Last Updated Nov 19, 2009 8:18 AM EST
Nuclear science atrophied in the latter part of the 20th century due to environmental lobbying. That meant the U.S. became stuck with its second "generation" of reactors and left a few other countries, mainly France and Japan, working in the third generation. Now there's signs of a breakaway dash to a fourth generation, as well as some unconventional ideas.
One is small, modular nuclear plants. Under development at the Idaho National Laboratory, these reactors would produce 25 to 70 megawatts of energy, depending on whether you want electricity or heat; enough for a small town, large factory or oil field (the latter two might use it for steam). They're designed to be safe and cheap, with electricity coming out just slightly more expensive than a coal plant.
The NYTimes covers small nuclear reactors briefly without mentioning the name of the company getting ready to start prototyping, Hyperion Generation. Next Big Future does a better job, or you can head over to the just-released eight page / 18 slide summary for the full treatment.
Hyperion is pretty neat, and it, or Toshiba, which is working on its own small reactors, would be making the first modern mini-nuke (the Russians made quite a few decades ago). The idea with more world-shaking implications, though, is a fast reactor that can reuse uranium. Today, we dump most uranium after one pass.
The question is whether, even with all the political support, we'll put serious effort into these reactors. Most that have been extremely expensive and finicky. General Electric, though, is working on a plan called the Power Reactor, Innovative Small Module, or PRISM, a sodium fast reactor design that it plans to submit in 2011.
Esquire just profiled the scientist behind this project, Eric Loewen, in a long-winded, overhyped story that pedantically begins most paragraphs with "The man who is going to save the world..." You can read their full story about PRISM here, or let me spare you some pain with a couple of relevant bits:
... GE started rethinking things. One of Clinch River's problems was light-water envy. They were trying to power huge turbines that put out 1,000 megawatts. "So [GE] sat down and said, You know what, we're pretty good at making washing machines and jet engines in a factory and replicating them. Why don't we make a sodium-cooled reactor that's factory-built, modular, with passive safety and replicate that, instead of trying to scale up?"PRISM became a political casualty in the early 1990s, but was recently resuscitated under Loewen's leadership. My complaints about Esquire's writing style aside, it's an interesting concept, and an effective sodium fast reactor would indeed be game changing.
Passive safety meant that it would shut itself off automatically instead of melting down. Replicability meant the reactor vessel couldn't be more than twenty feet in diameter, because that's the biggest you can ship down a rail line. So they would gang reactor modules together to power a single turbine. They named it the Power Reactor, Innovative Small Module, or PRISM.
At the time, it was a renegade idea. So what if PRISM could be mass-produced, plopped right next to every coal plant in the world, and hooked straight to their existing electric turbines just as fast as American steelworkers could crank them out? It was already so hard to get nuclear plants built, big seemed to be better.