Why America and the World Need Nuclear Power

Why America and the World Need Nuclear Power

Aside from environmental concerns, there is no other realistic way to scale up energy supply to meet expected future demand.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), in its International Energy Outlook 2021 report, notes trends in global energy supply, demand, and emissions to 2050 that forecast the need for nuclear power. The report projects world energy consumption to rise around 50 percent by 2050, due to strong economic growth, increased access to energy and electricity, and rapid population growth in non-Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and continents. CO2 equivalent and emissions (CO2e), which excludes emission changes from land use changes and forestry, are projected to grow in OECD countries by approximately 5 percent and in non-OECD countries by 35 percent between 2019 and 2050.

Meeting this projected demand will be a herculean challenge, especially if we require such energy to be clean. In fact, zero-carbon electrical generation that comes from nuclear power is the only scalable solution that can meet the necessary requirements (higher energy use, manageable costs, lower emissions, and improved global energy security).

The State of the U.S. Nuclear Industry

As of August 2020, the U.S. fleet of nuclear reactors is at ninety-four working reactors. Yet this figure faces uncomfortable prospects. A recent loss was the Duane Arnold Energy Center, outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Since 2013, eleven nuclear reactors have been closed and scheduled for decommissioning. Eight more are scheduled for closure and decommissioning by 2025. If this trend continues, the United States could lose more than 10 percent of the nation’s nuclear capacity within a decade. This is extremely puzzling, as the American public “favors nuclear power for emission cuts.”

In fact, on paper, the United States is committed to nuclear power as a seminal part of its long-term energy strategy, which was solidified when the 115th U.S. Congress enacted two bills to promote advanced nuclear reactors. The first, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act of 2017 was signed into law in September 2018, and requires the Department of Energy (DOE) “to develop a versatile fast neutron test reactor that could help develop fuels and materials for advanced reactors and authorizes DOE national laboratories and other sites to host reactor testing and demonstration projects.” The second law was the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, which requires the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to “develop an optional regulatory framework suitable for advanced nuclear technologies.” More recently, the ADVANCED Act, introduced on April 3 by five Republican and five Democrat senators builds on bipartisan efforts to promote nuclear power.

It is true that U.S. nuclear power has challenges to overcome, such as long construction times, project management issues, competition from historically low natural gas prices due to increased hydraulic fracturing practices, and a segment of the population adversely reacting to the prospect of (a) nuclear reactor(s) in their neighborhoods or business centers. Bureaucratic inertia at all levels in the United States is also taking a toll on next-generation reactors—referred to as Generation IV reactors (Gen IV), small modular reactors (SMRs), and microreactors—and new nuclear power builds being constructed and deployed.

New Reactors, New Impact

With more intermittent and unreliable industrial wind and solar farms flooding U.S. grids, many utilities are considering a hybrid or integrated systems approach to improve economics and grid stability by including SMRs into the mix. The DOE defines these as “reactors with electric generating capacity of 300 megawatts and below, in contrast to an average of about 1,000 megawatts for existing commercial reactors.” Gen IV SMRs and other advanced reactors from U.S. companies such as TerraPower, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, and X-energy are working towards being safer, lowering cost by incorporating factory-built modular construction instead of building on-site, operating without the need for safety-related backup electrical systems, adjusting electrical output to match demand leading to grid stabilization and using a variety of non-water coolants (such as lead-bismuth, liquid metal, helium, and salt); and produce less nuclear waste.

Similarly, entering the market soon will be fast neutron Gen IV reactors that “can burn long-lived actinides which are recovered from used fuel out of ordinary (water-cooled) reactors.” Zero carbon during baseload generation and zero nuclear waste will be achieved.

A DOE-sanctioned study on the economic and job impacts of SMR deployment estimated, “a standard 100 [megawat] SMR costing $500 million to manufacture and install, would create nearly 7,000 jobs, generate $1.3 billion in sales, $404 million in earnings (payroll), and $35 million in indirect business taxes.” Every nuclear plant is unique in its design and build, but these are encouraging numbers for SMR advancement in both the United States and globally.

Additionally, the flexibility these advanced reactors offer is important for rural electric cooperatives, remote municipal agencies, and isolated military installations. The lowered construction time is arguably the most important point since, combined with lower operating costs, this would allow contemporary and future reactors to be cost-competitive with natural gas-fired power plants and taxpayer-subsidized renewable electricity sources.

The advanced reactors and power plants under development in the U.S. and globally represent a variety of sizes, technology options, and siting scenarios. Each project can be defined by the variety of electricity generated—ranging from tens of megawatts in distant locations to hundreds of megawatts for power generation, process heat, desalination, or other industrial uses. Defining SMRs and other Gen IV reactors will continually change as new projects, positioning options and technologies advance when SMR designs could possibly use light water as a coolant, or other non-light water coolants.

Nuclear Power Matters Now More than Ever

Nuclear power is vitally important to the future of the environment. Coal usage globally is on the rise, skewering COP 27 pledges to reduce CO2 and methane emissions. China and India have pledged to grow coal use indefinitely. Both are purchasing increased volumes of fossil fuels from Russia at a deep discount.

Likewise, renewables are not technologically able to meet the surging need for electricity and higher energy use from China, India, the remainder of Asia, and Africa’s growing population. Only nuclear power has the ability for reliable baseload electrical generation while producing zero-carbon to counter the growing demand for energy security and lowering emissions.

Using nuclear power; particularly advanced nuclear technology is the appropriate energy soft power response to Russian belligerence, and environmental stewardship for the post-World War II, U.S.-led, global order to continue unabated.

Todd Royal is an author and consultant specializing in global threat assessment, energy development and policy for oil, gas and renewables based in Los Angeles, California.

Image: Shutterstock.