Are Mini-Reactors The Future Of Nuclear Power?

The reactor room at Babcock & Wilcox's prototype reactor outside Lynchburg, Va. The reactor vessel is behind the orange curtain.


DAVID GREENE, HOST: The U.S. government is investing millions dollars in what it considers a promising new industry, nuclear reactors. The plan is to build hundreds of mini reactors, some would remain in the U.S., others would be shipped overseas. The reactors are already in the works.

Ben Bradford of member station WFAE visited a prototype in Lynchburg, Virginia. And he tells us what he found in today's Business Bottom Line.

BEN BRADFORD, BYLINE: It looks more like an office park than a power plant. There are none of those giant, cooling towers that look like smoke stacks. No clouds of steam over the buildings. There's just a research building and a tower about nine stories tall.


BRADFORD: I go inside and the plant's manager, Doug Lee, leads me down through secure doors. It feels like the inside of a refrigerator, but noisier. Spinning fans and water pumps drown out the sounds of hissing steam. We get to the reactor core and Lee stops.

DOUG LEE: I can't let you in here. But this is the base of the tower and this is the lower portion of the large tower you saw when you came in. We have right here, this is our simulated reactor vessel.

BRADFORD: It's simulated because the design still needs Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval.

LEE: This is analogous to the core in a nuclear plant where the fission reaction takes place.

BRADFORD: The entire reactor - the core, the cooling system, everything - is self-contained in this rocket-shaped steel cylinder. The industry says that makes it safer. And, the reactors will be small enough to build in a factory and ship on trucks, like prefabricated houses. They'll generate about one-tenth of the power of a typical nuclear power plant.

Assistant Energy Secretary Pete Lyons sees promise that goes beyond a new energy gadget. He sees jobs.

PETE LYONS: One of the features of these small reactors is that they can be entirely manufactured here in the United States. They can literally be made in the USA. With the large plants that's simply physically impossible.

BRADFORD: Lyons pictures churning them out in factories and shipping them to utilities to replace aging coal plants. Or selling them to developing countries which can't afford a full scale $15 billion nuclear plant.

LYONS: We're trying to jumpstart a new U.S. industry. That's my goal - a U.S. industry, U.S. jobs, clean energy.

BRADFORD: In November, the Energy Department invested in nuclear company Babcock & Wilcox mPower - that's who built the prototype in Virginia. In total, the government plans to invest more than $400 million. Industry officials like mPower President Chris Mowry say the launch funding is to get off the ground, but ultimately the reactors need to be mass produced.

CHRIS MOWRY: MPower is not going to be measured in terms of success in terms of building tens of these things, but in terms of hundreds of these things. We're not trying to build a Rolls Royce. We're trying to build a Ford.

BRADFORD: That model worries Ed Lyman, a nuclear physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

ED LYMAN: My feeling is that if you're going to have a nuclear power plant, it better be a Rolls Royce.

BRADFORD: Lyman says small reactors carry a host of safety, security, environmental and economic concerns.

LYMAN: Nuclear power is a technology which is much more suited for large plants, centralized and isolated from populated areas in as small a number of places as possible.

BRADFORD: He says every nuclear power plant is a target for terrorism, or is at risk during a disaster. Lyman says the closer the reactors are to populated areas, the more of a threat they potentially become. And that's one reason Lyman is not convinced enough demand exists for mass production. He also worries about selling them overseas.

LYMAN: It's a developing country that doesn't have a substantial electrical grid, is precisely the kind of country I would not want to see have any kind of nuclear power plant.

BRADFORD: But the industry counters these reactors are so small and self-contained they are almost plug and play. Smaller, cheaper, with less staff - it's your entry level nuclear reactor, perhaps coming online in about a decade.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Bradford.