While countries such as Japan and Germany are moving away from nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima reactor meltdown in 2011, the United States is taking a different tack.
"The promise of nuclear power is clear," Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in July at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, adding, "Nuclear power has an important role in President Obama's all-of-the-above approach to energy."
For the White House, part of nuclear energy's promise comes in the form of scaled-down facilities called small modular reactors, or SMRs. The average U.S. nuclear reactor has an operating capacity of 1,000 megawatts or more; SMRs, by contrast, have a generating capacity of less than 300 megawatts. They have yet to be deployed on a commercial scale, but the administration is betting on this option as a way to diversify the nation's energy portfolio and rein in carbon emissions.
Obama has put the Energy Department at the helm of a $452 million public-private partnership to finance SMR construction. In November, DOE awarded a grant to U.S-based Babcock & Wilcox to create a 180-megawatt SMR in cooperation with the Tennessee Valley Authority and Bechtel. The reactor is slated to be up and running by 2022.
Why the push for smaller reactors?
First, there's the economic argument. SMRs would be cheaper than conventional reactors simply because they're smaller. This means less overhead for utility companies. The component parts of SMRs would be manufactured in factories as modules that could be shipped for on-site assembly. Supporters of the technology say this would also bring down costs, although not everyone agrees.
"In the early 1970s, power companies built large reactors to bring down costs by achieving economies of scale," said Thomas Cochran, a consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council's nuclear program. "So if we start making smaller reactors, you'd expect costs to rise."
Proponents of the technology follow a different line of reasoning. "Smaller reactors could be cost-competitive because, since they're built in a factory, you can construct them more quickly and on a mass scale," said Doug Walters, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a pro-nuclear advocacy group. "That would allow for faster and more efficient assembly."
In addition, SMRs could be safer than the aging stock of U.S. nuclear power plants. This is because they'll feature passive design technology, built-in safety systems that rely on automated mechanisms within the reactor and would continue to function in the event of an emergency or a loss of electricity.
"Because SMRs are newer, they probably will be safer than the current generation of reactors in the same way that a 2013 Ford is safer than a 1973 Ford," said Michael Mariotte, the executive director of the nonprofit Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an antinuclear organization. "But there could be other safety concerns.... For example, some companies have been talking about cutting costs by using just one control room to run five to six reactors," he said. "When you get to the root cause of nuclear accidents, it's almost always due to human error, and if you have fewer people watching the reactors, there's a greater chance of problems."
While SMRs remain an unproven technology, DOE is continuing to look for companies to develop the technology and is expected to award additional matching grants in the coming months.
According to Charles Ebinger, a foreign policy senior fellow and the director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution, Obama sees this as a way to help advance his second-term climate agenda, given that nuclear power, over the life of a reactor, is a near-zero-emissions technology.
Peter Lyons, the Energy Department's assistant secretary for nuclear energy, echoed this sentiment. "Nuclear plants offer the opportunity to deploy clean-energy technology across the country," he said. "The president's plan isn't a focus on nuclear, but it is a recognition that nuclear is one of the few clean-energy options available other than renewables. It's certainly a piece of the puzzle."
If SMRs take off, they could spur U.S. manufacturing and be shipped abroad, boosting exports. Keeping a hand in nuclear power could also benefit national security.
"I think from a global perspective it's best for the U.S. to stay a prominent player in the nuclear industry," said Darren Gale, vice president and project director of Generation mPower, LLC, a company formed between Babcock & Wilcox and Bechtel responsible for developing the company's SMR prototype with funding from DOE. "If we don't, the U.S. won't have a voice in conversations about nuclear technology in the international arena."