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The Forgotten History of Small Nuclear Reactors

Economics killed small nuclear power plants in the past—and probably will keep doing so

13 min read
The Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Plant, Unit 1, in Newport, Mich. was an early small nuclear reactor constructed with funding from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. It reached criticality in 1963 and operated until 1972, despite suffering a partial meltdown
The Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Plant, Unit 1, in Newport, Mich. was an early small nuclear reactor constructed with funding from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. It reached criticality in 1963 and operated until 1972, despite suffering a partial meltdown in 1966.
Photo: Everett Collection/Alamy

A tantalizing proposition has taken hold again in the nuclear industry: that small nuclear reactors have economic and other advantages over the standard-size ones being built today. The idea is that by reducing the substantial financial risk of a full-scale nuclear project, small reactors are the best option for kick-starting a much-discussed revival of nuclear power.

Although concerns about climate change have led energy planners to retain nuclear power as an option, the technology remains in stasis or decline throughout the Americas and Europe. Two new nuclear projects now under way in the United States were the first to be awarded construction licenses in the country since the late 1970s. Globally, nuclear power produced about 11 percent [PDF] of all electricity in 2013, down from its high of 17.6 percent in 1996, according to data from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014. In the United States, the number of operating nuclear power plants has slipped below 100, with the recent shutdown of the Vermont Yankee plant.

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When Gamers Get Nasty

Researchers grapple with subjectivity as they develop aIgorithms to detect toxicity in online gaming

2 min read
A man wearing a headset is seen in a dark room playing video games
Getty Images

Online gaming is a chance for players to come together, socialize and enjoy some friendly competition. Unfortunately, this enjoyable activity can be hindered by abusive language and toxicity, negatively impacting the gaming experience and causing psychological harm. Gendered and racial toxicity, in particular, are all too common in online gaming.

To combat this issue, various groups of researchers have been developing AI models that can detect toxic behavior in real-time as people play. One group recently developed a new model, which is described in a study published May 23 in IEEE Transactions on Games. While the model can detect toxicity with a fair amount of accuracy, its development demonstrates just how challenging it can be to determine what is considered toxic—a subjective matter.

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Quantum Computing for Dummies

New guide helps beginners run quantum algorithms on IBM's quantum computers over the cloud

3 min read
An image of the inside of an IBM quantum computer.
IBM

Quantum computers may one day rapidly find solutions to problems no regular computer might ever hope to solve, but there are vanishingly few quantum programmers when compared with the number of conventional programmers in the world. Now a new beginner's guide aims to walk would-be quantum programmers through the implementation of quantum algorithms over the cloud on IBM's publicly available quantum computers.

Whereas classical computers switch transistors either on or off to symbolize data as ones or zeroes, quantum computers use quantum bits, or "qubits," which because of the peculiar nature of quantum physics can exist in a state called superposition where they are both 1 and 0 at the same time. This essentially lets each qubit perform two calculations at once. The more qubits are quantum-mechanically linked, or entangled (see our explainer), within a quantum computer, the greater its computational power can grow, in an exponential fashion.

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