By Lori Hinnant

Small underground nuclear power plants that could be cheaper to build than their behemoth counterparts may herald the future for an energy industry under intense scrutiny since the Fukushima disaster, the incoming head of the Nuclear Energy Agency told The Associated Press.

Size is relative – the modular plants could be about as big as a couple of semi-trailers – easily fitting on the dimensions of coal plants they’re ultimately intended to replace in the U.S. They would have factory-built parts that are slotted together like Lego blocks and hauled by train or truck – making assembly possible anywhere.

William Magwood, the incoming director of the Paris-based forum for nuclear energy countries, said the U.S. expects the first licensing applications to build one of the small, modular nuclear reactors in the second half of 2014, a key test to learn whether they can exist beyond the theoretical…

…After Fukushima, disaster plans that took years to put together were scrutinized with new urgency, leading to the realization that even neighboring countries might have very different ideas of what constitutes an emergency.

“A similar accident in Europe would involve several countries, and we are currently in a situation where our decision-making criteria are not the same, in terms of sheltering the population, evacuating, distributing iodine pills,” said Pierre-Franck Chevet, president of France’s Nuclear Safety Authority.

It’s for that reason that Robert Rosner, a physicist at the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute, cautioned against seeing the new technology as the solution for the developing world. Rosner said the units are safer because they’re protected underground against both internal accidents and external attacks, but the effects of nuclear meltdown are both far-ranging and long-lasting.

“The people that operate them have to know what they’re doing and they have to mean it. They can’t be complacent about safety and security,” Rosner said.

But the essence of the technology is there already, in the reactors that power U.S. nuclear subs, Rosner said…

Continue Reading at Associated Press…

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