Everything about nuclear energy seems terrifically big: the cost, construction and decommissioning — and the fears of something going badly wrong. The future, however, may well be much smaller. Dozens of companies are working on a new generation of reactors that, they promise, can deliver nuclear power at lower cost and reduced risk.

These small-scale plants will on average generate between 50MW and 300MW of power compared with the 1,000MW-plus from a conventional reactor. They will draw on modular manufacturing techniques that will reduce construction risk, which has plagued larger-scale projects. Supporters believe these advanced modular reactors (AMRs) — most of which will not be commercial until the 2030s — are critical if atomic power is to compete against the rapidly falling costs of solar and wind.

“The physics hasn’t changed. It’s about much cleverer design that offers much-needed flexibility in terms of operation,” said Tim Stone, long-term industry adviser and chairman of Nuclear Risk Insurers, which insures nuclear sites in the UK. Since the Fukushima meltdown in Japan in 2011, safety fears have threatened nuclear power. But the biggest obstacle today is economic. In western Europe, just three plants are under construction: in the UK at Hinkley Point C in Somerset; at Flamanville in France; and at Olkiluoto in Finland. All involve the European Pressurized Reactor technology of EDF that will be used at Hinkley Point. All are running years late and over budget. In the US, the first two nuclear projects under way for the past 30 years are also blowing through cost estimates.