporters say those problems can be solved and that the benefits outweigh the risks.

Some universities are interested in the technology because it could replace coal and gas energy. They say those forms of energy cause climate change.

The University of Illinois aims to develop the technology as part of a clean energy future, Brooks said. The school plans to ask for government permission to build a high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor developed by the Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation. The school aims to start operating it by early 2028. Brooks leads the project.

Jacopo Buongiorno is a professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said these small reactors, called microreactors, will be "transformative" because they will change how power is provided. He said they can be built in factories and can easily be connected to a local power system.

"That's what we want to see, nuclear energy on demand as a product, not as a big, mega project," he said.

Marc Nichol is a director for new reactors at the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C. He and Buongiorno consider the interest by universities as the start of a new movement.

Last year, Pennsylvania State University signed a document to work with Westinghouse on microreactor technology. Mike Shaqqo, the company's top vice president for advanced reactor programs, said universities are going to be "one of our key early adopters for this technology."

Professor Jean Paul Allain is head of Penn State's nuclear engineering department. He said the university wants to prove the technology so that industries, such as steel and cement manufacturers, can use it. Those two industries usually burn oil or gas and give off, or emit, a lot of carbon gasses. Using a microreactor also could be one of several ways to help the university use less natural gas to reach its long-term carbon emissions goals, he said.

About twenty U.S. universities have reactors for research. But using them for energy is new.

The University of Illinois's Brooks said the extra heat from burning coal and gas to make electricity is often wasted. But steam production from the nuclear microreactor is a carbon-free way to provide heat for large buildings in the Midwest and Northeast. A college usually has hundreds of buildings.

Microreactors are less costly

Washington, D.C.-based Last Energy has built a microreactor in Brookshire, Texas. The company is taking it apart and moving it to Austin for the South by Southwest conference and festival in March.

Last Energy's founder Bret Kugelmass said he is working with officials in Britain, Poland and Romania. He aims to get his first reactor running in Europe by 2025. He said the climate crisis is urgent so carbon-free energy is needed soon.

"It has to be a small, manufactured product as opposed to a large...construction project," he said.

Traditional nuclear power centers cost billions of dollars. For example, two additional reactors at a plant in Georgia will cost more than $30 billion.

The total cost of Last Energy's microreactor, including all the required work is under $100 million, the company said.

Westinghouse has been a major manufacturer in the nuclear industry for over 70 years. The company is developing its own microreactor called eVinci. The company plans to get the technology ready by 2027. Also, the U.S. Department of Defense is working on a microreactor project at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Possible problems ahead

Not everyone supports microreactors, however.

Edwin Lyman is the director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit group. He called the movement "completely unjustified."

Lyman said microreactors would require much more uranium to be mined and enriched for each unit of electricity than for normal reactors. He said fuel costs would be much higher, and microreactors would produce more uranium waste than full-sized reactors.

A 2022 study from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California found that smaller modular reactors produce more waste than normal, or conventional reactors. Modular reactors are larger than microreactors but smaller than conventional ones.

Lindsay Krall was the lead writer of the study. She said the design of microreactors would make them produce more waste. Lyman said she does not support microreactors.

Lyman added that he worries terrorists would target microreactors. He said some designs would use fuels that terrorists might want for simple nuclear weapons. Lyman's group does not oppose using nuclear power but wants to make sure it is safe.

The United States does not have a national storage center for nuclear fuel waste. More microreactors, Lyman said, would only make the problem worse.

But Kugelmass of Last Energy sees only promise. Nuclear, he said, will be important to the world's "energy transformation moving forward."

I'm Mario Ritter Jr. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Jennifer McDermott reported this story for the Associated Press. Hai Do adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

advanced –adj. having new or higher-level technology

benefits –n. (often pl.) the good results of doing something

mega –adj. extremely large

key –adj. a very important part of something

early adopter –n. a person or group that starts using a new product or service as soon as it becomes available and does not worry about cost or problems

unjustified –adj. unnecessary or not supported by facts

unit –n. a standard amount of something used for measurement or comparison

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