Nuclear Innovation Can Support Growth and a Healthy Climate

Amid mounting public concern about climate change, many progressives are giving nuclear energy another look. It’s already America’s biggest source of zero-carbon energy, far surpassing wind and solar. And “next generation” reactor technologies hold great promise for generating nuclear power in safer, cleaner, and cheaper ways.

What’s more, America will need more nuclear energy to meet the ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets President Obama set at last year’s Paris climate summit. According to the White House: “As America leads the global transition to a low-carbon economy, the continued development of new and advanced nuclear technologies along with support for currently operating nuclear power plants is an important component of our clean energy strategy.”

Nuclear energy today accounts for nearly 11 percent of the world’s electricity. Without it, the world produce an additional 2.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Here in the United States, nuclear energy generates 19 percent of our electricity — 63 percent of all zero-carbon electricity in America. The United States as well as developing countries such as China and India will need more nuclear power to meet growing energy demand without loading more carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. But we’re heading in the opposite direction — decreasing more nuclear capacity than we are adding.                                           

U.S. nuclear companies intend to add five more reactors to the nation’s fleet by 2020. In the meantime, however, they have announced plans to shut down three existing plants — and more may be in the offing. Why so many closures? One of the main reasons is the glut of cheap natural gas stemming from America’s shale boom. Natural gas typically sets the price of electricity on the grid in much of the United States. Today, with natural gas trading on the spot market at around two dollars per BTU, nuclear-generated power is being priced out of electricity markets.

Nuclear energy faces political headwinds as well. Many progressives and environmental activists remain reflexively opposed to expanding nuclear power, based on exaggerated fears about accidents and other safety risks. Green orthodoxy holds that the United States should make a swift transition to an economy powered solely by wind, solar, and other renewable sources of energy. But renewables supply only about 7 percent of U.S. power now and under any realistic projection will not be able to fully replace fossil fuels — let alone both fossil fuels and nuclear power — anytime soon. 

Fortunately, the same sense of urgency about climate change that brought 188 countries to Paris last December seems to be eroding the anti-nuclear taboo here and in other countries too. Public opinion has recently turned more favorable. And, in a particularly promising development, climate-conscious entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley and other tech hubs have joined forces with nuclear scientists to develop a new generation of nuclear reactor technology. 

New reactor designs hold tremendous potential to cut the costs of nuclear power, shrink the nuclear waste problem to more manageable proportions and operate more safely than traditional nuclear plants. Yet the U.S. government has done little to encourage and facilitate such innovation. For example, the Department of Energy (DOE) lacks a testing facility where nuclear entrepreneurs can experiment with new technologies and build new reactor prototypes. And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the industry’s key regulator, lacks expertise in advanced reactor designs. The NRC is light-water reactor centric and needs to be modernized to permit efficient and timely licensing of advanced technologies.

Washington’s failure to nurture next-generation reactors is driving nuclear entrepreneurs overseas. For example, TerraPower, created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is developing a liquid sodium-cooled fast reactor that uses depleted or natural uranium and can burn spent fuel from old light water reactors. Citing the NRC’s protracted and expensive licensing process, TerraPower has formed a joint venture with the China National Nuclear Corporation, a large state-owned enterprise, to build this “Traveling Wave Reactor” (TWR) in China within 15 years. 

All of this raises some pertinent questions in this election year: Will the nation’s political leaders allow the United States — which invented civilian nuclear energy after World War II — to forfeit leadership of this critical industry to geopolitical rivals such as China and Russia? Are Republicans willing to make the public investments necessary to keep America in the forefront of nuclear innovation? Can Democrats rise above the knee-jerk hostility to nuclear energy of many in their base? As progressives, we believe nuclear innovation, which will produce more economic growth and clean energy, is potential common ground in our polarized energy politics.

There’s some cause for optimism. Recently, several bipartisan bills have been introduced in the Congress that address two obstacles that are slowing down development of next generation nuclear technologies in the U.S. Last month, the House introduced a bill entitled Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act that would create a more efficient regulatory review process more aligned to the requirements of the current and future nuclear energy systems.

Similarly, the Senate passed bipartisan legislation last month directing the Department of Energy to partner with private innovators to develop and test concepts supporting advanced reactor technologies and to work with the NRC to establish a testing facility for these concepts. Addressing these two barriers will allow the U.S. to realize the benefits of next generation technology and make us a major player in the global clean energy marketplace. Let’s hope our nation’s leaders follow through.

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