Chu Says New Small Reactors Won't Spew

Conventional nuclear reactors may not be safe enough to operate near cities—if you take Energy Secretary Steven Chu at his word—but small module reactors are "much, much safer," he said at a Pew Environment Group forum in Washington this afternoon.
In February, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reversed longstanding opposition to small reactors and issued a request for information to gauge the interest and plans of potential manufacturers.
The NRC considers reactors small if they produce less than 300 megawatts. The Fukushima nuclear plant consisted of four reactors with a capacity of 1,100 megawatts each. But module reactors can be much smaller, producing perhaps 25 megawatts in an underground chamber:
One idea is to create enclosed, small "modular reactors," like the one developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory and now proffered by Santa Fe, N.M.'s Hyperion Power. Its $50-million product would be an enclosed reactor roughly 1.5 meters wide by 2.5 meters tall; generating 25 megawatts, it would be buried underground and good for at least seven years. In fact, the promotional materials, on display at a booth at the inaugural ARPA-E conference, show nothing but a green field with a single tree. Think large (hidden) battery, the company urges.
On Wednesday, Chu suggested module reactors should appear with solar and wind power in a new U.S. energy policy designed to win "the race" with China and other nations to develop clean energy sources, according to Brian Wingfield, who covered the forum for Bloomberg.
Solar and wind power would become cost competitive in this decade, Chu predicted.
The advantage, to Chu, of small reactors is that they produce no carbon pollution. They produce spent fuel, however. They are just as capable as large conventional reactors of suffering a molten core, but their diminuitive size may simplify containment.
Chu's endorsement of small reactors comes on the heels of remarks Sunday in which he suggested the U.S. would reconsider placing conventional nuclear reactors near populated areas.
"Certainly where you site reactors and where we site reactors going forward will be different than where we might have sited them in the past," Chu said during an appearance on Fox News Sunday.
"Any time there is a serious accident, we have to learn from those accidents and go forward."
On Tuesday, Sen Barbara Boxer (D-CA) revealed that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had told her two California nuclear plants are in areas rated with the highest seismic hazard: The San Onofre plant north of Los Angeles and the Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo.
Earlier in the week week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the NRC has promised to examine New York's Indian Point reactor first.
Boxer didn't address Indian Point, but she tried to shift attention to the opposite coast: "New information about the severe seismic risk at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the Diablo Canyon Power Plant make clear that these two plants require immediate attention in light of the catastrophic events in Japan."
In fact, President Obama has directed the NRC to conduct a security check of all 104 U.S. reactors.
The main guest at this afternoon's Pew event had long been former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Chu was recently added to the program.
This morning, Pew announced it had hired Granholm as an advisor to "to launch a national campaign for clean energy policies that create jobs, stimulate innovation, spur investment and enhance America’s competitiveness in the global clean energy race."

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