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Climate change and ‘advanced nuclear’ solutions

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As the dust continues to settle from the 2020 election, winners and losers are starting to appear. 

One victor could be carbon-free energy and storage industries. During the campaign, President Biden pledged legislation for zero net carbon emissions from the U.S. economy by 2050 — the most ambitious climate agenda ever set by a president. These goals are in line with the Paris Agreement’s aspirations for keeping temperature rise to much less than 2 degrees Celsius and ideally less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. Global temperature has risen about 1-degree already, so time is short. Climate scientists predict we have less than 10 years to significantly reduce emissions.

Nuclear power is knocking on the government’s door offering solutions. The Biden platform answered by including so-called “advanced nuclear” in its list of climate options. The question now is will they wisely fund any such efforts?

While talk of advanced nuclear reactors is ubiquitous, a precise definition is elusive. Without a clear target in which to aim, government funds will not hit the mark. Advanced nuclear has become the catch-all for the knight-in-shining-armor reactors that promise to address issues that have kept nuclear a marginal electricity player since its inception. But we need more than this open-ended definition. The Biden administration should support projects only if they can compete with renewables and storage on deployment cost and speed, public safety, waste disposal, operational flexibility and global security. There are none today.

The only advanced nuclear technologies close to realization are called small modular reactors. These reactors are smaller than traditional reactors and are self-contained. These features allow companies to manufacture most of the reactor in a factory and ship it to a plant site. This concept evokes images of smart phones rolling out of factories by the billions — each design identical and mass produced. Their small size reduces the amount of radiation that can be released to the environment, greatly reducing — but not eliminating — safety to a plant’s community. And their modular nature promises operation that adapts to fluctuating power demands, addressing some grid flexibility concerns.

Yet the economic competitiveness of small modular reactors appears weak. Shrinking the size of a traditional reactor and splitting it among many modules increases the cost of the electricity it produces. It is the same reason airlines fly large capacity jets instead of private jets. You maximize the revenue per area of the aircraft hull. Proponents argue mass production will overcome this problem with fleet-wide economies of scale and construction efficiencies. Only wide scale adoption of the technology would deliver those benefits and there is no obvious market to support that today.  

Moreover, the nuclear industry always promises better, faster and cheaper yet it fails to deliver. A case in point: two traditional reactors currently under construction in Georgia are five years behind schedule and more than $10 billion over budget, even though they promised to do better. A “twin” reactor project in South Carolina failed before completion, leaving ratepayers holding the bag for billions in wasted costs.

Small modular designs are only promising to be cheaper than traditional reactors. Current estimates show they are more expensive than renewables, like wind and solar, even with storage and without subsidies. Small reactors have a long way to go to be competitive. Dramatic cost decreases for high-volume energy storage, which address the intermittency of some renewables, make the competitive case for any form of nuclear even tougher.

Even if everything else was lined up perfectly, nuclear has little time to catch up. After reentering the Paris Agreement, the U.S. will again strive to achieve drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) within the next 10 years. Even in the most optimistic scenario, we won’t see even a handful of small modular nuclear reactors in the U.S. until 2029 or 2030, which means a large-scale impact would come far after the climate tipping point.

What about the other factors like proliferation resistance and waste disposal? For those criteria, small modular reactors offer no advantages over their traditional reactor cousins. Even if the cost factors are addressed, proliferation concerns and waste management will be hurdles. Waste generation, however, is a problem for competing technologies. No electricity source operates without some impact to the planet and its resources. Renewables, too, must improve their use and reuse of materials.

Most importantly, no small modular reactors have been deployed yet in the United States, despite government efforts. In 2011, the Department of Energy (DOE) offered $400 million grants to support two small modular reactor designs. After providing tens of millions, only one design is still under development. That company originally planned to build a 12-module plant at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Predictably, this project is in trouble. Electricity customers have committed to purchase just a small fraction of the power produced annually by that plant, which now is likely to be scaled down, diminishing the economies of scale from mass production. It will not operate until at least 2030, years behind schedule and too late to help deal with the problem forecast in the best climate models.  

Despite these challenges, the federal government agreed in concept to a $1.4 billion direct subsidy over 10 years for the project. Without this cash infusion, the project will not meet its already disputed targets for price competitiveness. Such largesse is part of the billions Congress and the Trump administration committed to other advanced reactor concepts, none of which are close to deployment. 

To avoid wasting money on advanced nuclear reactors, the Biden administration must establish clear metrics for advanced nuclear reactors and apply them rigorously. Only ideas that can meet the pressing timetable of climate demands and electricity market realities deserve a serious look. My list is a good place to start. If advanced reactors cannot meet these metrics, they should not receive funding. Proponents of nuclear power will certainly say that living up to my list is an arduous task. Perhaps it is, but the future of our planet hangs in the balance. That is more important than the profits of an industry.

Dr. Gregory Jaczko was the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2009 to 2012 and currently develops clean energy projects and teaches at Princeton University.

Tags biden administration carbon-free energy Joe Biden net zero emissions Nuclear energy small modular reactors

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