Investments in nuclear energy could help solve the economic and climate crises
As the United States faces several key challenges simultaneously — COVID-19, the economic crisis, social injustice and the rising threat of climate change — the federal government is looking for solutions that help address multiple issues at once. Recent commitments by President Biden are encouraging: by tying the post-pandemic economic recovery to investments in clean energy, we can tackle all four existential crises at the same time.
During his campaign, Biden ran on a sweeping clean energy plan, pledging to achieve a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035 with net zero emissions economy-wide by 2050 as part of his “all of government” plan for climate. The president’s proposed tech-neutral approach opens the door for an inclusive plan to combat climate change, which includes nuclear power — the nation’s largest carbon-free source of energy. This marks the first time nuclear power has been a part of the Democratic platform since 1972.
Additionally, we have seen increasing bipartisan congressional support for nuclear energy over the last decade. The new administration can build on this strong foundation by accelerating its investment in advanced nuclear energy to create new opportunities in the clean power sector and take meaningful steps towards cost-effective decarbonization. The nuclear industry can be ready to accomplish this with advanced technologies and a commitment to align with the equity-centered approach of the new administration.
The Department of Energy (DOE) leaves the new administration well-positioned to deliver on the Biden administration’s appropriately ambitious decarbonization goals by continuing to invest in the bright future of nuclear energy. DOE recently launched the National Reactor Innovation Center (NRIC) to support the demonstration of advanced reactors and pioneer best practices for community engagement with new nuclear technology. That’s because DOE has already recognized the promise of advanced reactors, acknowledging they can help lower carbon emissions and create new clean energy jobs.
Last October, the DOE approved a multiyear cost-share award to Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) to develop and construct the Carbon Free Power Project (CFPP), a 720-megawatt small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) located at the Idaho National Laboratory. This crucial award will help ensure that the CFPP is fully operational by 2030 and competitive with other baseload energy sources like combined-cycle natural gas plants, but with zero greenhouse gas emissions. And in December, DOE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) awarded two U.S.-based companies — TerraPower and X-energy — with $160 million in initial funding to build first-of-their-kind reactors, expected to be fully operational within seven years. This is progress the Biden administration can build on by continuing to invest in the next generation of nuclear energy.
The ambitious timelines for the DOE’s projects mean advanced nuclear energy can play a meaningful role in enabling communities to reach their climate goals, potentially directly replacing fossil plants and partnering with renewable energy and battery technologies. In the long-run, the investment in advanced nuclear technologies will also help provide local, high-paying jobs for the communities where they will operate as well as jobs in the emerging supply chains. And for communities facing coal plant closures — like in Michigan, Ohio, Nevada and North Carolina — advanced nuclear will be the most effective option to provide always-on, carbon-free energy to replace the baseload of fossil fuels, something that wind and solar power are not able to do quite yet.
But investing in the next generation of nuclear is about more than keeping the lights on. The Biden administration’s strong commitment to fostering electric vehicle (EV) adoption in the U.S. requires a similarly strong commitment to ensuring nuclear power remains a big part of the equation for how to provide what will be an increasingly large amount of baseload power to the electric grid. EVs aren’t very clean if they don’t run on clean energy.
To help realize our clean energy future, the federal government must continue to give the clean energy community the investment it needs to succeed. With the possibility of a budget reconciliation process being discussed in Congress, it is vital that policymakers and legislators recognize the momentum the nuclear technology industry has right now and how vital it is to keep that going. Paired with its comprehensive plan to reach net zero emissions as rapidly as possible, the Biden administration can build a stronger, more resilient economy powered by clean, carbon-free energy sources. The nuclear energy sector is ready to help.
Todd Allen is the chair for Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan and executive director of Fastest Path to Zero, an initiative that supports communities as they plan for and pursue full decarbonization.
Suzy Hobbs Baker is the creative director of Fastest Path to Zero and co-founder of the Good Energy Collective, which seeks to make the progressive case for advanced nuclear as part of the climate change agenda.