The nuclear power industry may be getting a new lease on life, thanks to a $1.4 billion taxpayer subsidy from the Trump administration.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in August approved the design of a new kind of nuclear power reactor invented by NuScale Power, a startup company with offices in Corvallis and Portland, Oregon.
The new design is called a “small modular reactor” (SMR). The approval of the SMR design does not mean construction can begin; nevertheless, it is a significant step toward NuScale’s goal: to deploy up to 1,682 small (60-megawatt) reactors across the U.S. and beyond starting in 2023, essentially reviving the moribund nuclear power industry.
Successful deployment of 1,682 60-megawatt SMRs in the U.S. would more than double domestic nuclear power capacity, which currently stands at about 98,000 megawatts. Globally, nuclear power is in decline; in 1996, it produced 17.5 percent of global electricity, but today only 10 percent. In the U.S., only one new nuclear plant has started operating since 1996. The only nuclear plant currently under construction has suffered major delays and cost overruns.
So, how could NuScale change all that? Compared to typical old-style nuclear power plants, the approved NuScale pressurized-water SMR is modest in size, measuring 65 feet high and nine feet in diameter, producing 50 megawatts of electricity. It is “modular,” meaning it can be built in a factory and shipped to its final destination. According to Sciencemagazine, each of NuScale’s SMRs holds one-eighth as much radioactive fuel as an old-style 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant.
In October 2020, the Trump administration announced it was giving NuScale an eye-popping $1.4 billion to build the first 12 SMRs, which would be clustered together on federal property at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) near Idaho Falls. Construction on federal property reduces the likelihood of citizen protests, which might otherwise erupt.
The federal government has been aggressively promoting nuclear power since 1953 when President Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations General Assembly, saying, “the United States pledges … its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma — to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.” In 1953, many in the U.S. were feeling remorseful for killing an estimated 225,000 civilians when atomic bombs incinerated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Since 1953, aiming to show that splitting the atom was a boon to humankind and not a horrible mistake, the U.S. has invested about $200 billion to promote nuclear-generated electricity. As the Union of Concerned Scientists has said, the Department of Energy “has traditionally been an unapologetic nuclear power cheerleader.”
However, several important technical organizations dispute the claim that NuScale SMRs can be operated safely and still provide electricity at a price competitive with renewables, such as solar, wind and hydro power. Safety costs money, they say, and there’s no way around that equation. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (OPSR) have both issued reports and statements critical of SMRs in general and of the NuScale SMR in particular. The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility issued an early study of SMRs in 2010 that posed technical questions still not answered.
Nuclear Isn’t the Solution to Carbon Emissions
Now a surprising new study has thrown a monkey wrench into all plans to expand nuclear power, including NuScale’s. The main selling point of nuclear power today has been its claim of low carbon emissions, but the new study, from researchers in the U.K. and Germany, raises serious doubts about that claim.Countries adopting renewable energy have reduced their carbon emissions far more effectively than countries choosing nuclear power.
The study examined the experience of 123 countries between 1990 and 2014 and concluded that countries adopting renewable energy have reduced their carbon emissions far more effectively than countries choosing nuclear power.
Furthermore, the study found that renewables and nuclear don’t mix well: A commitment to nuclear curtails the future development of renewables, and a commitment to renewables curtails the future of nuclear.