Westinghouse Electric Co. L.L.C.'s latest, bite-size nuclear-reactor design could open up new and unconventional markets for the energy powerhouse.

Markets such as Northern Africa - or the U.S. Midwest.

The Western Pennsylvania-based firm's small modular reactor - or SMR - could not power a major city, but it could certainly light up its suburbs and bring nuclear energy to clients without the infrastructure, land, or money typically needed to support a nuclear facility.

But the backyard reactor also enters a marketplace still reeling from Japan's Fukushima meltdown in March.

Government support and industry competition have already made the 14-month-old SMR project a top internal priority at Westinghouse. The reactor, which rises about a foot taller than the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and is about 12 feet in width, could sit just miles from the region it powers.

The SMR model can be seen as a little brother to Westinghouse's $4 billion AP1000, the model that has become the company's mainstay over the last decade, said Michael Anness, Westinghouse's SMR product manager. The AP1000 generates about 1,100 megawatts, while the SMR should generate 225.

An AP1000 facility needs about 50 acres; the SMR should need 15.

Westinghouse expects the first SMR to generate electricity by 2020.

In looking for potential markets for the SMRs, Westinghouse is researching markets with surging electricity needs. Africa sits at the top of many lists, in part because of the energy demands tied to skyrocketing smartphone adoption, as cheaper models enter the continent's telecom market.

Anness said reliable electricity could attract other business to the African or East Asian regions, where population centers tend to be just big enough to warrant an SMR.

The company is also eyeing domestic markets that will soon need new forms of energy. That includes pockets of the Midwest that get electricity from coal-powered plants in need of costly retrofits to meet updated environmental rules.

A report released this month from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago touted small reactors - defined as generating 600 megawatts or less - as a possible panacea for an industry that has had a rough year.

The SMR is not the only minireactor expected to hit the market in the next decade. Charlotte-based Babcock & Wilcox Co. is working on a small reactor called the B&W mPower and opened a testing facility for the project in Virginia earlier this year.