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NuScale, the Corvallis company that’s trying to develop smaller, modular nuclear reactors, got caught in a national crossfire last week.

It’s all part of a fascinating national debate about the future of nuclear power – and, frankly, it only was a matter of time before NuScale, which is working to commercialize technology developed at Oregon State University, got drawn into the debate.

A bit of background: NuScale is one of a number of companies trying to develop these smaller reactors. NuScale says its design is safer and more cost-effective than traditional, larger nuclear reactors. The company, like others involved in developing these so-called SMRs (small, modular reactors), still faces a lengthy process to get its design licensed by the federal government.

Last week, though, a Washington think tank, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, launched a broadside against the entire SMR notion.

The organization, which is upfront about its anti-nuclear agenda, challenged both of the key ideas helping to propel work on the smaller reactors.

First, the institute questioned the idea that the smaller reactors would, in fact, be cheaper to build. In essence, the institute’s position is that building the reactors would require enormous government subsidies to create the necessary supply chains.

The institute also questioned the idea of whether the smaller reactors would, in fact, be safer.

Although the report didn’t really specifically single out NuScale, company officials fired back, arguing that manufacturers likely would seize the opportunity to expand their facilities in a relatively cost-efficient manner once the company’s design earned federal certification.

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And NuScale officials noted that the company’s reactor design already has endured a decade’s worth of safety tests — with much more testing still to come.

In a backhanded way, though, you might argue that NuScale should be pleased by the institute’s report. It sends a clear signal that the idea of these small modular reactors has advanced to the point where an avowed foe of nuclear power sees the need to counterattack.

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And the entire incident underlines an increasingly fascinating debate about the future of nuclear power, a controversy that reached a simmering point earlier this year with the release of a documentary named “Pandora’s Promise.”

In the documentary (which I haven’t seen yet), filmmaker Robert Stone — who earlier made a pair of environmental documentaries — profiles a handful of environmentalists who have come to the same conclusion he has: That nuclear power, because it doesn’t generate greenhouse gases, is the safest way to wean the world off fossil fuels.

As you might imagine, the documentary touched a variety of nerves — and, to be honest, I haven’t had a chance to fully assess all the arguments for myself.

A couple of things certain, though: First, it’s obvious that nuclear power still triggers considerable passion. But perhaps the time has come to try to dissipate some of that heat and to look at the entire issue in some fresh light.

And, second: the mid-valley’s NuScale, for better or for worse, now has a front-row seat in this important discussion. (mm)

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Mike McInally is the editor of the Democrat-Herald. He can be reached at 541-812-6097 or mike.mcinally@lee.net

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