Pocket Power: The Future of Nuclear is Small Scale and Modular

For all the talk of an ever-imminent nuclear renaissance, it’s easy to forget that the last nuke plants to come online in the United States were built in the 1970s. Sure, we get roughly 20-percent of our nation’s electricity from nuclear plants, but the glowing (ahem) promises of atomic energy (“Clean, safe, too cheap to meter”) have remained but promises. So why has this so-called renaissance stalled out for the past three decades? Well, there was that not insignificant incident at Three Mile Island that gave many pause. But, really, it’s cost. To build a utility-scale nuclear power plant to the safety standards demanded today is just damn expensive. How expensive? Try over $10 billion each for the most recent plans that have been given any serious consideration. So much for “too cheap to meter”—without any private banks or investors willing to underwrite the projects, none of these are any closer to construction.

So what’s the flailing industry to do? It’s downsizing. In a literal sense. The new, new nuclear renaissance is going small, as in “small modular reactors” (which the insider types like to call SMRs).

The sales pitch sounds pretty strong: they're small enough to be sited pretty much anywhere—in a city neighborhood, on town land, or right on site at a factory; they can be linked together ("Lego-like" is how David Biello described them) to fulfill whatever the local power demands are; and they can be built in a factory for (relatively) cheap and shipped anywhere on a flatbed truck like it's a prefab home.

There are as many designs as there are companies developing the SMR tech, and that’s about a dozen. One design, by NuScale in Oregon, looks like a 50-foot tall thermos, which sits in a pool of water. (At the first sign of meltdown, the whole reactor is flooded with water to shut things down.) Another, by mPower will look more like a 5-story office building.

Sounds good. But before we start firing up these SMRs in neighborhoods and factories around the country, you and every reasonable person out there should be wondering, what about a meltdown? The industry folks say they're safer than large-scale reactors. All the guts and gears of the reactor are sealed into a tight steel container. Runaway chain reactions (the heart of a meltdown) can still occur, but the control rods can better, well, control these smaller reactions. In theory, the risk of a meltdown is pretty low compared to, say, Indian Point. Or Fukushima, for that matter.

We have to say “in theory” because so far we only have simulated reactions to look at.

Optimists in the industry say that the safety of the systems will be well established and we’ll soon be plugging these in around the country by the hundreds.

A pretty hilarious point-counterpoint captured in a recent Morning Edition story, however, captures the uneasy relationship between speed, affordability, mass-production, and safety. The president of mPower, Chris Mowry, said:

MPower is not going to be measured in terms of success in terms of building tens of these things, but in terms of hundreds of these things…We're not trying to build a Rolls Royce; we're trying to build a Ford.


Ed Lyman, a nuclear physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, countered:

My feeling is that if you're going to have a nuclear power plant, it'd better be a Rolls Royce.


Risk aside, the radioactive elephant still sitting in the room is waste. These SMRs would still produce the same spent fuel rods that large-scale reactors do, albeit at a much smaller volume. And there is still no plan whatsoever for what to do with these spent fuel rods once they’re pulled out of a retired reactor.

Still, the federal government wants to see more. Last fall, the Obama administration announced that it would fund half the costs of construction the country’s first SMR, a 180-Megawatt project by mPower, a part of Babcock & Wilcox, which has been churning out nukes on all scales—from massive 1000-Megawatt plants to nuclear submarine engines—for decades.

This first-of-a-kind project is to be built for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and they hope to have the unit plugged in by 2022. Somehow, the nuclear renaissance always seems to be “just a decade away.”

For a bit more background, see the Department of Energy's page on SMRs and see Energy Now!'s primer on small nukes:


This month, challenge a neighbor to GOOD's energy smackdown. Find a neighbor with a household of roughly the same square footage and see who can trim their power bill the most. Throughout February, we'll share ideas and resources for shrinking your household carbon footprint, so join the conversation at


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The problem with American Sign Language (ASL) is that over 500,000 people in the U.S. use it, but the country has over 330 million people.

So for those with hearing loss, the chances of coming into contact with someone who uses the language are rare. Especially outside of the deaf community.

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Looking back, the year 1995 seems like such an innocent time. America was in the midst of its longest streak of peace and prosperity. September 11, 2001 was six years away, and the internet didn't seem like much more than a passing fad.

Twenty-four years ago, 18 million U.S. homes had modem-equipped computers, 7 million more than the year before. Most logged in through America Online where they got their email or communicated with random strangers in chat rooms.

According to a Pew Research study that year, only 32% of those who go online say they would miss it "a lot" if no longer available.

Imagine what those poll numbers would look like if the question was asked today.

RELATED: Bill and Melinda Gates had a surprising answer when asked about a 70 percent tax on the wealthiest Americans

"Few see online activities as essential to them, and no single online feature, with the exception of E-Mail, is used with any regularity," the Pew article said. "Consumers have yet to begin purchasing goods and services online, and there is little indication that online news features are changing traditional news consumption patterns."

"Late Night" host David Letterman had Microsoft founder and, at that time the richest man in the world, on his show for an interview in '95 to discuss the "the big new thing."

During the interview Letterman chided Gates about the usefulness of the new technology, comparing it to radio and tape recorders.

Gates seems excited by the internet because it will soon allow people to listen to a baseball game on their computer. To which Letterman smugly replies, "Does radio ring a bell?" to laughter from the crowd.

But Gates presses Letterman saying that the new technology allows you to listen to the game "whenever you want," to which Letterman responds, "Do tape recorders ring a bell?"

Gates then tells Letterman he can keep up with the latest in his favorite hobbies such as cigar smoking or race cars through the internet. Letterman shuts him down saying that he reads about his interests in magazines.

RELATED: Bill Gates has five books he thinks you should read this summer.

The discussion ends with the two laughing over meeting like-minded people in "troubled loner chat room on the internet."

The clip brings to mind a 1994 segment on "The Today Show" where host Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric have a similar discussion.

"What is internet anyway?" an exasperated Gumball asks. "What do you write to it like mail?"

"It's a computer billboard but it's nationwide and it's several universities all joined together and it's getting bigger and bigger all the time," a producer explains from off-stage.

Photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

The future generations will have to live on this Earth for years to come, and, not surprisingly, they're very concerned about the fate of our planet. We've seen a rise in youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg, who are raising awareness for climate change. A recent survey indicates that those efforts are working, as more and more Americans (especially young Americans) feel concerned about climate change.

A new CBS News poll found that 70% of Americans between 18 and 29 feel climate change is a crisis or a serious problem, while 58% of Americans over the age of 65 share those beliefs. Additionally, younger generations are more likely to feel like it's their personal responsibility to address climate change, as well as think that transitioning to 100% renewable energy is viable. Overall, 25% of Americans feel that climate change is a "crisis," and 35% feel it is a "serious problem." 10% of Americans said they think climate change is a minor problem, and 16% of Americans feel it is not a problem that worries them.

The poll found that concern for the environment isn't a partisan issue – or at least when it comes to younger generations. Two-thirds of Republicans under the age of 45 feel that addressing climate change is their duty, sentiments shared by only 38% of Republicans over the age of 45.

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