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A new generation of nuclear entrepreneurs wants to help address climate change. They're designing plants that are smaller and cheaper and could be located closer to where people live. NPR's Jeff Brady reports that to do that, they are pushing for less stringent safety rules.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: For more than a half-century, nuclear power has meant one kind of plant - a huge, complicated, expensive facility with armed guards located away from cities and next to a river. But nuclear startups are designing smaller plants that can complement the expanding renewable energy industry. Caroline Cochran co-founded the company Oklo.
CAROLINE COCHRAN: We're not using water. We're not large. We're not using the same type of fuel. We're able to recycle waste and used fuel.
BRADY: The industry argues these plants are simpler and safer and that's why they deserve different regulations. Another company, NuScale Power, has a mock-up of its reactor module with a very squeaky door.
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BILL KOSKI: This is kind of the main access port for when we...
BRADY: I visited NuScale in Oregon last year to learn about the company's unique design. It won't have the big cooling towers like you see at plants today. Instead, reactors sit underground in a huge pool of water that absorbs heat.
JOSE REYES: And this design is remarkably safe.
BRADY: NuScale co-founder Jose Reyes says there are no pumps or generators that could fail. That's what happened in the Fukushima accident that led to meltdowns. Instead of one big reactor, NuScale plans up to 12 smaller ones. Reyes says if there's a problem and radiation is released, the danger to people would be limited to the plant site. That means his plants could be located closer to homes - say, at old coal power plant sites.
REYES: They would love to repurpose those sites for clean energy like nuclear power. Our design would fit perfectly with those plans.
BRADY: But first, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would have to change its rules. The NRC is considering whether to shrink emergency planning and evacuation zones around these newer reactors from a 10-mile radius to, in some cases, the boundary of the plant site. Edwin Lyman at Union of Concerned Scientists says that would be a mistake.
EDWIN LYMAN: When you're talking about a reactor that's never been built or operated, you have to take with a big grain of salt the claims that it's actually safer or more secure.
BRADY: Lyman says the industry also wants to use weaker reactor containment shells, and in some cases, they don't want to have to keep an operator at the site. But Lyman says companies should build plants under current rules first.
LYMAN: You have to work out the kinks of these new plants. And then over time, you might be able to adjust your requirements accordingly, but you don't do that at the get-go.
BRADY: A Department of Energy official recently echoed some of Lyman's concerns in comments sent to the NRC. But the department says those comments were not authorized, and the agency is on board with the changes the nuclear industry wants.
MARCUS NICHOL: As technology evolves, the regulations should evolve to match the new state of technology.
BRADY: Marcus Nichol is with the Nuclear Energy Institute. He says there's a lot of knowledge about how these new reactors work and years of testing behind the components. Previous accidents, including Three Mile Island in 1979, stopped the nuclear industry's growth. Nichol says companies and regulators are committed to making sure these new plants are safe.
NICHOL: We recognize that if we were to do anything that's not safe, that is the end of our industry as we know it.
BRADY: A final rule on whether to shrink evacuation zones around plants is expected next year.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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