Nuclear power should replace much of our coal plants
© Getty Images

Coal is no longer king.  Power plants that burn coal generate less than 30 percent of our nation's electricity, down from 50 percent just a decade ago. From Alabama to Ohio and Michigan and elsewhere, coal plants are closing by the dozens.

What's more, there isn't a new generation of coal plants on the horizon. In fact, not a single new coal plant is planned in the U.S.

Natural gas has overtaken coal as the fuel of choice for electricity generation, but gas is not the only solution. Though much cleaner than coal, natural gas has already overtaken coal as the nation's largest source of carbon emissions. It too will face regulatory pressure in the years ahead. Besides, we would be wise not to over-indulge in a fuel with a history of price volatility.

While greater investment in wind and solar power might appear to be the answer, renewables haven't met expectations. Despite tens of billions in subsidies, wind and solar power still generate just 7 percent of the nation's electricity and are both plagued by intermittency. Until we have grid-level energy storage, wind and solar will need backup up power from natural gas plants to ensure grid reliability

So what is the answer to filling the gulf left by coal? Nuclear power is the best option.

The nation's 100 reactors already meet 20 percent of our electricity needs and provide 60 percent of our emissions-free power. But only four new reactors are under construction. That's not enough to replace nuclear plants that are retiring, much less fill the void left by the shrinking coal industry.

Cost is the key factor holding back nuclear energy. Nuclear plants are megaprojects that need thousands of workers to complete, cost about $10 billion for each large reactor, and take a decade or more to get up and running. Despite the need for more nuclear power, few U.S. utilities are willing to invest in a large new nuclear plant.

Fortunately, small modular reactors (SMRs) offer a solution. SMRs are not only smaller, just a fraction of the size of today's reactors, but will be built in factories with standardized, modular components. Once complete, they can be transported by truck or rail to an eventual plant site. Utilities will be able to order just one or two SMRs, or they can order a dozen that can work together at a single site to generate enough electricity to power a mid-sized city.

This incremental approach to nuclear could be a game-changer. Instead of a $10 billion price tag for a new reactor and a decade or more of construction, an entire plant of 12 SMRs is expected to cost $3 billion and take three years to complete.

With the need for around-the-clock, emissions-free energy so great, SMRs are a no-brainer. But while interest in building them is high, roadblocks persist. The licensing and siting of new SMR designs - even though they are based on existing technology and offer significant advances in safety - is a challenge.

While nuclear regulation in the U.S. is the best in the world, it's killing innovation. Lowering the cost, time and effort needed to get new, innovative nuclear designs up and running is critical.

Just achieving design certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a new SMR design can take a decade or more and cost billions. In other countries, the same process takes a fraction of the time and cost. The barriers to nuclear energy innovation must be lowered if we are to see a breakthrough.

Part of the problem is an overstretched NRC. Reforming the licensing process for new designs would be an important first step in encouraging nuclear energy innovation.  It might be done by doubling the NRC staff, with a focus on the number of safety experts involved in design certification.

As the effort to reduce America's carbon footprint grows, and the coal fleet shrinks, the need for clean energy will increase. The addition of more nuclear power plants - plants that not only compete in the marketplace but excel in it - will become essential. Reducing impediments to nuclear energy innovation should be high on the incoming president's list of energy policy priorities.

Dr. J. Winston Porter is a national energy and environmental consultant, based in Savannah.  Earlier, he was an assistant administrator of the EPA.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.