Nuclear energy has been an indispensable part of the energy generation mix in the United States for over half a century. Currently, ninety-nine nuclear reactors generate approximately 20 percent of America’s electricity and more than 60 percent of America’s clean energy. And according to a recent report from Nuclear Matters and The Brattle Group, these reactors contribute $60 billion annually to U.S. GDP, while supporting 475,000 full-time jobs and avoiding 573 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. These avoided emissions have been a key contributor to the significant improvements in U.S. air quality over the past 30 years. America’s nuclear fleet has been designed for large baseload power generation, and fulfills that purpose extraordinarily well.
But nuclear can do more. The existing nuclear fleet has limitations: necessity to generate and distribute large amounts of power from a centralized location, reliance on large bodies of water, lengthy construction timelines, and extensive emergency planning zones for the unlikely event of an incident requiring an evacuation. Imagine nuclear energy that is freed from the constraints of traditional nuclear’s size and location. Imagine nuclear energy that is city-scale, independent of water, and designed to ensure safety through physics rather than man-made systems. Imagine nuclear energy that produces safer spent fuel – and can even use thorium, plutonium, or the spent fuel from other reactors. Imagine nuclear power that is quicker and less expensive to construct, has a lower visual impact, and more closely links electricity supply with demand. Advanced nuclear reactors, using coolants other than water, free nuclear energy from the constraints of bodies of water and allow nuclear energy to do more in more places than ever before.
HTGRs are the most proven and well understood advanced reactor designs in development. The Xe-100 is a “pebble-bed” HTGR, meaning its fuel comes in the form of tennis-ball-sized graphite spheres. Pebble bed reactors have been constructed and operated successfully around the world: first in West Germany and currently in China. In fact, China is constructing 250MWe of pebble bed-based commercial capacity right now, with plans for as much as 1,000MWe of additional capacity. Building and improving upon this worldwide heritage, the Xe-100 is, according to a recent DOE technical review, the most licensable and market attractive of the advanced reactor concepts under development for deployment in the U.S.
But we can’t do it alone. Like many large-scale innovation efforts across many industries, there is a robust role for the U.S. Federal Government to play in this story, as they have in the development of many other innovative energy technologies, including nuclear reactors. We call on the DOE to consider licensing support and siting assistance for prototype designs. We call on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider tailored licensing paths that reflect the particular concerns of ultra-safe advanced reactors. And we call on Congress to enact tax credits and incentives for all clean energy generation, not just solar and wind. Unless there is swift and significant action from the Federal Government, a revolution in the possibilities for reliable, zero-emission nuclear energy in the United States may just be a figment of our imaginations.
McCuistion is chief operating officer for X-Energy.