Nuclear energy has long been a technology that most associate with large, expensive reactors that cost billions to build. However, nuclear power can generate massive amounts of energy with zero carbon emissions. The costs to build nuclear plants have skyrocketed even though nuclear power generation in the U.S. peaked in 2012 at 102,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity from 104 nuclear reactors. Fears over nuclear waste generation, as well as the legacy of past nuclear accidents at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island, have made nuclear power a hard sell for the general public. Innovations in nuclear power have the ability to elevate levels of safety while continuing to provide large amounts of carbon-free energy.

Billion-dollar nuclear plants have been used to generate large amounts of utility and industrial-scale electricity, but smaller nuclear reactors can produce similar amounts of energy at cheaper prices. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are nuclear reactors that produce 300 MW per unit. SMRs main draw is that they can provide power to sites that do not have the space for a full-fledged nuclear power plant. These smaller reactors also have the ability to be mass-produced in factories, further driving down costs. The three types of SMRs currently in development – NuPower, GE-Hitachi, and Holtec – all use water-cooled nuclear systems, but other SMRs have the flexibility to use different materials as a coolant.

Even smaller types of nuclear reactors called Micro-Reactors have the ability to be mobile and produce 1-10 MW of power. Similar to SMRs they are factory produced, easily transportable by truck, vessel, or airplane, and are self-adjusting to prevent overheating and meltdowns. Micro-Reactors’ portability can be used to produce energy for commercial use or to serve as a backup source of energy for facilities that run on renewable power. Westinghouse’s new Micro-Reactor can run for up to eight years before refueling and can be transported and installed at a site in less than thirty days. Whether these Micro-Reactors are used for powering a single facility or for wider commercial use, Micro-Reactors’ flexibility means that carbon-free energy can be packaged and dispensed nationwide.

The final type of advanced nuclear reactor is the High-Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactor (HTGR). HTGR’s can be used to provide power to remote locations that would normally be dependent on fossil fuels. Eliminating the need to transport large amounts of fossil fuels can cut down on transport emissions and provide carbon-free energy. Fossil fuel-dependent states like Hawaii, which has to import fuels for their electrical grid could stand to benefit from HTGRs. Up to twenty different types of these reactors are currently in development, with the Chinese- produced HTR-PM connected to the grid in late 2021.

Overall, the innovations in nuclear power stand to make it a crucial energy source in the future. With many European countries choosing to keep their nuclear plants open, leaders in the U.S. and Europe can see the benefits of relying on more nuclear power for their grids as countries push for decarbonization. Nuclear power’s massive amount of carbon-free energy cannot be ignored, and these innovations increase safety standards, portability, and scalability to allow for nuclear power to be more flexible than ever before.


Written by Roy Mathews, Former Public Policy Associate


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.