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Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly listed Portsmouth, N.H., as one of three cities where the United States is storing depleted uranium. It is Portsmouth, Ohio, along with Paducah, Ky., and Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Miniature nuclear reactors might be a safe, efficient source of power

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By Brian Palmer
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Take a mental stroll through the streets of Anytown, U.S.A. City hall is on your left, the movie theater on your right. Smell the delights from the bakery. And in the distance, there's the gentle steam plume billowing from the cooling tower of the miniature nuclear reactor that powers the quaint little burg.

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Not your idea of Americana? Wait a decade or two. The government and its private partners are developing reactors that one day might power your home town.

Not long ago, siting a nuclear reactor anywhere near a population center would have been unthinkable. While the 1979 Three Mile Island reactor meltdown didn't cause any deaths or injuries, it soured Americans on nuclear energy. Construction of new reactors came to an abrupt halt. The dramatic Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, meanwhile, created widespread fear that another accident could be even more disastrous.

Then along came carbon dioxide. Writing in The Post in 2006, Patrick Moore, a founding member of Greenpeace who sailed on the group's first protest against nuclear weapons testing in 1971, noted: "More than 600 coal-fired electric plants in the United States produce 36 percent of U.S. emissions -- or nearly 10 percent of global emissions -- of CO2, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. Nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce these emissions while continuing to satisfy a growing demand for power."

Greenpeace considers Moore a turncoat, and he's not the only one to be tossed out of the environmental establishment for pro-nuclear heresy. Hugh Montefiore, an Anglican cleric who was a stalwart in the movement, was forced to resign from the board of Friends of the Earth in 2004 for advocating nuclear power as a tool to combat global warming.

Back in the mainstream

Today, supporting nuclear power as a green alternative is quite mainstream. In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama advocated "building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants." In February, the administration offered to guarantee a loan for construction of the first nuclear plant to be built in the United States since the 1970s. The same month, billionaire Bill Gates gave his backing to the nuclear power renaissance, investing $50 million in TerraPower, a nuclear power research company that is hoping to design a new generation of reactors.

The question for many has shifted from whether to build nuclear plants to where and how. And increasingly there's interest in the idea of mini reactors: power plants that provide energy for only a small area.

When nuclear scientists talk about the size of a reactor, they're talking about maximum electrical output, not square footage. The world's largest reactors generate 1,455 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1.5 million households. A program being run by the Department of Energy is focusing on models that would produce about 300 megawatts, enough for Knoxville, Tenn., according to Dan Ingersoll of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They may go even smaller, producing 50-megawatt reactors that could power small towns or even individual work sites, such as mines, that may be located far from the main energy grid.

Think locally

There are virtues to local reactors. If a reactor powers only one community, it can be built close to the end users. Between 4 and 10 percent of the electricity produced by U.S. power plants vanishes as it travels through power lines on its way to users. Building smaller plants and putting them closer to population centers could cut that figure significantly.

And doing so can save on construction costs as well. "It's getting very difficult and very expensive to lay new transmission lines," says Ingersoll. "This offers the possibility of providing isolated communities with power."

Believe it or not, living near a nuclear reactor may be safer than living near a coal-fired plant, which spews a host of dangerous chemicals into the air. The only visible emissions from a reactor is steam; the spent fuel is more of a byproduct. (More on that later.).

What about radiation, you ask? The ash coming from a typical coal plant carries plenty of radiation: According to some estimates, it carries 100 times more radiation into the surrounding area than a nuclear reactor producing the same amount of energy.


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