Nuclear Plant Developers Thinking Small

As interest in nuclear power revives, plant developers are thinking small. They're working on modular reactors as small as a house. They could be built for a fraction of the cost of current large-scale ones. But what about safety and other concerns? Host Guy Raz looks into the mini-nuclear boom.

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GUY RAZ, host:

At a recent technology conference in Southern California, Bill Gates raised a few eyebrows during his presentation.

Mr. BILL GATES (Chairman, Microsoft): And so what we're going to have to do at a global scale is create a new system, and so we need energy miracles.

RAZ: One miracle Gates is talking about is a project he's pouring millions of dollars into. A company called TerraPower is working to create nuclear reactors that would be powered entirely by nuclear waste, kind of like radioactive recycling.

Now, skeptics points out that the technology to do this is years, decades away and that in the interim, people like Bill Gates ought to be putting their money into renewable energy like solar and wind power.

Here's Stephen Smith. He's the director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Mr. STEPHEN SMITH (Executive Director, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy): One of our big concerns with nuclear power generally is that they're holding it out as a solution to global warming or climate change.

RAZ: The other problem, he says, is that nuclear reactors cost too much. A new one will run about $7 to $8 billion. But a few energy companies are exploring what they call small-scale reactors, reactors that could be built quickly and cheaply.

Paul Lorenzini, CEO of NuScale Power, is one of those engineers developing a modular nuclear reactor.

Mr. PAUL LORENZINI (Chief Executive Officer, NuScale Power): It's really a small nuclear reactor. The entire nuclear reactor is 65 feet long by 15 feet in diameter, and it's designed so that the entire nuclear plant can be factory-built. That gives us the opportunity both to produce it under mass-produced conditions, and it also allows us to build the entire plant at the site without having to build the nuclear plant there and then deliver the nuclear plant from offsite on a truck or a barge or a rail car.

RAZ: So it's about the size of a small house.

Mr. LORENZINI: Approximately.

RAZ: How much power could one of these modules generate?

Mr. LORENZINI: Each module generates about 45 megawatts of electric. Two ways to think about it, 45 megawatts is enough to serve about 45,000 people. A typical large nuclear plant is maybe 1,100 megawatts. So what we would do is we would build a facility where you could put 12 of these modules at a single location, and it would produce 540 megawatts, which would be about half the size of one of the large nuclear plants.

RAZ: And as for safety, Paul Lorenzini says because his mini-reactors have no valves and no tubes and are completely self-contained inside a water-filled chamber, they're even safer than any of the 104 large reactors currently operating in the U.S.

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