Blackwell is not the only person bullish on the security-related aspects of building small.
Tom Sanders, president of the American Nuclear Society and manager of Sandia National Laboratories' Global Nuclear Futures Initiative, has been stumping for small rectors for more than a decade. American-made small reactors, Sanders insists, can play a central role in global nonproliferation efforts.
"Our role at Sandia is the national security-driven notion that it's in the interests of the U.S. to be one of the dominant nuclear suppliers," Sanders said.
While U.S. companies have been exiting the industry over the past decades as government and popular support for new construction has waned, Sanders maintains that strong U.S. participation in the nuclear energy marketplace would give diplomats a new tool to use with would-be nuclear powers.
"It's hard to tell Iran what to do if you don't have anything Iran wants," he explained.
Sanders said mini-reactors are ideal to sell to developing countries that want to boost their manufacturing might and that would otherwise look to other countries for nuclear technologies. If the United States is not participating in that market, he said, it becomes hard to steer buyers away from technologies that pose greater proliferation risks.
Sanders been promoting this view since the 1990s, he said, when he realized "we were no longer selling nuclear goods and services, so we could no longer write the rules." The domestic nuclear industry had basically shut down, with no new construction in decades and a flight of talent and ideas overseas.
There is a silver lining in that brain drain, though, he believes, in that U.S. companies getting back into the game now are less tied to the traditional, giant plants and are freer to innovate.
A feature that several of the new product designs share is that the power plants could be mass-produced in a factory to minimize cost, using robots to ensure consistency. Also, with less design work for each installation, the time to complete an order would be shortened and some of the capital and other costs associated with long lead times avoided, Sanders said.
Another feature he favors is building the plants with a lifetime supply of fuel sealed inside.
Shipped loaded with fuel, such reactors could power a small city for 20 years without the host country ever handling it. Once depleted, the entire plant would be packed back up and shipped back to the United States, he said, with the sensitive spent fuel still sealed away inside.
Sanders is working on a reactor design hatched by the lab with an undisclosed private partner. He believes it is feasible to build a prototype modular reactor -- including demonstration factory components and a mockup of the reactor itself -- as early as 2014, for less than a billion dollars.
A mini-reactor could ring up at less than $200 million, he said, or at $300 million to $400 million with 20 years of fuel. At $3,000 to $4,000 per kilowatt, he said, that would amount to significant savings over estimates of $4,000 to $6,000 per kilowatt for construction alone with traditional plant designs.
To get a design ready to build, Sanders is urging a partnership between the government and the private sector.
"If it's totally a government research program, labs can take 20 to 30 years" to finish such projects, he said. "If it becomes a research science project, it could go on forever."