For Big Clean Energy Results, Think Small

10/04/2010 09:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What if we could build a power plant that could provide electricity to tens of thousands of homes with zero carbon emissions? What if we could build it to have a footprint a fraction of the size of existing nuclear reactors? What if we could link a few of them together to make a power plant of virtually any size? What if we could build them in the U.S. and export them to our global competitors?

We can. Or, thanks to American innovation, we will be able to soon. Small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) are exactly the kind of groundbreaking technologies the United States needs to develop to play a big role in generating clean electricity, heat for manufacturing, and jobs for workers in the United States.

These reactors are smaller versions of traditional nuclear reactors that, using proven technology, can provide clean and reliable energy to businesses and consumers. SMRs have the flexibility to incrementally expand capacity at existing power plants. They can also add new capacity at U.S. military installations where independence from the grid is critical for the success of missions. Because these reactors can be cooled by air rather than water, they can more affordably supply baseload clean energy to arid cities in the West where water is at a premium. And because they can fit into a small structure and be sized to match the capacity of existing electrical infrastructure, SMRs provide a viable path to retrofitting old power plants.

To grow ourselves out of the Great Recession, we need technologies like SMRs. U.S. companies are developing the small reactors and readying them for deployment. When they are ready, SMRs will create a significant number of well-paying American jobs in manufacturing, construction and operations, as well as support services ranging from HR to accounting to deploy this new domestic source of clean energy. Just as importantly, SMRs will help create a new global market that U.S. companies will be poised to dominate.

Getting SMRs deployed should be a national imperative. To seize the global market, we need to make sure that there is domestic demand first. The Departments of Energy and Defense can serve as early adopters of SMRs to help drive down the initial cost of the technology. Over the longer term, the government should partner with the private sector to speed the development of next-generation SMR technologies that have broader applications.

The day when we can build a power plant that is scalable, has a small footprint, and generates clean energy is almost here. If we don't seize this opportunity to become the world's leaders in small reactors, other nations will. It's the choice between importing SMRs or building them in the U.S. for domestic and global markets. It's the choice between employing thousands of skilled American workers from Indiana, Michigan, and South Carolina, or employing workers from Shanghai and Ulsan, South Korea. This is one case where thinking small will bring big results.