As the nuclear crisis continues to drag on in Japan, the loudest criticisms of nuclear energy all hinge on the potential for a severe meltdown and the subsequent release of a massive amount of radioactivity. Besides this terrifying potential, of course, there are a handful of other reasons why nuclear power is often panned. What do we do with the radioactive waste? What about nuclear fuel getting into the wrong hands? And, how the heck can we afford to build enough large-scale nuclear plants when no private banks dare finance them?
There is, however, another form of nuclear power that isn't often discussed but, nonetheless, could possibly address the big four "Big Nuke" concerns listed above. Climate Central put together a great interactive graphic that lets you explore this "Small Modular Reactor" technology, and I definitely recommend it.
Here's Climate Central's Michael Lemonick introducing the technology:
Called Small Modular Reactors (SMR's), these plants, which have been proposed with a variety of designs, would be inherently cheaper to build and safer to operate than conventional plants, for a variety of reasons — or at least, so their proponents argue. They may be right, but so far the nuclear industry hasn't had enough real-world experience with any of the proposed designs to know how well their performance lives up to their theoretical promise.
Here's the graphic, though you should click through to explore the whole operation.
You can also see how they compare to the large-scale operations that everyone thinks of when they think of a nuclear plant. Each 10 Megawatt modular unit could power about 7,000 homes, compared to the one million homes that the biggest current plants can power.
I expect that we'll soon see some communities and regional governments start to explore this technology. It's carbon-free electricity and—depending on how you feel about the nuclear "batteries" that get shipped out to be recharged (never opened at the reactor site)—they could be considered totally non-polluting. At very least, there's no local air pollution from the reactors. And because there's so much less radioactive material in each plant, the threat of a massive release of radioactivity is essentially none.
All that said, this is a radioactive facility. We'll need to learn a lot more about precautions and safety measures that could be implemented to avoid the leakage or loss of any radioactive material at all. I'd love to see an analysis comparing the total radioactivity of one of these units to that which is emitted from a typical coal-burning plant.