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Downsizing Nuclear Power Plants

Modular designs rely on "economies of multiples" to make smaller reactors pay off big

4 min read

A standard nuclear power plant generates a gigawatt or more of low-carbon power, a boon in this age of anxiety over climate change. The problem is getting the thing built in the first place: At US $7 billion to $10 billion apiece, nuclear plants are tough for even the largest utilities to finance.

President Obama proposes to handle the problem by tripling federal loan guarantees to such plants, to $54 billion. But now a more economical solution is coming under scrutiny: downsizing nuclear plants from gigawatt scale to more affordable units that can be built by the dozen. ”Size matters. In this case, small size,” says Andrew Kadak, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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