Energy photo
Babcock & Wilcox

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, countries like Germany and Switzerland have decided that nuclear energy isn’t worth the risk. The Tennessee Valley Authority apparently isn’t so skittish. The TVA has inked a letter of intent with nuke-maker Babcock & Wilcox to build six small, modular reactors near Clinch River, Tenn., the first time such small, distributed reactors have been tapped for commercial power generation.

The letter doesn’t spell certainty for the plan, but it does equate to a kind of endorsement from the TVA. It kicks off the engineering work necessary to fulfill the permit requirements for the plants, and there really isn’t a good reason why these plants shouldn’t be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. B&W’s design hews very close to that of previously approved and larger pressurized water reactors, but dispenses with some of those larger plants’ vulnerabilities.

These smaller plants require less capital to build and can be up and running in three years rather than five or six. They don’t have to be constructed completely on site, but can be assembled partially in factories and shipped to the site for final construction. And they don’t require expensive transmission upgrades to plug into existing grids.

Of course, they still run on volatile radioactive fuel. But by distributing the fuel across six plants, the risk of widespread nuclear disaster should ostensibly be somewhat mitigated. Further, the design marks a shift to what many see as the future of American energy: many small, distributed reactors spread across the grid so energy doesn’t have to travel so far from origin to destination.

This idea relies more on next-gen thorium reactors that would be far safer to strew across urban landscapes than the current 1,000-megawatt models that bring with them the risk–however slight–of catastrophic meltdown. The TVA/B&W scheme is more of a plan to build a single power plant distributed between several reactors to improve safety and reduce costs. But it’s a step in the same direction, and could set a precedent for the way future nuclear energy projects are rolled out in this country.

Technology Review