When we think of nuclear reactors, our minds naturally springs to a few different thoughts. Most of us immediately jump to Chernobyl or Fukushima and recoil at any notion of the popularization of nuclear energy. The risk is too high, or the payoff is not worth the cost. I was one of these people for a while. However, there are a few, who think of the limitless opportunity when they see nuclear power. And those are the people who are pushing humanity into the future.
Even though nuclear energy has decreased in popularity as a source of domestic energy dramatically over the past decades, there has been continuous behind the scenes research on these reactors that most people aren’t aware of. Institutions such as the Plasma Science And Fusion Center at MIT are doing groundbreaking research in advanced fusion and fission reactors. New nuclear reactor designs/ideas are coming into prominence and gaining momentum this year as they are promising to make this power source safer, cheaper and more reliable.
One of these new ideas is the Generation IV fission reactors. These reactors produce about half as much as a traditional nuclear power plant, but their smaller size and advanced coolants make it much safer. Two companies making major progress with these reactors are TerraPower and Terrestrial Energy.
Another new idea is the small modular reactors. Though they produce much less energy than a normal plant, they are much smaller which saves money and reduces financial/environmental risk. Its size also makes it practical for grid supply- it may be adopted by utilities all around the U.S as early as the 2020s. NuScale is a company in Oregon that has been at the forefront of these efforts.
On the other end of the spectrum, there have been recent advancements in fusion energy as well. In contrast with the normal fission reactors, these reactors create energy by fusing atomic nuclei, rather than splitting them. Fusion reactors are sometimes called the ‘energy of the future’ because unlike its modern brothers, it can’t meltdown, it doesn’t create nuclear waste, and it can derive energy from almost any substance. Something as mundane as water can provide energy through fusion. However, on the very optimistic end, fusion reactors won’t be even close to ready until the 2030s. But when they finally come around, it will mean clean and almost limitless energy, something that is hard to comprehend at this point in history.
Many private companies and international government coalitions are trying to make this dream a reality. Though the dream of fusion energy may seem too far away, recent advancements in plasma physics, computing, and electronics have progressed fusion enough to where it is on the cusp of disrupting the current multi-trillion-dollar energy industry.
Whether we like it or not, nuclear energy is going to make a comeback in our lifetimes. All we can do right now is to learn about it so that we are ready when it does.