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Nuclear energy is gearing up for a revamp. Innovators are developing the next generation of nuclear energy, often called “advanced nuclear reactors.” Some of these reactors are slated to begin operation by 2030.

These new designs overcome some of the challenges of nuclear plants operating today. Conventional nuclear plants, while safe, are also bulky, expensive, and complex. Advanced reactors enhance safety, reduce costs, and increase versatility in operation. While developers expect high up-front capital costs for first-of-a-kind builds, costs should decrease over time as developers increase production volumes and improve manufacturing processes.

Collectively, these improvements will enable communities to access carbon-free energy tailored to their unique needs and circumstances. Advanced nuclear designs aim to add cleaner, cost-competitive,2 and reliable energy to complement wind and solar.3 As the world transitions to cleaner energy sources, advanced nuclear can help mitigate blackouts when other energy resources go offline or don’t generate enough power. Some advanced reactors can run for decades between refueling,4 providing uninterrupted carbon-free electricity to communities, even during extreme weather.5 

One of the virtues of advanced reactors is their size.6 Small modular reactors, or SMRs, are a category of advanced reactors smaller than today’s operating nuclear plants.Some advanced reactors, called “microreactors,” are even smaller.

Microreactor developers hope to provide clean, reliable, and affordable energy to remote communities, bringing power to places underserved by our existing electric grid. Microreactors could replace diesel generators, making them a good fit for Arctic communities, remote islands, and other off-grid communities.15 Microreactors could also provide electricity for other small-scale needs, such as university campuses, or hospitals in areas that face frequent power outages. 

Advanced nuclear is more flexible than traditional nuclear. SMRs, for instance, will be composed of modules, first built in factories and then shipped to host communities by rail or truck. Utilities and communities can combine these modules, usually in groups of four to twelve, to customize new power plants to meet local electricity demand. Constructing nuclear reactors off-site could avoid on-site fuel handling, allowing manufacturers to practice more rigorous and consistent safety measures. Prefabrication could also drive down upfront capital costs and help reach economies of volume.16 

"Advanced nuclear is more flexible than traditional nuclear."

Many advanced nuclear technologies, including microreactors, are also transportable. Microreactors can be transported by truck, ship, rail, or air17 and used for off-grid applications in place of diesel.18 They can power communities far from the electric grid, provide electricity for data centers, and provide energy for industrial activities like mining. Like SMRs, microreactors are pre-made in factories, arriving ready for installation and requiring minimal on-site assembly.19 

Are advanced nuclear technologies safer than existing nuclear?

"Advanced reactors are unlikely to be suitable for every community: Ultimately, it’s in the community’s and the developer’s best interests that projects proceed only if host communities feel advanced reactors are a good fit."

Advanced reactors are likely to be safer than conventional nuclear. New reactors improve safety with technological upgrades and additional safeguards, including better cooling methods. Existing U.S. nuclear reactors use water to cool the reactor core and moderate the nuclear fission chain reaction. While some advanced reactors are new versions of existing lightwater-cooled reactors, most advanced reactor designs use new ways to cool the reactor core and moderate the fission process. For example, molten salt-cooled reactors allow a nuclear facility to operate safely at lower pressures and higher temperatures. Molten salts are much more resistant to higher temperatures and, when used as coolants, can help avoid accidents. 

Many advanced reactors also have passive safety features. They minimize the need for operator actions and, as such, reduce the risk of harm to operators. In a pressurized reactor, passive safety measures might include automatic pressure relief if conditions within the reactor become too unstable for safe operation, which can help avoid an accident. Some reactors use convection cells and rely on natural properties of physics to cool off the reactor core without the need for an external power source.

Other advanced designs rely on gravity to ensure safety. For instance, some molten salt reactors have “plug and drain” systems, which have a safety stop beneath the molten salt that melts if temperatures get too high.20 Once the stopper melts, the molten salt drains into a backup containment unit to cool naturally and avoid overheating. Of course, even with passive safety measures, many advanced reactors will still require operators and staff on-site to respond in the case of an emergency. 

Some questions still need to be answered. For example, new reactor technologies may change the landscape for nuclear waste in ways that aren’t yet clear.21 Many of the proposed advanced reactor designs would generate new waste streams, and developers will need to understand how to manage them.22 Reactor developers, innovators, and researchers are working to better understand the safety implications of advanced reactor waste management. 

How can communities get involved in the adoption of advanced nuclear energy?

