Downsizing may be the key to nuclear power’s future
If “agreement” isn’t precisely the right word, it’s certainly true that recent years have brought serious movement toward the viewpoint that low-carbon electricity production on a global scale will require a large nuclear contribution. At the same time, movement away from the familiar, large nuclear power plant design yielding two gigawatts (2,000,000,000 watts) and more from a single site, while not yet inexorable, can’t be dismissed.
Among many factors influencing these realities, two stand out: 1) Big nukes work. In terms of capacity factor—industry’s term for the percentage of any given time period in which a generation source will deliver the full energy output it’s designed to produce—the U.S. nuclear fleet consistently rates in the 90s, well ahead of any other technology and without any carbon dioxide emissions. 2) Big nukes are expensive. The up-front cost of building a large nuclear plant is so high as to deter smaller utilities from considering them, despite huge emission and reliability advantages.
The turn of the 21st century brought much talk of a “nuclear renaissance” in the United States, but construction starts on new plants trail plant retirements. Recent developments suggest if there’s going to be a renaissance, it may come more in the shape of a reinvention of the industry than a resumption of what used to be the norm.
Smaller Means Cheaper…
Mentioned elsewhere in this issue (see “News Briefs,” page 6) is the announcement earlier this winter from the Tennessee Valley Authority that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had accepted its application for an early site permit to begin examining the possibility of building several “small modular reactors” (SMRs) on its existing Clinch River plant site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A decision on whether the idea ever moves forward is years away.
But SMRs are widely thought to be the wave of the future for nuclear generation. Size is one obvious reason, but smaller size compared with conventional large reactors brings other advantages.
If you’ve seen a few large nuclear plants you know they tend not to look the same. Because of their size, they’re designed around their physical situation. Internal components are standardized but as size increases, so does the uniqueness of the design.
SMRs, on the other hand, are sparking interest because the entire unit can be small enough to haul on a truck or rail car. That means standardized design produced in a factory rather than built at the plant site, theoretically reinforcing safety and undoubtedly reducing cost.
…but Will It Mean Easier?
The U.S. Department of Energy in recent years seems to have taken a serious interest in development and promotion of SMR technology. Even some environmental activists have adopted a favorable view of nuclear. Not alone among them is Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. His organization originated not in wildlife advocacy but in anti-nuclear protest, but Moore has grown outspoken on behalf of emissions-free nuclear generation.
None of that means SMRs are likely to go unopposed. Much will depend on the ever-present politics of power plant siting, squared when the word “nuclear” appears, and even on fault lines within the energy industry.
In Illinois and New York, operators of large nuclear plants have obtained subsidies from state lawmakers fearful that competition from cheaper natural gas-fired generation would otherwise prompt the nukes’ early retirement, scuttling the states’ announced climate regulation goals.
Other generators—most often but not only merchant power producers (non-utility generators seeking business on wholesale and, where they exist, deregulated retail) power markets—are challenging the legality of the subsidies. It gets complicated because some large nuclear plants operate as wholesale merchant generators.
Anything involving nuclear generation automatically comes wrapped with extra layers of intricacy: political, legal, and economic. Note, however, that one presidential administration just left office after actively promoting SMR development and the new administration—in this case anyway—doesn’t appear eager to change course.
But all that extra intricacy means it takes longer to find out what’s really going on. Check back in a decade.