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By Lauren Rodman and Kristy Hartman

Nuclear energy continues to play an important role in generating the nation’s electricity. In fact, commercial nuclear reactors produce about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Cross-sectional view of a NuScale Power Module. Reproduced with permission, 2014 NuScale Power, LLC. All rights reserved.The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates domestic electricity demand will increase by as much as 29 percent between 2012 and 2040 and public support for low-emission technologies may help drive the future of the domestic nuclear energy industry.

But an aging reactor fleet, rising construction and maintenance costs, safety concerns, the lack of a national radioactive waste storage site and increasing pressure from low-cost natural gas pose challenges for the industry. However, the development of small modular reactors (SMRs), one of the latest nuclear energy technology innovations, offers the potential to mitigate some of these challenges and has inspired renewed interest in the nuclear industry.  

At roughly one-third the size of current nuclear power plants, these small reactors could generate approximately 300 megawatts of electricity. According to the Department of Energy, a single small modular reactor could power about 230,000 homes each year.

SMRs are small enough to have major components assembled in factories so that the parts can be shipped and assembled on site, helping to reduce the cost of these reactors. They also can be built below ground, reducing potential threats of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster. Incorporating lessons learned from the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, proposed SMR models are known as passively safe systems—meaning they are designed to safely shut down and self-cool without operator interaction, electricity or water.

SMRs are still in the design phase, but with the support of federal, state and private investment, several models are expected to be operational by the mid-2020s.

Tune into “Small Modular Nuclear Reactors: Can the Latest Nuclear Technology Transform the Nuclear Industry?” on Thursday, June 19, at 3 p.m. ET/ 2 p.m. CT/ 1 p.m. MT/  Noon PT for the final webinar in NCSL’s Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee’s 2014 Spring Webinar series. Hear experts from the Department of Energy, industry, and local government discuss the unique characteristics of SMRs and state and federal efforts to support SMR technologies. Register now for this FREE webinar at the NCSL website.

Lauren Rodman is a research analyst and Kristy Hartman is a policy specialist with NCSL's Environment, Energy and Transportation program.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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