Science 3 min read

Safe, Modular Nuclear Reactor Delayed by Regulation

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The demand for clean energy sources grows daily as the world seeks to move away from burning fossil fuels. The prime candidates for clean energy are solar and wind energy. However, due to emerging, unconventional methods, nuclear power could also be a safe, non-carbon emitting source of energy. Yet, as Massachusettes Institute of Technology (MIT) points out, regulatory hurdles and slow-moving government bureaucracy hold back nuclear energy’s potential.

Government regulation isn’t the only deterrent. While the new modular nuclear reactor gives off zero carbon emissions, it is also not widely utilized due to a number of serious concerns. These include huge upfront costs, the public fear of meltdowns like those at Fukushima or Chernobyl, and the disposal of nuclear waste.

“Despite the NRC not having a regulatory system in place for the new technology, if approved, these projects could be constructed by the late 2020s.”

The Smaller Modular Nuclear Reactor

The latest nuclear technologies address some of these concerns. Centered around using smaller reactors than those seen in places where meltdowns have been catastrophic, each new nuclear reactor generates less than 500 megawatts of power. For comparison, one of the largest nuclear generators in the U.S. generates almost 4,000 megawatts. The new reactors have a modular design and are based on molten salt technology, and use a much safer fuel source. Unlike their predecessors, they can also function under normal atmospheric pressures. This makes a meltdown almost impossible. 

The new reactors are modular by design. Originally developed by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), then abandoned because the military could not use them, the reactors are cheaper to construct and maintain as well. In terms of cost, the smaller nuclear reactors can produce more power at a third of the cost of current conventional nuclear technology.

Bogged Down by Regulation

Before establishing a new reactor, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has to grant approval in a process that can take up to 25 years. The federal Tennessee Valley Authority and Idaho and Utah power companies have applied for permits to build new unconventional reactors. Despite the NRC not having a regulatory system in place for the new technology, if approved, these projects could be constructed by the late 2020s. 

According to MIT, the UK would lag even further behind the U.S. in creating a regulatory process for the new modular nuclear reactor. If approved, construction of unconventional nuclear technology on the island nation might not happen until the 2030s. 

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