Here in the United States, nuclear power is usually looked at in a negative light. As a result, America’s nuclear power plants tend to be rather old, inefficient and expensive. The newest nuclear power plant in the United States was powered on sometime in the 1990s. There are others that have been in operation since the late 1960s. But despite America’s distaste for nuclear power, fission remains an essential part of our electrical ecosystem. Currently, our long-outdated nuclear power plants account for around two-thirds of America’s renewable energy. This means that as these nuclear dinosaurs age out of use, our reliance on things like coal to meet our power demands will only go up in the years to come.

There are a number of things about nuclear power that make Americans reluctant to embrace it: the concern about large-scale disasters similar to the ones seen in Fukishima and Chernobyl; concerns about the storage of nuclear waste (significantly exacerbated by America’s refusal to employ a MOX fuel approach); and the immense expense associated not only with operating such a plant, but with adhering to safety regulations established to mitigate the risks presented by massive, 1960s era reactors. These are all issues, however, that an energy startup out of Oregon believes they’ve found solutions to. Their new reactors aren’t something out of science fiction — they’re simply the organic extension of nuclear reactor technology finally leveraged for 21st century deployment.

NuScale’s new “next generation” nuclear reactor is significantly smaller than the reactors currently employed by America’s power grid — but that’s by design. These highly efficient reactors are designed with safety in mind, so they’re compact and contained. Simultaneously, they’re designed to be installed in clusters to support the energy needs of the community they’re intended to power. This modular approach to nuclear power, coupled with 21st century safety and efficiency, mean that these nuclear power plants can be installed closer to the communities they will be supporting (current regulation requires nuclear plants are at least 10 miles from the cities they power), will cost less to operate, and can even be added to over time to increase a plant’s total power output.

NuScale’s smaller reactors are kept cool in the same way as the mammoth reactors of olde: by circulating fresh water over them. The massive towers visible at nuclear power plants today are largely dedicated to this effort, whereas the NuScale systems rely on gravity and buoyancy in the smaller containers to help circulate the water with a much higher degree of efficiency. The result is more power out of the same amount of space while also offering a higher degree of safety.

How much more power? The average existing containment chamber in a large nuclear power plant is about the size of two school bused stacked end to end. In that amount of space you could fit around 100 NuScale reactors. If each NuScale reactor is good for about 60 MWe (Megawatt electrical) as NuScale claims, then you could get around 6,000 MWes out of that space. It’s not uncommon for existing reactors to produce closer to 2,500 MWes in a similar space.

A diagram of a NuScale small modular reactor (SMR). (NuScale)

But that’s the thing: these NuScale plants wouldn’t need to be installed as direct replacements for the massive plants that exist — as many of them are relaying power hundreds of miles from the reactor in support of far-off communities. These smaller and safer nuclear reactors could be installed in more places around the country, limiting the distance electrical charges need to cover before use and dramatically reducing the overhead costs associated with power bleed0ff, storage and transmission. In other words, it would not only be safer and more efficient to run these smaller reactors around the country, it would eventually result in lower energy costs as well.

These small reactors could also feasibly be used to power military installations that are currently woefully dependent on the commercial power grid. Under current electrical models, a cyber attack on America’s power grid could dramatically affect the American military’s ability to conduct defensive operations during an attack — but a grid supported by a wider variety of smaller, safer plants could mitigate an attack’s ability to affect it. These small reactors could also support other military endeavors, like the Army’s Project Dilithium, which aims at deploying small, stable nuclear reactors into combat zones.

There are still some significant hurdles left between NuScale’s reactors and the re-emergence of nuclear power in the United States: chief among them is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who take their job, of ensuring that America doesn’t have its own Fukishima, rather seriously. They’re currently reviewing more than 12,000 pages of technical information provided by NuScale.