Is there a new power generation paradigm on the horizon?

While many grand plans for the U.S. Nuclear Power industry were left for dead after the Three Mile Island accident in March of 1979, there are new signs of life emerging from an industry that has seen only one new grid-capable power reactor commissioned since 1977.

Three Mile Island, Nuclear Energy
Three Mile Island

Two very promising recent developments appear to demonstrate that the U.S. still has the political and financial will to construct new nuclear power stations – and that we intend to be a leader in the Small Modular Reactor (“SMR”) space, where significant innovation and public-private partnerships have spawned a renewed interest in the emission-free fuel.

Continued progress toward completion of the Vogtle Units #3 and #4, located in Burke County, Georgia and operated by Georgia Power will take advantage of the workhorse Westinghouse AP1000 design. The Votgle complex will become the nations largest nuclear power generating station by capacity once the build is completed which is expected in late 2021. The project gained significant support from the Obama administration, receiving over $8 billion in federal loan guarantees – despite the bankruptcy of Westinghouse in 2017 and major cost overruns on the project.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Energy
Vogtle Plant Units #3 & #4 under Construction

The second sign of life in the nuclear industry is the recent approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“NRC”) for a first-of-its-kind SMR design from NuScale, a Oregon-based company. SMRs are typified by smaller reactor footprints with lower power output and a design that emphasizes modularity, passive safety elements, and, importantly, moderated construction costs. Passive (or intrinsic) safety is especially important to gain the trust of regulators and the public – reactors which can avoid loss-of-coolant accidents while managing decay heat without external power sources address major failures potentially arising from natural disasters (e.g. Fukushima), terrorism or human errors.

NuScale Reactor Nuclear
NuScale Mock SMR Reactor Facility

Why are these events important?

The White House recently recommitted the U.S. to the Paris Climate Accords. Embedded in that commitment is the need to reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions significantly over the next 10 to 20 years. One of the most impactful and cost effective methods of greenhouse gas emissions avoidance is to replace or mitigate the impacts from major stationary CO2 emitters like Coal-fired power plants and, to a lesser extent, natural gas combined-cycle generation plants. Nuclear power currently provides 20% of U.S. electricity with capacity factors exceeding 92% (2020). It is the only base load, dispatchable power source – outside of hydropower – that the U.S. has in relative abundance.

US Nuclear Energy, Three Mile Island
U.S. Nuclear Power Capacity & Generation (Source: EIA)

With many nuclear power reactors in the U.S. fleet recently approved for extended operating lives (to 60 years), the industry will continue to play a major role in future clean power initiatives – regardless of new commitments to the industry.

In future posts, we will address:

+How do future nuclear project economics stack up against other renewables and existing base load power?

+How can ‘new’ SMR technology defray some of the large up-front capital costs that have hindered past reactor projects?

+How safe is nuclear power historically and what can we do to make it even safer?

Andrew Schaper is a professional engineer and principal of Schaper Energy Consulting.  His practice focuses on advisory in oil and gas, sustainable energy and carbon strategies.

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