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University of Michigan working toward next phase of nuclear energy

Idaho National Laboratory
Modular reactors and microreactors are 100 to 1,000 times smaller than conventional nuclear reactors.

Much smaller nuclear power plants could prove to be the next phase of nuclear energy in the U.S.

The University of Michigan is involved in programs such as an Advanced Nuclear Site Locator, and identifying potentially feasible sites where advanced nuclear facilities might be welcomed by communities.

Nuclear experts say the next generation of nuclear plants are smarter, safer, and smaller.

“Think about going from thousand-megawatt electric reactors that we have today to the potential of these smaller 300-megawatt ones or these even smaller five-ish-megawatt electric ones,” said Aditi Verma, assistant professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan.

Those modular reactors, the ones about a third of the size of today’s nuclear power plants, could be used to replace coal-burning generating plants. They also could be built on the site of nuclear plants that have been shut down since much of the infrastructure to distribute electricity is already on site.

The even smaller, so-called microreactors that generate five to 20 megawatts could be used to provide electricity to remote locations, or instead of electricity, provide heat needed for industrial applications. Some are small enough to fit in a semitruck’s trailer.

Verma said there are not concrete plans for a microreactor at the University of Michigan. But, one could replace a research reactor that was shut down 20 years ago.

“It could also potentially be sort of a hybrid, a situation where the reactor was being used both for research, but also for the production of electricity or heat,” Verma said.

Several universities are exploring the idea of the smaller nuclear plants.

Verma said the new generation of nuclear plants don’t require the sort of immediate operator intervention in the event of an accident or an emergency. The systems are also much less complex which makes them less able to create a cascade of failures that could lead to a serious accident such as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan in 2011.

Still, she said, the nuclear sector has to factor the public’s concerns into the way it designs power plants for the future and show how and why they’re safer. That's a key part, Verma said, of decarbonizing the economy.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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