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We can’t wait for Godot to save the climate

A rendering of the entrance of a Small Modular Reactor facility that Rolls-Royce SMR hopes to have operational by the end of the decade is seen in this handout render provided by Rolls-Royce SMR on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. A global search for alternative sources to Russian energy during the war in Ukraine has refocused attention on smaller, easier-to-build nuclear power stations that proponents say they could provide a cheaper, more efficient alternative to older model mega-plants but detractors warn of heightened risks including the disposal of highly radioactive wave and the specter of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Some long-anticipated nuclear power technologies are raising hopes that next-generation reactors will join wind, solar, hydro and other renewable resources to save civilization from global climate change.

Nuclear-power advocates are bullish about Advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Last month, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the design of a 50-megawatt SMR, clearing a high hurdle for the industry. Now, another company has signed an agreement to build the first grid-connected SMR in Ontario, Canada. Several other companies are planning additional SMRs around the world.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) President Biden signed into law last year energizes the industry. The IRA created a tax credit for zero-emission nuclear power in the United States. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is reportedly considering a $7.4 billion loan to one manufacturer who wants to build at least four SMRs in the U.S. along with manufacturing capacity for the SMR supply chain.

Jigar Shaw, who leads DOE’s loan program for promising energy technologies, predicts small, modular nuclear power plants will follow the typical trajectory of new technologies, starting with high costs that become more competitive over time, as they are scaled and improved.

But we should temper our enthusiasm. Much about SMRs remains to be seen. For example, there is still disagreement about whether small-scale modular reactors will help solve the longstanding problem of high-level radioactive wastes. Two of DOE’s national laboratories believe the waste challenges of SMRs would be less than those of conventional nuclear power plants, but a study by Stanford University and the University of British Columbia contends SMR’s waste issue for most SMRs would be two to 30 times greater.

Either way, it is irresponsible to continue producing additional radioactive wastes without solving the permanent storage problem. The 93 reactors generating power in the U.S. are creating about 2,000 metric tonnes annually of spent nuclear fuel that should be stored in deep geological repositories, separated from civilization for hundreds of thousands of years. Instead, power plants are storing them on-site in pools or dry casks because DOE and Congress have been unable to resolve the controversy over where to locate a permanent storage site.

It also is sobering that nuclear power in the United States has always depended on federal government subsidies. In 1954, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission chairman famously promised that nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” Instead, “it’s been a train wreck of accidents, cost overruns, nuclear weapons proliferation and an ever-growing waste problem that is always on the verge of being solved,” author Michael Rose wrote for Huffington Post more than a decade ago.

Nuclear-power advocates would say that’s an exaggeration. Still, the fact remains that nuclear power has a lot to prove before markets accept it as an affordable, reliable, safe and competitive when indisputably safe carbonless energy is available free from sunlight, wind and other renewable resources.

Nuclear power advocates believe their technology will be necessary even in an energy mix dominated by renewables because it can generate electricity when wind and sunlight are unavailable. But the energy-storage industry has its own advocates who say there are several ways to store intermittent renewable energy to be available on demand.

Energy storage technologies also need to be refined and scaled. The low costs of wind and solar power are animating that work. A DOE database lists nearly 1,700 energy storage projects worldwide. Although research is underway to reduce storage costs, Bloomberg NEF predicts the storage market will double in 2023 compared to 2022, with pumped hydro leading the way and the battery supply chain improving with the help of an $80 billion allocation in the IRA.

This is an exciting time for energy technologies. Innovation is on overdrive because of climate change. Many on the drawing board and in the pipeline may contribute to powering the world without degrading the environment and threatening the planet’s life-support systems.

At the same time, however, we already have nearly all the technologies necessary to convert the world to clean energy with unlimited supplies of “fuels” in sunlight, wind, water, geothermal temperatures and more. They have proved themselves. They offer the least-cost and most rapidly deployable options for providing the world with sustainable energy at scale.

Nothing in the pipeline, on the drawing board or on the edge of widespread commercialization should slow the world’s progress in scaling up energy efficiency and renewable energy. If options like SMR prove able to fulfill an unmet need, they can join the club when they are ready.

But we can’t wait. All the evidence tells us that the carbon clock is ticking ever closer to midnight. We cannot divert our attention or resources from proven to potential solutions. The use of sustainable energy by nations, large and small, must be our top priority.

William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.

Tags Biden Climate change Energy Energy transition Fossil fuels nuclear Renewable energy

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