U.S. can take the lead in nuclear energy development, says expert
With secure energy supplies made an urgent concern worldwide by the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, governments around the world are discussing the construction of small modular nuclear reactors — often referred to for short as SMRs.
“The whole world is worried about energy security,” said Virginia Tech nuclear engineer Alireza Haghighat. “Every country wants to build a nuclear reactor, because they basically figured out, finally, that we cannot rely on others, especially a dictatorial country.”
Haghighat explains that small modular reactors are an important part of these discussions. “The traditional nuclear reactor produces about 1,000 megawatts of electricity, while the output of a small modular reactor can range from 20 megawatts to 300 megawatts. More importantly, the parts for one of these small reactors can be made at a factory and assembled at a site far away,” said Haghighat. “If you want to produce more electricity, then add another SMR to the site. This is why they’re called ‘modular.’”
“Their potential is multifaceted. These reactors could do more than generate energy,” Haghighat said. “They have potential to generate heat for manufacturing processes, generate hydrogen, and create isotopes used in medicine.”
In the United States, no small modular reactors exist outside of those powering U.S. Navy submarines and aircraft carriers. Haghighat said that small nuclear reactors can be constructed anywhere that regulations permit. “There is no challenge that we cannot overcome if we have the will and the necessary resources. In my opinion, the major challenge is training of the workforce at all levels and various aspects of a nuclear project.”
Haghighat is not just referring to the workers needed to operate a plant, but workers with the specialized skills necessary to build a nuclear plant.
“State governments with serious plans to invest in small modular reactors should be prepared to invest in education, from K-12 programs through vocational training and nuclear engineering programs, both undergraduate and graduate,” Haghighat said. “From 1970 to 1990, the U.S. built about 100 nuclear reactors, but very few have been built since and those skills are no longer readily employed.”
“The potential exists for the U.S. to once again become the world leader in nuclear technology, as European countries turn to us to assist in establishing their own energy independence,” said Haghighat. “Reclaiming the lead is urgent. China and Russia are building reactors. They are building them left and right.”
About Alireza Haghighat
Alireza Haghighat, a fellow of the American Nuclear Society, is the Robert E. Hord Jr. Professor and Director of Nuclear Engineering Program in Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech. Haghighat is an internationally known researcher, educator, and leader in the field of nuclear science and engineering. Read his full bio here.
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