Kelsey Callahan

As published in The Hill on July 23, 2023

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory has announced NuScale Power’s first small modular nuclear plant is scheduled to begin operating in 2029 at Idaho Falls. 

Closer to the capitol, Dominion Energy is looking at sites for as many as six small modular reactors according to the latest updated plan. 

As “Oppenheimer” looks set to blow the box office competition away in theaters this month, this decade Americans will see  the utilization of small nuclear reactors as the key to  a sustainable and clean energy future. Small nuclear reactors offer numerous advantages like efficient power generation, low carbon emissions and potential versatility that make them a key component in achieving a renewable energy future. 

Solar, wind, and hydropower are equally vital to an “all of the above” energy solution, but they currently have limitations such as intermittency and land requirements.

Small nuclear reactors are designed to produce electricity more efficiently compared to their larger counterparts used in traditional nuclear power plants. The compact size allows for better heat management and the utilization of advanced cooling techniques, resulting in a higher conversion of nuclear energy to electricity. This increased efficiency helps maximize power output with fewer resources and reduced environmental impact.

Small nuclear reactors generate electricity through nuclear fission, which produces significantly lower carbon emissions compared to fossil fuel-based power plants. By replacing conventional plants with small nuclear reactors, considerable emissions can be mitigated, making them a major contributor to decarbonization efforts. This transition would aid in combating climate change while maintaining a reliable source of energy. 

Another advantage of small nuclear reactors lies in their versatility and scalability. The small size of these reactors allows for easier integration into existing power grids and built environments (which are human-made or modified structures that provide people with living, working, and recreational spaces), reducing the need for large-scale transmission infrastructure and minimizing aesthetic impact. Moreover, small nuclear reactors can be deployed in a variety of applications, including remote power generation, district heating, water desalination and even hydrogen production. This versatility provides a flexible and adaptable framework for integrating nuclear power into diverse energy systems. 

Safety is a paramount concern when it comes to nuclear power. Small nuclear reactors, with their advanced designs, incorporate improved safety features compared to older and larger nuclear reactors. They employ passive safety mechanisms, such as inherent shutdown capabilities, to prevent accidents and eliminate the need for external power or operator intervention. Furthermore, they operate at lower power levels, minimizing the potential consequences of any catastrophic event. These enhanced safety measures, coupled with rigorous regulatory oversight, ensure that small nuclear reactors can be used with confidence and reduce the risks associated with nuclear power.

Of course, when utilizing nuclear power, nuclear waste must be addressed. Small nuclear reactors offer potential benefits in waste management compared to traditional large-scale reactors. These reactors can utilize advanced fuel cycle options, such as recycling, which can reduce the volume and prolong the lifespan of nuclear waste. Additionally, they produce relatively smaller quantities of waste due to their reduced power output. Proper management and end-of-life considerations can limit the environmental impact and ensure a responsible approach to nuclear energy.

Small nuclear reactors are a crucial component in our pursuit of a renewable energy future. Their enhanced efficiency, reduced carbon emissions, versatility and scalability make them a valuable addition to the energy mix. Furthermore, their advanced safety features and potential waste management advantages lay the groundwork for responsible and sustainable deployment of nuclear power. 

By harnessing the benefits of small nuclear reactors alongside other renewable energy sources, we can create a resilient and low-carbon energy system, paving the way toward a cleaner and brighter future for generations to come.

Kelsey Callahan is senior director, energy and special projects at the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy. Follow her  @kelsetta.