What the future holds for nuclear power will have an important bearing on efforts in the United States and globally to reduce carbon emissions. Right now, we are not doing enough, fast enough to establish the policies necessary to keep existing carbon-free nuclear plants in operation and to build a new generation of reactors using advanced technology. In fact, nuclear power provides more than 60 percent of carbon-free electricity in use today.
Environmentalists who continue to insist that renewables can replace fossil fuels in electricity generation are engaged in a fuzzy-minded exercise of monumental folly. The fact is, just 7 percent of the nation’s electricity currently comes from solar and wind power. Even in California, where the use of renewables is greatest, solar energy and wind combined provide 12 percent of the state’s electricity. To compete in energy markets without government subsidies, renewables must reduce their costs much faster than conventional energy sources and have access to energy storage technology for use on days when the weather isn’t cooperating. That could be decades away.
In this uncertain environment, it would be imprudent not to plan for a future that includes nuclear power. We can’t pretend that some magic energy source will appear suddenly and save us from the consequences of climate change. Fusion energy seems worth pursuing, but it’s many years away. And a superconducting transmission system that would send power from the Great Plains to cities on the East and West coasts is more promise than reality.
Nationally, since 1990, increased operating efficiency in the U.S. fleet of about 100 nuclear plants has increased electricity production by an amount equivalent to adding 25 new 1,000-megawatt nuclear plants to the nation’s electricity grid. Last year, U.S. nuclear plants on average produced electricity 91.9 percent of the time compared with 35 percent for wind turbines and even less for solar arrays.
I know it’s hard for people to wrap their arms around a new nuclear plant that costs as much as $8 billion to build. But there’s an alternative to large plants that makes good economic sense. Small modular reactors (SMRs) could be assembled in factories for a fraction of the cost of a conventional large reactor and shipped by truck or rail to a nuclear site. This isn’t something that’s pie-in-the-sky. About 50 nuclear companies are developing designs for SMRs, ranging in size from 50 megawatts to 300 megawatts.
The Department of Energy is sharing the cost of developing an SMR with NuScale, an Oregon-based nuclear startup company, and has approved a building site permit. NuScale expects to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for design certification by the end of this year. Construction of the SMR is projected to take 36 months. This reactor is expected to be the first SMR in the world.
Located in Idaho, it will supply 50 megawatts of electricity to a wholesale electricity company in neighboring Utah. As the need for more power arises, additional modules would be built and shipped to the site. The plan calls for as many as 12 modules to be grouped in a cluster, operating independently of one another, so that as one is taken off line for refueling or maintenance, the others can continue to produce electricity.
Many of the SMRs being developed are designed with advanced safety systems that prevent meltdowns. For example, NuScale’s SMR will be located underground, with passively safe features, so that in the worst conceivable accident it can shut down safely with no operator action, no electric power and no external water.
Other types of advanced reactors are also being developed. Seattle-based TerraPower, a startup company financed in large part by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is teaming up with the China National Nuclear Corporation to build a new type of reactor called a traveling wave reactor that runs on an abundant form of uranium. The plan calls for construction of a 600-megawatt prototype reactor in China, with possible startup by 2020. This would be followed by development of a 1,150-megawatt reactor for worldwide commercial use.
The rest the world is using nuclear power and will continue to develop and advance the technology. The United States should not relinquish its leadership role. The tough, long-term task of developing the next generation of power plants lies ahead, and some level of consistent public support for nuclear power will be necessary. Someday, our children’s children will appreciate having their energy requirements supplied by nuclear power.
Edward H. Klevans is a professor emeritus and former head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Pennsylvania State University.