In order to develop a competing nuclear technology, it’s crucial to understand today’s competitive energy markets and future needs. Fossil fuels have penetrated every energy market in the world, from vehicles and small-scale generators to large electric power plants. Fossil fuels provide energy in the residential, commercial, industrial, electric and transportation sectors. Today’s commercial nuclear technologies only compete in the electric sector. If nuclear energy is to compete with fossil fuels, then we need to envision a world where nuclear is a large percentage of the overall energy mix and can penetrate all of the energy markets.

The world’s population consumes a huge and increasing amount of energy every day. To put it into perspective, around 400 reactors provide just five percent of the world’s total energy. Therefore, thousands of reactors (if not tens of thousands) would be needed to greatly increase its market share. If nuclear is to compete with fossil fuels in all sectors then we must envision that reactors will become as ubiquitous as cars.

If reactors are everywhere then there are several requirements that a nuclear system must possess in order to penetrate all energy markets:

If nuclear is to compete with fossil fuels in all sectors then we must envision that reactors will become as ubiquitous as cars.

1. A nuclear system will need to be as simple as possible in order to be easily maintained and mass produced.

The world operates about 5,000,000 megawatts (MW) of electric capacity of which less than 400,000 MW is nuclear. If nuclear energy is to replace fossil fuels as the primary source of energy, tens of thousands of reactors or more will need to be built. The simpler the design, the easier it will be to mass-produce and operate.

2. A nuclear system will need to be incredibly safe such that manual operation and intervention is unnecessary under all steady-state and transient scenarios.

If nuclear energy becomes as common as cars, then transients will inevitably occur. In the case of these events, a nuclear system should not have to rely on the actions of its operators to prevent overheating. Instead, the system itself should be designed in such a way that, under all conditions, the reactor causes no impact to the population and the environment.

3. A nuclear system must provide energy at costs competitive with or cheaper than fossil fuels.

Today’s nuclear technologies have many great attributes but the only way nuclear will replace fossil fuels is if they provide competitive or cheaper energy based on existing market conditions. Clean air regulations, climate change initiatives and other legislative options can provide non-financial advantages but a nuclear system should still be able to compete without government intervention.

4. A nuclear system will need to be as small as possible.

If a nuclear system is to become as common as the everyday car then it also needs to be small enough to blend in with society. If nuclear energy is to penetrate all sectors, then we should envision and expect that reactors will be located next to shopping centers, neighborhoods and other densely populated areas. A smaller nuclear system will also be easier and more practical to help meet the three requirements listed above.

A nuclear system that can meet all four requirements has the potential to be the primary choice of energy in the future.