Back to the future for carbon emissions

America's power sector is headed back to the 1980s — at least when it comes to carbon emissions. Nuclear power plants, the last major round of which was installed in the U.S. in that same decade, have now been reinvented to meet today's need for clean electricity.

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Increased natural gas production and use, retiring coal generation, new energy technologies, and increasingly complicated and stringent regulations are converging to cause a sea change in how we produce and use electricity. The Environmental Protection Agency's recently released Clean Power Plan, which seeks to limit carbon emissions from power plants, is just one of the many factors driving that change. The latest analysis from the Energy Information Administration shows that this rule alone could reduce power sector carbon dioxide emissions to levels last seen in 1980.

And while the rule will certainly be debated and litigated in the months to come, the long-term shift toward cleaner power sources is inevitable.

Nuclear power isn't new; it has been used to generate electricity commercially since 1954. The U.S. currently has 99 large nuclear units operating and five new plants under construction, with some multi-unit sites generating nearly 4,000 megawatts. This clean generating source is already powering millions of homes, providing 19 percent of the nation's total electricity and 63 percent of the country's carbon-free electricity.

While the foundations of the technology haven't changed, the world in which it will be deployed has. Our electricity system, originally built around large centralized power plants, is becoming increasingly dependent on more widely distributed sources. As more intermittent resources like wind and solar power are added to the mix, the challenge of ensuring reliable power around the clock intensifies. Globally, even as developing countries are working to electrify their economies and deliver power to new segments of the population, the world is eyeing commitments to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and looking to the U.S. for leadership.

Balancing those competing demands — to deliver more power, to more people and to do so with cleaner sources — requires a leap forward, adapting tried-and-true nuclear technology to the modern world.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) — nuclear technology that reverses the trend from large complex reactors to smaller, simpler designs — can help meet those demands. NuScale Power is the only U.S. company dedicated solely to commercializing this technology. With engineering firm Fluor as a majority investor and competitively awarded matching funds from the Department of Energy, NuScale's first plant is expected to be in operation within the next eight years.

SMRs are smaller than traditional nuclear power plants; an individual NuScale Power Module generates 50 megawatts electrical (gross). When installed in a group of 12, NuScale SMRs can deliver 600 megawatts (gross) of electricity. That modular, scalable design means that utilities can add capacity incrementally over time and fit within the site footprint of many retiring coal plants. NuScale Power Modules will be built in a factory and shipped to project sites, making for a cost-effective, quicker and easier installation.

Importantly in the post-Fukushima world, the NuScale plant has groundbreaking, first-of-a-kind safety features, making it immune to events such as those encountered during the tragic tsunami that struck Japan in 2011.

Meeting the world's energy needs is not only about delivering lower-carbon power. The task we face is to build that clean energy capacity in a way that fits within an increasingly diverse, distributed and complex energy mix, and within a fast-evolving uncertain political and regulatory environment. At NuScale, we have taken what works from the past and adapted it for a cleaner, sustainable future.

Hopkins is chairman and and CEO of NuScale Power, LLC.


This piece is part of America's Nuclear Energy Future series, sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). For more information about NEI, visit futureofenergy.nei.org/.