Utilities across the United States are starting to plan for a big buildout of new nuclear power plants for the first time in decades.
A recent survey of local energy policies designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions conducted by the Associated Press indicated that two-thirds of US states were planning to build out nuclear power to meet their goals.
It's a controversial decision which divides many in the environmental movement and one that perpetuates and privileges big utility infrastructure over the localization of energy generating assets through distributed power and energy storage.
Environmentalists and proponents of renewable energy (especially solar power) argue that combining renewable energy generation with energy storage and more energy efficient home appliances can go a long way toward meeting the needs of consumers on the grid. These distributed systems also have the benefit of being more resilient in the face of natural disasters that can bring down broad swaths of centralized utility systems.
Behind this surge in interest from states is a wave of technology development coming from companies like the Bill Gates-backed nuclear power technology developer, TerraPower, which is building a $4 billion demonstration plant in the former coal town of Kemmerer, Wyoming.
Developing nuclear power will take several years with the first projects coming online by 2030. At that point, other types of nuclear technology that are have no significant associated waste streams could be reaching the point of commercialization as well.
These are fusion technologies like the Breakthrough Energy Ventures and FootPrint Coalition-backed Commonwealth Fusion Systems or Helion Energy, which raised money from the startup entrepreneur and executive Sam Altman last year. Those two companies have nearly $4 billion between them to bring nuclear fusion technology to market.
Unlike fission systems, nuclear fusion produces no material radioactive waste and has no risk of meltdowns or the catastrophic accidents associated with fission reactors.
Big utilities like nuclear power because it aligns with the ways they currently bill customers and make money. Utilities need to put in big, expensive projects so they can charge rate-payers more money. If systems operate more efficiently and don't cost as much, they can't charge their customers as much.
The more utility projects get built -- and the more expensive they are -- the more the utility can justify rate hikes and make more money.
But nuclear energy does have some benefits over renewables -- at least right now and at least with the availability, reliability, and cost of energy storage systems still an open question.
“At this point in time, I don’t see a path that gets us there without preserving the existing fleet and building new nuclear,” said Tennessee Valley Authority President and CEO Jeff Lyash. The nationally-owned TVA is working with another of these new nuclear technology developers, Kairos Power, on a pilot project of its own.
While many states are keen to add nuclear to their power mix, some of the most progressive and forward-thinking geographies are trying to build out alternatives through more renewables and energy storage, more effective transmission and distribution of power, and exploring new sustainable power sources like hydropower and geothermal energy.
At the national level, the U.S. leadership within the Department of Energy is advocating for a kitchen sink approach.
“We want it all,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told the AP in an interview.