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Smaller, cheaper, safer: The next generation of nuclear power, explained

May 1, 2023

The nuclear industry’s big bet on going small

By Umair Irfan

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Inside the Transient Reactor Test Facility, a towering, windowless gray block surrounded by barbed wire, researchers are about to embark on a mission to solve one of humanity’s greatest problems with a tiny device.

Next year, they will begin construction on the MARVEL reactor. MARVEL stands for Microreactor Applications Research Validation and EvaLuation. It’s a first-of-a-kind nuclear power generator, cooled with liquid metal and producing 100 kilowatts of energy. By 2024, researchers expect MARVEL will be the zero-emissions engine of the world’s first nuclear microgrid here at Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

“Micro” and “tiny,” of course, are relative. MARVEL stands 15 feet tall, weighs 2,000 pounds, and can fit in the trailer of a semi-truck. But compared to conventional nuclear power plants, which span acres, produce gigawatts of electricity to power whole states, and can take more than a decade to build, it’s minuscule.

For INL, where scientists have tested dozens of reactors over the decades across an area three-quarters the size of Rhode Island, it’s a radical reimagining of the technology. This reactor design could help overcome the biggest obstacles to nuclear energy: safety, efficiency, scale, cost, and competition. MARVEL is an experiment to see how all these pieces could fit together in the real world.

“It’s an applications test reactor where we’re going to try to figure out how we extract heat and energy from a nuclear reactor and apply it — and combine it with wind and solar and other energy sources,” said Yasir Arafat, head of the MARVEL program.

Smaller, cheaper, safer: The next generation of nuclear power, explained
Advanced nuclear reactors, especially smaller designs, could help solve many of the persistent problems with nuclear energy. Paige Vickers for Vox
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