According to an analysis by the editors over at Bloomberg, old-fashioned nuclear fission is poised to make a comeback in 2023. Why? As the editors posit, the clean, reliable, and efficient energy provided by nuclear can fill in gaps left by solar and wind, currently stocked by the fossil fuels and coal the world desperately needs to get rid of.
As much as we hate to admit it, renewables like wind and solar do have their limits and sometimes need a bit of help.
Take the global clean energy leader, Denmark, for example. Denmark generates about 50% of its electricity from wind, but as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports, this is only possible because it is fully integrated into the Scandinavian grid, dominated by the top two global sources of low-emissions power: hydroelectric power and nuclear energy. Across Scandinavia, these two powerhouses account for where Denmark’s wind turbines leave off.
In the future, the December IMF report shows that nuclear power also has the potential to produce carbon-free heat as well as power a range of energy-intensive and hard-to-electrify industrial practices like refining, fertilizer manufacturing, and the steel and hydrogen production the world relies on.
Thus, the editors at Bloomberg put it bluntly: “net-zero isn’t possible without nuclear.” The IMF and International Energy Agency both back up this claim, but with a vital footnote. The net-zero future of nuclear is only possible under the right governmental, economic, and institutional circumstances.
The editorial describes “what we need” and not “how we get there,” Jigar Shah, Director of the Department of Energy Loans Program Office said via Twitter.
In order to achieve net-zero, 30-40% of the energy in the U.S. has to be clean generation from nuclear to geothermal to hydro, the director said. This is backed up by the multiple pathways the National Renewable Energy Laboratory outlines for reaching 100% domestic clean energy by 2035. While the national climate strategy is to reach this milestone by 2050, NREL shows that we could reach it a lot sooner.
But how exactly do we get there?
As Shah outlined in the Twitter thread, there are feasible steps we can take concerning the way we build nuclear power, reforming the process for project approval, and innovation in design.
But first, we need to understand some backstory.
The oil shock of the 1970s spurred a spike in nuclear energy development that lasted for two decades. However, as the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows, while nuclear contributes nearly 20% to U.S. electricity generation and 9% of our total capacity, the average age of these plants is 37 years, with the oldest operational plant built 54 years ago in 1969. The design hasn’t changed much since.
In our current decade, interest in nuclear is increasing for a few reasons. For one, the clock is ticking for reaching net-zero and countries around the world, especially in the U.S. are investing in nuclear to provide reliable energy and a backup to renewables. Secondly, energy security concerns sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also fueling the interest in nuclear, particularly across Europe.
Despite the renewed interest and solid federal support in America, the nuclear power market continued to face regulatory, technical, and financial setbacks for the last few years. In fact, these setbacks led to nuclear falling to just 9.8% of global power generation in 2021, its lowest level since the 1980s, according to the World Nuclear Industry 2022 annual report.
In reporting the highs and lows of nuclear energy throughout 2022, Canary Media shows that the country lacked the experience to build big projects. In October and December, the utility company Georgia Power completed two testing milestones for its Plant Vogtle Units 3 and 4 nuclear reactors.
However, the milestones were reached after a long and bumpy road. The project is six years overdue, the publication reports, and is costing utility customers double the original price tag, all while being the first new units the U.S. has seen in over three decades, illustrating the snail-pace of nuclear progress in the states.
With vast DOE financial support and production credits provided by the Inflation Reduction Act, the federal government is working to rescale nuclear, but because of a lack of experience, Shah says that the country was not ready to build Vogtle.
So, how does the U.S. become ready for large projects like this?
Step one is to refine nuclear through advanced design. Several new advanced reactor technologies are under development that are better suited for the modern age’s industrial uses. These designs are being targeted to replace existing coal-fired energy production.
By the end of the decade, the U.S. is committed to building two advanced demonstration reactors. One by X-energy will be designed to provide industrial heat and power and the other by TerraPower is planned as a coal plant replacement. According to the IMF, TerraPower’s reactor will also operate as an energy storage system and will be optimized to back up variable wind and solar power generation.
When many of the country’s current nuclear systems were built in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were not built with the future’s renewable power supply in mind. Now, innovation in the sector is needed to ensure nuclear’s role in the net-zero transition.
Step two is to convert old coal-firing plants into nuclear plants. According to Shah, the DOE has identified hundreds of retiring and operating coal plants that can go nuclear and is offering up to $250 billion in loan funding to get the job done.
“In order to convert these plants, we need to educate Mayors, state regulators, utilities, unions, and many others on the benefits of #CleanFirm power and why they should pay $65/MWh or more for it,” the director tweeted.
The DOE says these benefits include economic and employment opportunities in regions where nuclear is deployed. Still, according to Shah, we need to account for the fact that we are “short hundreds of thousands of workers” for the future’s nuclear industry, especially as many begin to retire with old plants.
As Reuters reports, a new generation of climate-motivated workers could help account for this. The federal government is taking steps by awarding institutions like Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, and Texas A&M University grants to establish centers to teach the next generation of nuclear experts, technologists, and operators. Nuclear startups like NuScale are also setting an example by training a workforce for their near-future operations.
In addition to innovation in the sector, converting old plants, and ensuring we have a workforce behind nuclear, Shah says there also needs to be a change in the way we build nuclear.
For one, “you need to build at least 10 reactors, not just one,” he tweeted, adding that a company must build up supply chains before beginning construction. He makes an example out of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) which has done just that. In August, TVA entered an agreement with GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) to support its planning and preliminary licensing for the potential deployment of a small nuclear reactor in The Volunteer State.
This type of cooperation allows both companies to coordinate their explorations into the design, licensing, construction, and operation of the reactor while reducing the financial risk that comes from the development of innovative technology and future deployment costs.
As Shah puts it, coordination across companies, regulators, utilities, and shareholders is what’s needed to get nuclear to the capacity necessary for a decarbonized nation. With these steps, we may finally be able to bring old-fashioned nuclear out of the 1970s and into the 21st century.