This article is part of a series covering Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Scroll visited different projects from INL, and this publication covers the Center for Advanced Studies (CAES) located in Idaho Falls.

Idaho National Laboratory is leading the development of nuclear power with the introduction of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). With their unique design, SMRs are not just redefining nuclear power, they’re shaping the future of global energy.

CAES contains many radio active samples for research purposes.

CAES contains many radio active samples for research purposes. Photo credit: Chester Chan

Small Modular Reactors explained

SMRs are a type of nuclear fission reactor. They are unique as they are built in factories and come in modules that can be put together in different sizes to produce varying amounts of electricity. These reactors are significantly smaller than traditional nuclear plants, typically ranging from 1/10 to 1/4 their size.

According to the Department of Energy, SMRs stand out due to their small size, reduced capital investment and ability to be sited in diverse locations.

“The new generation of SMRs are designed to be passive so they don’t have pumps,” said George Griffith, the relationship manager at INL and the lead for Technical Business Development & Marketing. “They use the natural circulation of water, allowing them to effectively shut down when necessary, enhancing their safety and simplicity.”

Their compact, simplified designs and advanced safety features make them uniquely advantageous. Unlike traditional reactors, SMRs can be assembled in a factory and transported to the site, making them a cost-effective and time-efficient solution.

SMRs, as Griffith explains, are smaller versions of traditional nuclear reactors and represent a shift in nuclear technology.

Griffith elaborated on SMRs’ safety features, saying that the natural circulation of water and a few mechanical components improve and simplify operations.

Why SMRs matter in today’s energy landscape

Griffith said that there are long-term economic benefits of SMRs, which allow a stable, dispatchable power source for up to 80 years.

“I think the story of the future will be that (renewable and nuclear power will) work together better together than they do individually,” Griffith said.

SMRs present a promising avenue for meeting diverse energy needs, reducing environmental impact, enhancing safety, creating jobs and increasing renewable energy such as wind and solar power.

Traditional nuclear power, while sustainable, can come with drawbacks. They take up a large amount of physical space, are expensive and require maintenance.

Small Modular Reactors (SMR) hopes to be the next frontier in sustainable energy.

Small Modular Reactors (SMR) hopes to be the next frontier in sustainable energy. Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy

But with INL’s new SMRs, they are smaller and more adaptable, according to Griffith.

“The new scale reactor, for example, is going to be 77 megawatts,” Griffith said. “So, less than a tenth the size of a conventional reactor.”

This downsizing, both in physical space and resource requirements, opens the door for smaller cities and towns to harness nuclear energy. By reducing the barriers to entry — such as cost and space requirements — SMRs offer a better option for communities that might not have considered nuclear power as a viable energy source.

Griffith points out that although smaller, SMRs are still massive in size. They require 35 acres, while a traditional plant takes 500 acres.

“It’s like saying a Boeing 737 is a small jet airplane,” Griffith said. “It’s still a massive plane.”

Carbon Free Power Project rendering.

Carbon Free Power Project rendering. Photo credit: Idaho National Laboratory

Griffith’s nuclear power career

Griffith’s journey into the nuclear field is marked by a lifelong fascination with science and engineering.

“I was always fascinated with cars and airplanes and helicopters … and science,” Griffith said, reflecting on his formative years.

At INL, Griffith’s focus is on SMRs, a technology he sees as transformative. Griffith shares INL’s commitment to a sustainable future with a Net Zero Initiative.

This plan involves an overhaul of current systems, including electrification of processes and transportation, waste management for reduced carbon output and adoption of zero-carbon fuel sources.

“We’re even looking at things like tiny microreactors … which are sort of 10 megawatts and less,” Griffith said.

These microreactors represent a new frontier in nuclear technology.

Size and power comparison between conventional reactors vs SMRs vs Microreactors.

Size and power comparison between conventional reactors vs SMRs vs Microreactors. Photo credit: International Atomic Energy Agency

Beyond this, Griffith said that nuclear power applications can be versatile, from large nuclear power plants capable of powering countries to SMRs for mid-sized cities, down to microreactors suited for smaller, critical applications.