"With advanced nuclear, reactor developers and buyers have an opportunity to engage with potential host communities more meaningfully than in the past."

With advanced nuclear, reactor developers and buyers have an opportunity to engage with potential host communities more meaningfully than in the past. Historically, utilities and project developers have viewed public engagement as a hurdle to clear, taking a “trust the experts23 approach to project siting and charging ahead without taking local perspectives into account.24 This approach can backfire. For instance, developers constructed a nuclear power plant in Shoreham, New York, without consulting adjacent communities, sparking a protest rally of more than 15,000 people against the plant’s operation that contributed toward its cancellation.25 

Nuclear project developers have spent significant time and resources fending off lawsuits and pushback from concerned community groups. This issue is not unique to nuclear energy; across the country, communities and advocacy groups continue to oppose clean energy projects of all kinds.26 Advanced reactor development will face the same resistance unless the nuclear industry takes local outreach seriously and strives to build relationships and mutual trust with those who live in and around nuclear projects. 

Both communities and the nuclear industry can benefit from more collaborative and equitable siting processes. With smaller-scale nuclear of many sizes and applications, host communities can participate in the decision-making for advanced reactor projects. At the same time, by engaging with local community leaders and organizations, nuclear project developers can risk fewer costly delays due to lawsuits and local opposition. Advanced reactors are unlikely to be suitable for every community: ultimately, it’s in the community’s and the developer’s best interests that projects proceed only if host communities feel advanced reactors are a good fit. 

While successful community engagement will look different in every community, several key pillars define an equitable local engagement process. These include seeking early input from community members, hosting open and transparent dialogues, elevating and centering local voices, and adapting to local contexts and values. Project developers and communities should also define mutually agreeable off-ramps for the community to back out of the reactor project without penalty if predetermined economic or attitudinal conditions change.  Successful infrastructure projects often feature commitments to a community.27 For instance, a community may need more resources or technical expertise to engage meaningfully in a siting decision-making process. Creative funding mechanisms can enable a more participatory approach and empower communities to steer the project in a locally suitable direction.28

How can advanced nuclear fit into an equitable clean energy future?

"Repowering coal with nuclear could benefit communities and project developers alike, bringing in new jobs while supporting the local economy and decreasing utility costs."

The world will need a mix of clean energy sources to meet global climate goals and phase out fossil fuels. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts a 50% increase in global electricity demand by 2050, while other estimates predict that demand will double.29 Advanced nuclear is well suited to help meet that growth in demand, offering a reliable source of carbon-free electricity to complement renewable energy.

Advanced nuclear offers diverse economic benefits to communities by supporting high-paying jobs at nuclear facilities and local businesses. Nuclear facilities also pay local and state taxes over their decades of operation, helping to boost education and public services in communities.30 

New reactor construction provides a path forward for energy communities often left behind in the clean energy transition.31 For instance, repowering coal power plants with nuclear energy could support these communities with well-paid jobs, many of whose skillsets overlap with coal plant workers. A DOE report estimated that 80% of retired and operating U.S. coal plants could host an advanced reactor.32 

Repowering coal with nuclear could benefit communities and project developers alike, bringing in new jobs while supporting the local economy and decreasing utility costs. One DOE study33 found that replacing a 924 MW-electric coal plant with nuclear could increase regional economic activity by $275 million and add 650 new, high-paying, and stable jobs.34 One of the first demonstrations of advanced reactors will take place near a retiring coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming.35 TerraPower intends to begin construction on this reactor this decade.36 If the project goes ahead, the Natrium SMR will bring thousands of temporary construction jobs37 and hundreds of permanent, high-paying energy jobs38 to a community that has historically relied on the coal plant for jobs and revenue.

"Adding advanced nuclear to the energy mix expands the options that communities can consider in achieving a lower-carbon energy future that works for them."

Nuclear host communities also experience some benefits that coal communities do not. On average, residential properties near nuclear plants are nearly $40,000 more valuable than homes near coal plants. Reactor host communities tend to experience lower poverty levels and higher local incomes,40 with nuclear plant workers paid about 15% higher salaries41 than coal plant workers. Like existing nuclear plants, advanced reactors release no emissions during operation, improving public health for surrounding communities. 

Of course, nuclear project developers should engage with these and other communities to determine whether advanced nuclear might be a good fit. Adding advanced nuclear to the energy mix expands the options that communities can consider in achieving a lower-carbon energy future that works for them.