Could Compact Nuclear Reactors Be the Future of Electricity?

Could Compact Nuclear Reactors Be the Future of Electricity?

Nuclear power is clean, efficient, and safe, yet it’s vastly underutilised as a method of generating electricity. Sure, people have their fears about Chernobyl or Fukushima, but those don’t align with the data — statistically, you’re more likely to die in a wind turbine accident. So why don’t we use more nuclear energy?

The reasons, for the most part, boil down to cost. Building generators is expensive, fuel is expensive, training a workforce is expensive. But researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory think they have a solution to all three: Make reactors smaller.

Vox has a great piece about the INL and its efforts to build compact, inexpensive nuclear reactors. Researchers hope that by making new reactors smaller, they can be deployed more easily, massively lowering the barrier to entry for clean power.

Reducing the footprint of a nuclear installation from acres to square feet is a monumental task, but INL researchers think they’ve found the solution: Heat. As nuclear reactors get hotter, they produce energy more efficiently, allowing for more power to come from a smaller footprint.

Of course, extra heat means extra cooling, something traditional liquid-based systems just can’t handle. To solve this, INL researchers turned to new coolants — think less about antifreeze, more about molten metal or salt. With stable cooling at these higher temperatures, compact reactors can even use cheaper fuels, making nuclear even more practical for use in grids.

It’s interesting to see conversations surrounding alternatives to electricity. One space where there are several conversations is in regard to electric vehicles, where people are still trying to find the right solution to batteries. Obviously, nuclear-powered cars aren’t exactly viable in today’s infrastructure but they could be a potential in the future, who knows?

Vox’s full explainer is worth a read, and the story of the INL’s nuclear research is worth following. If their tests pan out, you might just start reading Jalopnik by the power of a compact, local nuclear power grid.

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