Advanced reactors take center stage in Popular Mechanics

December 17, 2020, 6:59AMANS Nuclear Cafe

The January/February 2021 issue of Popular Mechanics hit subscriber mailboxes this week with a stark cover image of a single small reactor under the headline, “Tiny nuclear reactors are about to revolutionize American energy.” The story looks at advanced reactors as a pivotal step to “redeem nuclear’s stature in American energy.”

A good primer: The article does a good job introducing the casual reader to the idea that “bigger is no longer better” and that the future of nuclear power in the United States will most likely be “a combination of traditional large plants and smaller, safer megawatt reactors.”

Advanced reactors, including small modular reactors, show that nuclear is no longer a one-size-fits-all operation, the article notes. The industry now “is all about personalization,” says Ken Canavan, Westinghouse’s chief technical officer, who is quoted in the article. The capacity and scalability of SMRs “is just irreplaceable,” he adds.

The article explains that SMRs, microreactors, and other advanced reactor designs will be able to bring reliable, carbon-free power to small or remote locations, replacing fossil fuel power plants and supplementing the “resource-sucking downtimes left by renewables.”

Advantages of tiny reactors: The article provides a high-level review of the advantages of the next generation of nuclear reactors. The three advantages listed in the article are the amount of space needed for an SMR compared to a traditional nuclear power plant, the fully passive safety systems, and the scalability and flexibility built into the new reactor designs.

Reactor designs: Readers are introduced to a few of the startup companies in the nuclear community, the first and most recognizable being NuScale. The company is described as “the most conservative of the small-nuclear programs.” One of the advantages highlighted is the ability of NuScale’s reactor to operate at 20 percent during the day when renewables are most productive and ramp up to 100 percent production at night, “while the rest of the grid is on solar downtime.”

Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) is also covered in the story. USNC’s design, the article notes, is taking a different approach and is focusing on “low energy density and low decay heat generation after shutdown, which means less risk of a meltdown.” The USNC reactor concept uses fully ceramic micro-encapsulated fuel, which, according to USNC’s founder Lorenzo Venneri, can’t meltdown.

A review of Oklo’s micro reactor is also provided. Jacob DeWitte, Oklo’s cofounder and chief executive officer, introduces the reader to the company’s strategy. “The industry typically takes this incremental approach to things,” DeWitte says, “but in our mind we have to do things more tranformatively, frankly for the planet’s sake.” The game-changing approach from Oklo is the use of high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel that will provide greater efficiency and is moderated using sodium instead of water. Caroline Cochran, Oklo’s cofounder and chief operating officer, sums up the reactor design by saying, “We’re still fission, but we use different fuel, different cooling, different technology.”

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