In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was quite a buzz about the potential for nuclear energy. This led to the development of several large-scale nuclear reactors, but soon, the risks associated with these new nuclear reactor designs became apparent–specifically, nuclear waste containment and the risk of radiation exposure posed serious problems. Before long, regulatory restrictions focused on safety made such projects costly and less attractive, and public backlash over environmental threats from atomic fission grew. As a result, the notion of nuclear energy as a lasting replacement energy solution for fossil fuels was put on the back burner.
However, it seems times are changing. Amidst concerns over carbon emissions and climate change, there’s new interest in nuclear energy because it offers a possible approach for nations seeking a zero-emission future, including the U.S. This has prompted not only many states to reconsider nuclear reactor projects. Unfortunately, large-scale projects continue to be cost-prohibitive. New nuclear reactor designs, including innovative approaches and smaller scales, offer alternatives. But they too face serious hurdles in the pursuit of feasibility. The future of nuclear energy hangs in the balance, and it remains to be seen if nuclear energy advocates can take advantage of the current climate before attitudes shift again.
“This is the best period of support I’ve ever seen for nuclear power in my 20-year career. But the industry has to deliver. If they can’t, there’s a real risk that this moment of opportunity could slip away.” – Jacopo Buongiorno, Nuclear Engineering Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Challenges with Large-Scale Nuclear Projects
There are definite benefits to pursuing larger-scale nuclear energy projects for states and communities. Nuclear reactors operate in all seasons and conditions, unlike wind and solar clean energy solutions. They also generate energy 24/7 all year long, providing a consistent energy source when other options experience gaps. These are the perks of such programs that has generated new interest in nuclear energy. It’s also the reason for its bipartisan support and billions of dollars from Biden’s programs. But that doesn’t mean they are without their challenges, and costs continue to be a major one. Even with innovative nuclear reactor designs, expenses can be enormous.
Georgia as a state, and specifically Southern Power, can attest to these types of issues with large-scale nuclear projects. The Vogtle Projects on the Savannah River will soon be operational and provide two million homes with continuous electricity. But the final price tag for the additional nuclear reactors ended up being $35 billion, more than double the original proposal. It also will be completed seven years behind schedule as a result of design issues, construction mishaps, and supply chain problems. Indeed, the Vogtle Project will be beneficial for decades to come. But it has also resulted in a $900 increase in charges to customers for its addition. Despite subsidies, major costs have been passed along to consumers. And during a time of inflation and recessionary pressures, the timing is less than ideal.
Cost is not the only issue when it comes to nuclear energy projects. While new interest in nuclear energy is being driven by climate change fears, there are still environmental issues to address. Solutions in dealing with radioactive waste continue to be limited, which affects project regulatory approvals. At the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to take a conservative approach to risk in these matters. Combined with being understaffed, this often presents additional barriers when dealing with alternative nuclear reactor designs. This isn’t to say that safety isn’t an important issue related nuclear energy. But if it impedes innovation and raises expenses, it can undermine new interest in nuclear energy as an energy future.
“We need everything we can put our hands on in terms of low-carbon resources. We have to put the longer-term risk of nuclear waste against the imminent impacts of climate change.” – Dan Reicher, Former Assistant Secretary of Energy
Companies Pursuing New Nuclear Reactor Designs
Understanding the costs and risks of large-scale nuclear projects, there are handful of companies investing in alternative nuclear reactor designs. Traditionally, most nuclear reactors are light water reactors that generate steam via atomic fission to create electricity. This continues to be a design used today, but increasingly, companies are trying to accomplish this on a smaller scale. As such, nuclear waste issues and radiation containment problems tend to be less. NuScale is one such company, but thus far, it too has faced regulatory obstacles. Many with a new interest in nuclear energy still believe this is a more viable strategy. But thus far, a proven design has yet to emerge.
Smaller-scale light water nuclear reactor designs are not the only innovations in the field. For example, TerraPower is working on a smaller sodium-cooled reactor. Oklo has a design that uses a 15 mega-watt reactor that it hopes to use for remote communities or e-charging stations. And X-Energy has designed a pebble-bed reactor that is cooled by gas instead of water to generate both heat and electricity. While each of these have potential, they too have significant development costs and regulatory barriers. It therefore remains to be seen whether these types of alternative options will perpetuate the new interest in nuclear energy moving forward.
“A lot of these reactor start-ups are seizing the opportunity of this foregone innovation over the last six decades. This is the wave of the future.” – Roger Blomquist, Principal Nuclear Engineer, Argonne National Laboratory on Nuclear Energy
Bold Solutions and Bold Concessions
In order to capitalize on this new interest in nuclear energy, all stakeholders need to come together. Bold companies like the ones mentioned must continue to explore alternative nuclear reactor designs. Developing lower cost models that support a zero-emission future is essential. But at the same time, regulatory restrictions must be reasonable without extensive government oversight. And it is quite likely that some of the costs of development will be passed along to consumers. After all, a carbon-free energy future will not be without some level of sacrifice. If this happens, then nuclear energy indeed has strong potential as the future of our nation’s energy solution.