Nuclear Power Getting a New Look in a Zero Carbon-Driven World
- Jan 24, 2023 3:20 pm GMT
Nuclear power ain’t what it used to be. At the end of 2021, the share of global electricity generation from nuclear was down to <10%, from 18% at the end of the 1990s. Although nuclear units still generate more than all the utility-scale wind and solar PV combined worldwide, as of November 2022 only 57 reactors with a total capacity of 59 GWe were under construction. Still, there are bright spots, particularly in Small Modular Reactors, including microreactors of 10 mw and under, which could be ideal for micro- and minigrids, an increasingly popular solution to the fragility and under-capacity of the existing bulk power grid. Larger-scale designs have emerged from several sources, and include water-cooled, high- and very-high-temperature, and sodium, lead, molten salt, and gas-cooled reactors.
Many countries including China and India have developed aggressive nuclear development plans, as have Poland, the Czech Republic, the UK, the Netherlands, and even Ukraine to a lesser extent. On the SMR front, NuScale Energy has just received a so-called "Final Rule" (design approval) for a six-module VOYGR-6 configuration of its SMR design, for the construction of a 462-MWe plant on the Idaho National Laboratory footprint. And advanced nuclear fuels, better waste disposal options, and various adjunct uses of nuclear including district heating and desalination are making nuclear generation more acceptable and appealing.
Among these bright spots there are challenges. No new reactors have been built in the US in decades except Georgia’s Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4, just now coming online after years of delay and more than $15 billion over budget. And regulatory regimes, particularly in the US, can slow forward progress significantly. In September, the NRC staff released an almost 1,300-page set of “new” licensing and operating rules, which @The Breakthrough Institute said “largely replicates the failed licensing rules that have hobbled the legacy nuclear industry for decades.” Coupled with a large, diverse, and fragmented set of stakeholders, strong public opinions, and relatively high costs per kW, this promising industry still has a lot of work to do.
But existing nuclear units present an opportunity now being taken advantage of in a very robust way. In Europe, Asia, and here at home, plant operators are seeking—and getting—license extensions for existing units, all in the name of energy security, especially considering Russia’s war on Ukraine and the accompanying energy supply disruptions, particularly of natural gas. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in fact, has issued 20-year extensions to the original 40-year operating licenses for 88 reactors, and some operators are seeking even 60- and 80-year extensions. And while units are being closed down prematurely for purely political reasons--such as New York's Indian Point, closed by disgraced former Governor Andrew Cuomo even as he rammed through subsidies for other nuclear plants in the state--states such as Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey are propping up plants with subsidies in the name of zero-carbon generation (and typically, jobs). And because building new plants can take a decade, extending the operating licenses and safe life limits of existing units becomes more important in reaching states', the nation's, and global net-zero goals. Even Japan, which closed down plants after its Fukushima disaster, and Germany, which pledged to shut down all its units in a knee-jerk response to that same disaster, are reconsidering those decisions.
Nuclear power creates a lot of controversy, among both proponents and opponents where it would seem counter-intuitive. But there is a strong undercurrent view, gaining momentum, that we cannot rely on non-dispatchable renewables to decarbonize the grid and reduce GHG emissions in the time climate scientists say is necessary. For this group, nuclear power is the only answer.
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