Miniaturization: The Future of Nuclear Energy

Alexander Barakat
March 16, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: SMRs are made onsite and then transported fully constructed. [6] (Courtesy of the DOE)

The main challenges facing nuclear energy today are cost, safety, and waste management. The industry is at an all time low with now less than 100 hundred reactors across the US. [1] On top of that, the premiere commercial nuclear designer, Westinghouse, went bankrupt last year. [2] Its final two reactors (1,100 MW each) were abandoned, after projected costs skyrocketed and the projected construction time was lengthened.

Combine this economic inefficiency with rising concerns over the frequency of events such as Fukushima and the out of sight, out of mind plan to simply bury the toxic waste underground and it becomes harder and harder to defend the use of nuclear reactors. For many, this is clear evidence that the industry needs to change, and fast. Mirroring the trend Moore's Law is bringing about in the tech sector, there are those who place their hopes for the future of nuclear energy in miniaturization.

The Small Modular Reactor

Small Modular Reactors (SMR) are defined as reactors that have an electricity output of less than 300 MW. [3] They are manufactured at the production plant and then installed onsite fully constructed(see fig.1) The benefits on the side of the consumer are three fold: SMRs are more transportable, require less uranium fuel, and are more affordable. As well as producing less energy, they require less time and money to build. However, there are those who have concerns that SMRs are not economically viable because they lack economies of scale. While this is true, this could be balanced by savings in mass production economies. This occurs because for any required installation of power, there will be around 3 times more small plants required than large plants. The small, modular nature of the reactors also cuts production time significantly and increases flexibility. [4]

SMRs might also be able to provide fossil-fuel free power in places never before thought possible. Larger scale nuclear power plants require connections to large scale power grids to maintain stability. For MEDCs around the world this may not be an issue, however there are many people who live in more isolated or smaller scale communities which cannot provide the stability needed for a large power plants. Combined with the mass production economy of scale there is also huge potential upside to SMRs in the form of a large untapped market to be able to provide cleaner energy to smaller communities. [5]

While the SMR do show promise, not all issues have been addressed, and waste management continues to be a major problem facing the future of all nuclear energy.

© Alexander Barakat. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Nuclear Power Reactors in the World," International Atomic Energy Agency, 2017.

[2] D. Cardwell and J. Soble, "Westinghouse Files for Bankruptcy, in Blow to Nuclear Power," New York Times, 29 Mar 17.

[3] A. Glaser et al., "Small Modular Reactors," Andlinger Center, Princeton University, June 2015.

[4] D. Handoko, "Small Modular Reactors," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.

[5] G. Locatelli and M. Mancini, "Small - Medium Sized Nuclear Coal and Gas Powerplant: A Probabilistic Analysis of Their Financial Performances and Influence of CO2 Cost," Energy Policy 38 5072, (2010).

[6] S. E. Geene et al., "Pre-Conceptual Design of a Fluoride-Salt-Cooled Small Modular Advanced High-Temperature Reactor (SmAHTR)," Oak Ridge National Laboratory, ORNL/TM-210/199, December 2010.