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Can we overcome the hurdles for nuclear power revival?

New nuclear power plants can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is worth trying. However, it would take a long time, be expensive and may not be successful.

Here’s why:

Nuclear power has to be competitive with other sources of electricity based on the cost per kilowatt hour, especially in deregulated electricity markets. In regulated markets, customers pay whatever rates are approved by the public utility commission. Nuclear power benefits from its ability to deliver near full power 24/7, contributing to the stability of the electrical grid.

Today, the main cost competition is from power plants fueled by natural gas. For natural gas, electricity cost varies with natural gas prices. In the future, the main competition will come from renewable energy, solar and wind, with large utility-scale battery storage needed to match supply and demand and to stabilize the electric grid.

The amount of electricity produced by today’s reactors is declining. There are 93 commercial nuclear reactors in operation producing about 18 percent of the country’s electricity. Their average age is about 40 years. Some are being licensed to operate another 20 years at an acceptable cost. Others have been shut down because they are no longer competitive or would require expensive repairs to continue operating.

Two new Westinghouse 1,100 MWe reactors, Units 3 and 4, at the Vogtle plant in Georgia are the first new reactors to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRC) in more than 30 years. They will start producing power this year.

For new nuclear power plants, there are two possible approaches. The first is to build large nuclear power plants such as Vogtle that can produce about 1,100 MWe per reactor. Second is new designs of small modular reactors (SMR) with outputs typically under 100 MWe per reactor.

The SMR that is furthest along is NuScale Power’s reactor. This is the first SMR design certified by the NRC. The design is an advanced light-water SMR capable of generating 77 MWe per module. The first installation will be a group of six SMRs being built at the Idaho National Laboratory, a remote government site. The first module is expected to be operational by 2029 with full operation the following year and will supply power to the electrical grid.

Some countries, especially China and South Korea, are building and operating new nuclear plants and seeking export orders. Most of the countries ordering new nuclear plants do not have domestic natural gas or, for China, are trying to lessen their reliance on coal to reduce air pollution. The U.S. has abundant natural gas and a good potential for renewables as an alternative to nuclear power.

To revive nuclear power, what hurdles have to be overcome?

First, the 93 older reactors will have to be replaced eventually. If nuclear power is supplied by SMRs, 10 to 20 times that number of SMRs, 900 to 1,800, would be required. Multiple SMRs can be installed at the same location as in Idaho to reduce the number of separate sites required.

The NRC’s licensing procedures need to be streamlined to speed up the approval of new nuclear power plants without compromising safety issues.

The spent fuel problem must be resolved before we embark on an expansion of nuclear power. All reactors, including SMRs will have depleted nuclear fuel that has to be disposed. In over 50 years, the U.S. government hasn’t been able to reach a politically acceptable solution. Today, all the spent fuel is stored at each reactor site, even for those reactors that have been decommissioned. Several other countries already have acceptable means to dispose of spent fuel.

Siting can be an issue. Where will we put new nuclear power plants? Most people don’t want to live near a nuclear power plant even if the experts tell us that new designs are much safer. It can take a long time to select and get approval of a site for a new reactor.

Funding could be a problem. New nuclear plants are funded by private capital. It takes 30 years or so to recover the large up-front investment required to build a nuclear power plant. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build, but they are estimated to be less expensive to operate. However, if the cost of their electricity is not competitive, they will not be able to recover the investment involved.

Staffing and training could take time.  The large number of skilled people needed have to see a reasonably secure future for nuclear power before they will commit their careers to this industry.

The federal government would need to extend the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act under which the federal government assumes responsibility for the cost of a nuclear accident beyond a given amount. Without this guarantee, it would be impossible to get funding for new nuclear plants.

Could we revive nuclear power in the U.S.? Yes, but let’s be realistic about how much it will cost and how long it will take. There is also the possibility that nuclear power will not be cost competitive.

William Fletcher is a mechanical engineer and former senior vice president at Rockwell International. He served as an officer and engineer in the Navy working on the design and operation of nuclear-powered ships, as well as an engineer involved with the design and construction of commercial nuclear power plants. Later, he focused on industrial development and automation. His international experience includes several overseas assignments, including an assignment in Saudi Arabia planning the large Jubail industrial development project.

Craig B. Smith, Ph.D., is an engineer and former faculty member at UCLA. During his career he was responsible for planning large energy conservation programs for utilities, schools, corporations and the City of Los Angeles. He is the former president and chairman of the international architect and engineering company DMJM+HN. He is the author of several books on energy efficiency and management.

Fletcher and Smith are co-author of “Reaching Net Zero: What it takes to solve the global climate crisis.”

Tags Climate change Fossil fuels Natural gas Nuclear power Renewable energy

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