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Interactive: Small Modular Reactors - Safe and Cheaper?

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In the wake of the Fukushima accident, and on the anniversary of Chernobyl, the debate over whether nuclear power can be safe and economical enough to be a big part of the world's energy future, especially for helping to reduce global warming emissions, is in full swing once again. The danger of a major accident that releases significant amounts of radioactivity is just part of it. Power plants also generate radioactive waste that has to be disposed of somehow, and the creation and transportation of nuclear fuel raises the risk of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium finding its way into the hands of bomb-makers. On top of this, how much it will cost to build enough power plants to make a dent in global CO2 emissions is uncertain — especially if Fukushima leads to tougher safety regulations.

For decades, though, some nuclear engineers have been pushing an alternate technology that they claim could address all of these concerns. Called Small Modular Reactors (SMR's), these plants, which have been proposed with a variety of designs, would be inherently cheaper to build and safer to operate than conventional plants — or at least, so their proponents argue. They may be right, but so far the nuclear industry hasn't had enough real-world experience with any of the proposed designs to know how well their performance lives up to their theoretical promise.

Here are some of the ways SMR designs would differ from conventional nuclear power plants.