Tom Still: Next Generation Nuclear Power Can Augment Renewable Energy Sources | Economic news
Brent Ridge worked for years just a few hundred yards from a nuclear waste storage site at the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Washington. Because he was vice chairman of Columbia’s Nuclear Safety Review Board, Ridge was confident that he was not putting his health at risk by working near radioactive materials.
Today, as president and CEO of Wisconsin’s Dairyland Power Cooperative, Ridge is convinced that climate change is a far greater health hazard to him, his utility customers and the world – and he believes that greater nuclear power generation can help avoid irreversible damage.
“The bottom line is: if we’re for a lower carbon future, if you’re against carbon, you have to be for nuclear. I don’t know of a simpler way to put it,” Ridge said at a May 24 Wisconsin Technology Council luncheon in Madison. “If you want less carbon and you want a reliable, safe and cost-effective grid that keeps our economic engine running 24/7, nuclear is part of that future.”
There are still those who cringe at the idea of nuclear power coming back into fashion, largely for safety reasons but also for cost per kilowatt-hour issues. However, Ridge and Dairyland’s proposal to build a small-module reactor in its La Crosse-based service territory represents a rapid shift in industry, political and public attitudes.
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The type of reactor Dairyland envisions isn’t your grandfather’s nuclear power plant – or Homer Simpson’s, for that matter. It would have independently operating modules that would provide emission-free power as demand rose and fell, helping to smooth out the peaks and troughs of solar and wind power.
Rather than replacing solar, wind and other renewables, next-generation nuclear is being touted as a reliable complement that can help meet peaks in demand in a transmission grid that needs to stop burning coal, as soon as possible.
Paul Wilson, professor of nuclear engineering at Grainger and chair of the physical engineering department at UW-Madison, said the group’s nuclear power can fill the gaps as society reduces its reliance on fossil fuels over time. time. Wilson said more wind and solar development would come first, but they’re intermittent sources that come with their own downsides.
“When we get to these very low levels of decarbonization and we really want to get closer to zero, then you need to have something that provides what we today call a base load … and you need some kind of low carbon, firm, dispatchable power source,” he said. “The only (source) that is really ready right now is nuclear. Without it, the system becomes much more expensive and much less reliable.
Some environmental groups remain strongly opposed to nuclear energy. The Sierra Club’s Wisconsin chapter says nuclear power “is not the answer to the climate crisis,” citing sustainability, pollution and safety risks, and economics.
However, there is a growing legion of people and groups who fear that shutting down existing nuclear power plants — Wisconsin has one remaining plant at Point Beach, north of Manitowoc — will make it much more difficult to meet the climate goals of here 2030 and beyond. Nuclear energy now accounts for 20% of the country’s electricity.
In fact, four states — New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois — have reversed efforts to shut down factories. The Biden administration has expressed support for small module factories, like the one NuScale may build for Dairyland. With a nervous eye on Russia and its oil and natural gas supplies, many countries in the European Union are rethinking their opposition to nuclear power.
Some countries, notably France, have never abandoned nuclear as an energy source and have leapfrogged with technologies that recycle spent fuel. This fuel removed from the reactors contains 96% of the energy needed to produce new fuel.
The Washington Post reported this week that some activists who opposed the construction of California’s Diablo Canyon reactor decades ago are now urging the state to keep it open. This is not for them to turn their backs on solar and wind, but to recognize that society needs a range of generation options, especially at a time when electricity consumption is expected increase.
Will other Wisconsin utilities follow Dairyland’s lead? Jeff Keebler, president and CEO of Madison Gas and Electric, told the May 24 group that the utility will continue to track a mix of low-carbon sources. In a regional grid that spans much of the Midwest and part of Canada, he noted, electrons can and will come from a variety of generation sources.
Nuclear power doesn’t need to compete with renewables, but it can augment them in a world that needs both climate remedies and reliable power.
Tom Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. Email: [email protected]