New Nukes

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from CNN,

Smaller. Safer. Advanced reactor designs promise cheap electricity without pollution–if makers can overcome nuclear power’s scary, costly reputation.

A growing number of other young scientists interested in energy–Chernobyl is at most a dim memory. They see nuclear power as far from an existential threat to the planet but instead as the best way to save it, and they’re trying to revive the stalled industry with next-generation reactor designs that could change the way a skeptical public views atomic energy.

Leslie Dewan is now getting her doctorate in nuclear engineering at MIT, and in her spare time she co-founded a start-up called Transatomic Power, which has plans to build a safer and cheaper nuclear reactor, one that couldn’t melt down like the older plants at Chernobyl or Fukushima. “I’ve always been concerned about global warming,” she says. “It seemed to me like working in nuclear power was a logical way to do something to help the environment.”

We tend to pay attention to nuclear power only when something goes wrong, but for all its high-profile problems, nuclear has proven less deadly than almost every other form of electricity on a megawatt-by-megawatt basis. (Air pollution from coal, the top source of electricity in the U.S., contributes to the deaths of 14,000 people a year.) And aside from hydroelectric–which has mostly hit its growth limits and has its own side effects–nuclear is the only large-scale, always-on source of power that doesn’t contribute to global warming. If you know about energy and care about climate change–like Dewan–there’s no reason why you wouldn’t be attracted to nuclear.

So if nuclear is going to achieve what young engineers like Dewan and DeWitte are hoping for, the industry is going to need a new generation of reactors that are cheaper and safer. In the U.S., that will start with Southern Co.’s new Vogtle nuclear plants, which began construction in 2009 in northeastern Georgia.

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