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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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Video Friday: Humanoid Soccer

Your weekly selection of awesome robot videos

4 min read
Humans and human-size humanoid robots stand together on an indoor soccer field at the beginning of a game

Video Friday is your weekly selection of awesome robotics videos, collected by your friends at IEEE Spectrum robotics. We also post a weekly calendar of upcoming robotics events for the next few months. Please send us your events for inclusion.

CoRL 2022: 14–18 December 2022, AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND
ICRA 2023: 29 May–2 June 2023, LONDON

Enjoy today’s videos!

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Array of devices on a chip

This analog electrochemical memory (ECRAM) array provides a prototype for artificial synapses in AI training.

IBM research

How far away could an artificial brain be? Perhaps a very long way off still, but a working analogue to the essential element of the brain’s networks, the synapse, appears closer at hand now.

That’s because a device that draws inspiration from batteries now appears surprisingly well suited to run artificial neural networks. Called electrochemical RAM (ECRAM), it is giving traditional transistor-based AI an unexpected run for its money—and is quickly moving toward the head of the pack in the race to develop the perfect artificial synapse. Researchers recently reported a string of advances at this week’s IEEE International Electron Device Meeting (IEDM 2022) and elsewhere, including ECRAM devices that use less energy, hold memory longer, and take up less space.

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