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Small Nuclear Reactors Won’t Avoid the Problem of Radioactive Waste

Some next-generation reactors may generate more or longer-lasting waste than conventional ones do, according to new research. 

A nuclear waste storage canister stands in a showroom at the Cigeo project, a nuclear laboratory and underground storage facility site operated by the National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management (Andra), in Bure, France.

A nuclear waste storage canister stands in a showroom at the Cigeo project, a nuclear laboratory and underground storage facility site operated by the National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management (Andra), in Bure, France.

Photographer: Alex Kraus/Bloomberg

The world needs abundant, carbon-free power, and advanced nuclear reactors for years have promised an attractive source of that, as well as a supplement to intermittent renewable energy from the sun and wind. So-called small modular reactors (SMRs), which can generate up to a third of the power of existing gigawatt-scale plants, are promoted as less expensive and cumbersome than conventional light-water reactors. 

Regulatory and other barriers preventing their construction are substantial — and have eclipsed scrutiny of proponents’ claims about radioactive waste, according to new research published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors cite one US report stating that highly radioactive wastes could fall 94% by mass and 80% in long-lived radioactivity with the switch to advanced reactors.