美国核协会（American Nuclear Society）的夏季会议原本可能是场觉醒。
过去几年的“核能复兴运动”堪称如火如荼。截至2009年，美国核能管理委员会（U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission）已收到了20座核电厂的兴建申请。然而，随着福岛核事故的噩梦袭来，这场复兴戛然而止。夏季会议中有两场小组会议（而非一场）都专门用来讨论这场浩劫的惨痛教训。此前数周，美国8个州的立法机关分别制定了相关规定，给这个行业带来不同程度的冲击。同时，全球最大核能供应商的股价在灾后遭遇大幅跳水，至今一直未恢复元气。即便是会议举办地佛罗里达州的一派奢华海边度假胜地景象，也无法掩盖核能产业此时的失落。
直到最终灾难爆发。Flibe Energy创始人科克•索伦森称：“福岛事故标志着传统轻水反应堆的消亡。”Flibe Energy位于美国阿拉巴马州亨茨维尔，是一家备受推崇的核技术初创企业。他并不是唯一一个持有这种观点的人。美国核未来蓝丝带委员会（Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future）下属的反应堆及燃料循环技术分委员会（Reactor and Fuel Cycle Technology Subcommittee）发布了一篇有关未来可行反应堆的报告草案。报告介绍了有望得到政府批准的下一代反应堆。委员会主席、加州大学伯克利分校（UC Berkeley）物理学家派尔•彼得森称：“福岛事故提供了一个强大的诱因，将促使公共部门购买更先进技术的。”
目前，生意已经上门。今夏，田纳西河流域管理局（Tennessee Valley Authority）与核能承包商Babcock & Wilcox签署了一项协议，在田纳西州克林奇河上建造六个小型模块式反应堆，标志着这种设计首次被用于商业发电。法国近80%发电量来自核能，该国政府最近宣布投资9亿欧元，用于核能研究和开发。在美国佐治亚州和南加利福尼亚州，两座基于类似设计的工厂也已经启动了前期建设工作。
但这并不意味着一切都已经明朗。拖累核能复兴脚步的不是人们对类似福岛事故的恐惧，而是老生常谈的经济问题。全球经济复苏步伐停滞不前，加上债务忧虑，导致需求滞后。现任能源部顾问、曾长期担任Burns and Roe工程公司首席核能工程师的查尔斯•赫斯抱怨道：“（电力）负荷增长停滞，甚至出现负增长，核电业主们都决定推迟新的建造计划。”这意味着，暂时不会出现飞跃式的发展。
The summer meeting of the American Nuclear Society could have been a wake.
The exuberant "nuclear renaissance" of the past few years -- by 2009, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had received applications for 20 new plants -- fizzled in the wake of the Fukushima nightmare. Not one, but two conference sessions were entirely devoted to the painful lessons of that catastrophe. In the weeks before, eight separate state legislatures had dealt the industry blows of varying severity. And, the stock prices of the world's largest nuclear suppliers had yet to recover from a drastic post-disaster dive. Not even the posh seaside resort in Florida where the conference was held could mask what a lousy time it was to be in the nuclear business.
But as harrowing as the Fukushima debacle has been, it hasn't dimmed the hopes of nuclear technologists, suppliers and manufacturers. It may, in fact, even allow the industry to move beyond the creaking technology of the past few decades, selling state of the art reactors much sooner than it might have otherwise. Some even quietly liken Fukushima to the devastating asteroid strike that doomed the dinosaurs and gave rise to more advanced species.
The fact is new reactor research and development has long been stalled in the United States, since President Jimmy Carter killed the Clinch River breeder reactor program in the wake of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. By the 1980s, innovation in nuclear power essentially ground to a halt. Today, some 85% of the electricity generated by nuclear plants comes from facilities of a similar design as Fukushima. As renewed interest and demand began taking off over the past decade, firms eagerly peddled evolutionary designs they assumed utilities would buy. Nuclear operators, meanwhile, squeezed new life out of old reactors through so-called "uprating" -- running plants longer and at higher power outputs than originally intended.
Until disaster struck. "Fukushima marked the death of conventional light-water reactors," says Kirk Sorensen, founder of Flibe Energy, a highly regarded nuclear technology startup based in Huntsville, Alabama. He's not the only one who thinks so. In June, the Reactor and Fuel Cycle Technology Subcommittee, a branch of the vaunted Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, released the draft version of its report on possible future reactors. It gave the next generation of reactors as close to a government endorsement as the industry has gotten in years. "What Fukushima has done is create a much larger incentive for utilities to purchase more advanced technologies," says the committee's chair, UC Berkeley physicist Per Peterson.
"For us Fukushima actually raised our priority level somewhat in discussions in other countries," says John Gilleland, CEO of TerraPower, the advanced-reactor startup backed by Intellectual Ventures, the technology incubator founded by former Microsoft (MSFT) CTO Nathan Myhrvold.
The industry is betting its future on so-called Gen III designs, small modular reactors designed to be impervious to the kind of electrical failures that allowed the Fukushima reactors to overheat uncontrollably. They're theoretically cheaper to build and thus more efficient on a cost-per-kilowatt basis than conventional reactors. (Westinghouse's Gen III design, the AP1000, promises an eventual construction cost of under $2000 per kilowatt of capacity -- well below the $5000-plus per-kilowatt estimates of other new nuclear builds.) They produce less toxic waste to be stored indefinitely, and some can even consume waste left over from current, outmoded reactors.
Customers have bitten. This summer, the Tennessee Valley Authority signed an agreement with nuclear contractor Babcock & Wilcox to build six small, modular reactors on the Clinch River in Tennessee, marking the first such developments for commercial power generation. The government of France, a country that already gets nearly 80% of its electricity from nuclear, just announced plans to invest €900 million in nuclear power research and development. Pre-construction work has already begun on two plants in Georgia and South Carolina based on similar designs.
But that doesn't mean everything is in the clear. What's slowing down the nuclear renaissance is not fear of another Fuskushima; it's plain old economics. Depressed by the halting global recovery and by debt fears, demand is lagging. "With [electricity] load growth being flat or negative the owners are deciding to delay new construction projects," Charles Hess, the longtime chief nuclear engineer at Burns and Roe who is now a consultant to the Department of Energy, laments. And that means, big leaps forward may yet have to wait.