The crisis in Japan has increased scrutiny of safety mechanisms at nuclear plants, and has evoked calls by several world leaders for the suspension of nuclear power.

But the longer-term result could help speed the adoption of new nuclear technologies, especially small, distributed plants that reduce the quantity of nuclear material stored on site, says Ray Rothrick, managing general partner at Venrock, who was a nuclear engineer in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“In this country, we went through a massive confidence shakeup in nuclear in the '60s and '70s, and I don’t know how to get past that now,” he said.

Rothrick predicted 2020 as the earliest date in the United States could see the new breed of small, modular plants operating, and he said techniques such as natural circulation of water (instead of the pumped water seen in Japan’s nuclear plants) could actually increase confidence in nuclear as a safe source of energy.

Rothrick and Rachel Sheinbein, a principal at CMEA Capital, report that they’re both actively looking to make more investments in breakthrough technologies in the nuclear space. Venrock is an investor in fusion reactor startup Tri-Alpha Energy, while CMEA-backed NuScale Power is currently raising funds due to the frozen assets of its lead investor, the Michael Kenwood Group.

NuScale designs reactor vessels and containment systems for small-scale, modular nuclear plants that can house a dozen 45-megawatt reactors, for an upper limit of 540 MW. The plants are smaller than traditional nuclear facilities, contain about 5 percent of the nuclear fuel, and are quicker to build -- taking only about three years, compared to six for large nuclear plants. The company estimates that a 540-megawatt plant would cost $4,000 a kilowatt and would produce power for 6 to 9 cents a kilowatt hour.

CTO Jose Reyes said Wednesday at the Cleantech Forum that NuScale’s technology contains some safeguards not seen in Japan’s troubled nuclear facilities. NuScale’s design puts the containment pools underground, using natural circulation to provide cooling. Not only does that cut down on the added expense and risk of water pumps, the system can provide 30 days of cooling after losing power.

 “We’ve gotten a lot of attention because the system is passively safe and the pool is entirely underground,” he said. “These features make it very, very attractive.”

NuScale is designing plants that can handle up to 0.5g of seismic activity -- a measurement that means the facility can withstand ground motion and acceleration speeds that are half that of gravity. Reyes said typical plants are designed for 0.25g, but NuScale’s design means it can be built in about 90 percent of the United States.

Its modular plants mean additional power can be added as needed, and only 45 MW is taken offline at a time for maintenance, unlike traditional plants that must shut down entirely for servicing every 18 months.

NuScale isn’t going into the business of building plants. Instead, the Oregon-based startup is using partners and outside manufacturers to construct the reactor vessels and containment systems, which are then shipped to customers. That means the company can begin earning revenue before the nuclear plants come online.

That was part of the attraction for CMEA Capital, Sheinbein said.

“Much of the expense is the long timeline for approval by the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission],” she said. Compared to our own solar investments, this will end up getting to profitability with less dollars invested.”

Reyes said NuScale’s timeline calls for it to submit designs to the NRC in about 18 months; then, the regulatory agency will conduct a 24- to 36-month review. If the design is approved in 2015, NuScale’s first plant could be up and running by 2018 to 2019, he said.

Sheinbein said NuScale is first seeking regulatory approval in the U.S. -- even though it’d be faster to build in China -- because the NRC is well respected across the globe, if perhaps a little slow moving.

Rothrick said the United States lacks the proper regulatory environment for nuclear because the NRC was created to oversee nuclear materials, not energy.

“The NRC needs to be reformed, and we need a new agency focused on nuclear energy so we can replace coal-burning power plants,” he said. “We are now in the mode of total gridlock with our NRC, and [the events in Japan] will probably slow down the approval of new systems.”