A reactor to make nuclear affordable

A single Babcock & Wilcox Company mPower nuclear reactor module inside its own independent,
underground containment.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: French President Nicolas Sarkozy sees economic opportunity in nuclear power. France gets about 80 percent of its electricity from splitting atoms. They have a robust nuclear industry there. So when Sarkozy told a conference in Paris today that nuclear is a great way to help third world countries fight climate change, you can safely infer that he would prefer those countries buy French technology.

Here at home, meanwhile, President Obama is trying to give nuclear power a new lease on life. Last month he announced an $8 billion loan guarantee for two reactors in Georgia. He wants another $50 billion to jumpstart an industry that's been on the decline since Three Mile Island in 1979.

One of nuclear's biggest drawbacks, though, is the multi-billion-dollar price tag for all those new reactors. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sarah Gardner reports now on a way to make nuclear affordable.


SARAH GARDNER: Call them "mini-nukes." A handful of companies in the U.S. are designing nuclear power reactors that could fit in your backyard. Well, sort of...

CHRIS MOWRY: 12, 15-feet wide by about 75-feet tall.

That's Chris Mowry, CEO of Babcock and Wilcox Modular Nuclear Energy out of Virginia. His company already has some experience with smaller reactors. Babcock started making nuclear reactors for Navy submarines back in the 1950's.

MOWRY: Our idea is, hey, let's make that nuclear reactor in a factory where it can be done with higher quality and lower cost and then ship it to the field on a rail car. So really we're talking about something that's about a tenth of the size of a typical large reactor.

Of course, that means they produce a fraction of the electricity as well, but still enough to power a small city. But the idea behind these smaller generators is to let a utility add nuclear to its power mix bit by bit. That's instead of investing in one, multi-billion dollar reactor that puts the entire company at financial risk. First Energy in Ohio currently generates over a third of its power from three large nuclear plants.

But spokesman Todd Schneider says his company might be interested in buying smaller reactors in the future and not just because they're cheaper.

TOM SCHNEIDER: The construction timetable would be shorter. These units would be pretty much pre-fabricated and then shipped to the site and put in place.

A couple of American start-ups are working on small reactors too, one said to be the size of a hot tub. They're counting on renewed interest in nuclear power here. Many utilities see it as a cleaner alternative to their aging, coal-fired power plants that fuel global warming. But nuclear regulators have yet to approve any of these mini-nukes. And even if they do, experts don't expect any to go online for at least another decade.

Nuclear engineer Paul Wilson at the University of Wisconsin says it's still unclear whether these smaller nukes are economically viable.

PAUL WILSON: I think it relies on large volume production in a factory setting. So if we can't produce them in enough volume, then the economic benefits might not materialize.

Mini-nuke makers say these reactors are as safe, if not safer, than existing ones, but nuclear critics aren't appeased.

Anna Aurilio is with Environment America.

ANNA AURILIO: They're still gonna generate a big problem when it comes to radioactive waste so Environment America does not believe that mini-nukes will get us any closer to solving our energy crisis.

Congress still hasn't agreed on a permanent site for burying the country's nuclear waste. But nuclear expert Paul Wilson says these small reactors may end up snagging their first customers overseas in any case. He says they may well suit remote towns and villages in developing countries where the transmission systems can't handle big nuclear reactors.

I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.

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