Nuclear energy is not just the darling of rogue countries anymore. As The Washington Post reports, nuclear power is making a comeback — and soon smaller reactors may be sitting at the end of small town Main Street. Living near a nuclear plant is potentially dangerous — a meltdown is a catastrophic event — but proponents of nuclear energy say coal plants carry 100 times more radiation into surrounding areas than nuclear reactors. Further, nuclear energy emits no carbon dioxide.

Consequently, environmental activists and politicians are joining together to promote it. In 2006, Greenpeace founding member Patrick Moore famously pointed out that nuclear energy is the only large-scale, cost-effective energy source that can reduce carbon dioxide emissions while maintaining power for the population. Moore received a lot of heat for his statements, but he’s not alone in making them. Other eco-activists have advocated nuclear energy, while Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates has invested millions in nuclear energy research.

Further, President Barack Obama recently announced the construction of the first nuclear power plant since the 1970s. He has announced more than $8 billion in federal loans for new power plants, all in the hopes of reducing American carbon dioxide output. As he told reporters in February, "On an issue that affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can't continue to be mired in the same old stale debates between left and right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs. Our competitors are racing to create jobs and command growing energy industries. And nuclear energy is no exception.”

All this has led to new innovations in the field: namely, in smaller, localized nuclear reactors. Dan Ingersoll works with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. As he told the Post, "It's getting very difficult and very expensive to lay new transmission lines. This offers the possibility of providing isolated communities with power." The Department of Energy is working on models that can produce 300 megawatts, which could power a small city. The DOE may even look into models that produce 50 megawatts, enough to power a town.

These new reactors may also be smaller and more efficient. Gate’s venture, TerraPower, is trying to eliminate some of the problems with current nuclear power, including the use of the fuel to build weapons. TerraPower is working on a “traveling wave reactor” that would be powered by depleted uranium. Another advantage of the smaller plants is that they would be buried — less of a “bull’s eye” for terrorists. If the use of depleted uranium as a power source comes to fruition, the Post reports that there is already enough depleted uranium to power 10 billion Americans for 100 millennia.

Ultimately, the future of these smaller nuclear reactors is unknown. Experts say that other free sources of energy, such as wind and solar, are much less expensive to build. In the end, economics will decide if a wind turbine or a small nuclear reactor gets built in any town.

For further reading:

Mini nuclear reactors may soon appear in a town near you
Experts argue that the downsized power sources can provide safe, efficient energy.