An affordable zero-emissions grid needs new nuclear
Recent remarks from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) indicate that the Green New Deal “leaves the door open for nuclear.” Previously, many environmentalists assumed nuclear was unnecessary in a Green New Deal. Why open the door if cheap wind and solar power are available?
The problem is the total cost of a fully renewable grid. Due to uncertainty and variability in wind and solar generation, we need additional expensive infrastructure to provide backup for wind and solar or to send electricity over long distances. Energy costs rise dramatically if we try to use 100 percent of any energy source. Combining the advantages of different technologies lets us reach the lowest costs.
Cheap electricity from nuclear energy can provide flexibility that complements wind and solar power, making it easier to afford a zero-emissions grid. In addition, nuclear power can fill a gap in industry: low-carbon sources of heat. Industry significantly lags electric power in developing and deploying low-carbon technologies and in reducing emissions. Furthermore, many industries, such as concrete, require heat sources that solar and wind technologies can’t currently replace.
Nuclear energy of the 21st century could be very different from that of the 20th century and businesses with an eye on climate are reinventing the sector. More than 75 new companies in the United States are designing a wide range of advanced nuclear products for industrial and electric power applications. These reactors are being developed with larger systems in mind, including how to work with – not against – renewables.
NuScale, an Oregon-based company, is on schedule to begin construction on their new design in 2026 for their mountain west customer, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS). In 2016, the Department of Energy granted UAMPS a site license to build their first reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory.
The Idaho National Laboratory has also granted the company Oklo a permit for space to build a 1.5 megawatt microreactor and is supplying the initial fuel. Oklo aims to build a commercial reactor this year and submitted its application for a license to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on March 17, 2020.
The Department of Defense, through its Project Pele, recently awarded three nuclear companies funds to begin design work on microreactors for defense missions. The Tennessee Valley Authority has an approved site to deploy a small modular reactor. Also, three U.S. nuclear utilities in Arizona, Ohio and Minnesota are demonstrating the ability to produce hydrogen as an energy carrier from existing nuclear plants for power or industry applications.
Despite these exciting developments, new nuclear designs still have long, uncertain roads ahead. Nuclear technology can be complex and subject to intense regulatory oversight. Some of these companies will be the first to wend their ways through regulatory regimes governing small- and micro-reactors. That journey will be long, arduous and costly — which is why we need investment now in technologies for the fight against climate change.
Technology readiness isn’t the only barrier to adoption, as Rep. Ocasio-Cortez raised an important requirement for nuclear energy in the Green New Deal: community engagement. Large utilities have had mixed success in building support for nuclear power, with some communities left feeling that it has been imposed on them. Small reactors enable a different dynamic, opening the possibility for individual communities and large manufacturers to choose nuclear for themselves.
The fastest path to zero emissions is the combination of energy sources that, as a system, equitably tackles emissions across sectors. Nuclear can play an indispensable role in that pursuit, side-by-side with renewables and other technologies.
Todd Allen leads the Fastest Path to Zero initiative at the University of Michigan, which works with communities as they make decisions about how to reduce their carbon emissions. He is also the department chair of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences. He is also a senior visiting fellow at the centrist think tank Third Way.
Michael Craig is an assistant professor of energy systems at the University of Michigan.