The nuclear industry hopes to create large sources of energy by going small

The U.S. nuclear industry is producing less electricity as reactors retire, but plant operators now hope to nearly double output over the next three decades, according to the industry trade association.

The massive scale-up the utilities envision depends on the functionality of a new type of nuclear reactor much smaller than traditional reactors. About two dozen U.S. companies are developing advanced reactors, some of which could be in service by the end of the decade if the technology is successful and federal regulators approve it.

According to the association, member utilities of the Nuclear Energy Institute project could add a combined 90 gigawatts of nuclear power to the U.S. grid, most of which will come online by 2050. That translates to about 300 new small modular reactors, said Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the institute.

“We have innovation, we have capability, we have American ingenuity,” she said. “There’s no reason why we can’t market these products.”

US nuclear power generation capacity peaked at 102 gigawatts in 2012, when there were 104 nuclear reactors in operation, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The country’s 92 current operating reactors have a capacity of nearly 95 gigawatts.

Their output totaled 778 million megawatt-hours in 2021, down 1.5 percent from the previous year and 19 percent of the country’s electricity, the information administration said. That’s enough to power over 70 million homes.

Building huge conventional nuclear power plants is expensive and time-consuming. A project in Georgia – the only nuclear power plant under construction in the United States – is now expected to cost more than $30 billion. When approved in 2012, the first new nuclear reactors built in decades cost $14 billion.

Korsnick spoke about the possibility of doubling U.S. nuclear production in a speech to industry leaders and policymakers in Washington on Tuesday for the NEI Nuclear Energy Assembly conference, telling them that “we are at crossroads for our industry and the planet” and responding to the climate crisis is intrinsically linked to the power grid, the economy and energy security. The group cheered when she said 90 gigawatts of nuclear power could be added.

Kathryn Huff, Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, discussed US priorities for nuclear energy and goals for a low-carbon economy. She said the only way to tackle the climate crisis is to work together.

Korsnick, who spoke to The Associated Press exclusively ahead of the conference, said it wasn’t wishful thinking; there is a demand for so much nuclear power as companies strive to meet customer expectations and meet carbon reduction commitments, there is significant interest at the federal and state level, and small reactors can be built largely in a factory, unlike traditional reactors.

She acknowledged that there are challenges, such as a regulatory process that should be accelerated to license the reactors, the supply chain that needs to be developed and the need for more financial incentives, as the federal government l has done to scale up renewable energy projects over the years. the last decade.

The largest public utility in the United States, the Tennessee Valley Authority, launched a program in February to develop and finance new small modular nuclear reactors as part of its strategy to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse.

The Biden administration embraced nuclear power to help reduce greenhouse gases in the United States. She launched a $6 billion effort in April to save nuclear power plants at risk of shutting down, citing the need to pursue nuclear power as a carbon-free energy source that helps fight climate change. Most US nuclear power plants were built between 1970 and 1990, and operating an aging fleet is more expensive.

The U.S. Department of Energy said in April, when it requested $1.7 billion in its fiscal year 2023 budget for the Office of Nuclear Energy, that it was the one of the highest demands ever recorded for nuclear energy. The department is investing in advanced reactors.

An AP survey of energy policies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia found a strong majority – around two-thirds – say nuclear will, in some way, help replace fossil fuels .

Korsnick said the more people are concerned about carbon-free electricity, “the better nuclear power is.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists has warned that nuclear technology still carries significant risks that other low-carbon energy sources do not, including the danger of accidents or targeted attacks both on radioactive waste and reactors, and the unresolved question of how to store hazardous nuclear waste. The group does not oppose the use of nuclear energy but wants to ensure that it is safe.

The Environmental Working Group said small reactors were going to be a “total financial debacle” because the cost of nuclear power never goes down, with costs and risks being passed on to taxpayers.

And the Ohio-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has analyzed a small modular nuclear reactor being developed by NuScale Power in Oregon, concluding that it is “too expensive, too risky and too uncertain”. . The company said the report misrepresents NuScale’s costs, does not accurately reflect or examine planning timelines, and fails to even understand the results.

Korsnick said when companies show that test reactors can be built on budget and on time, they will “sell like hotcakes.” She pointed to Wyoming, where communities competed to get Bill Gates’ company demonstration project. TerraPower chose Kemmerer, which has depended on coal for more than a century.

Korsnick said she was optimistic about the future opportunities of nuclear power.

“However you cut and dice it, that’s basically saying nuclear is a big part of the solution,” she said.

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