As states move away from oil, coal and natural gas, nuclear power is becoming a viable option to fill the gaps. It can also help to mitigate the effects of climate change. Companies, including the one founded by Bill Gates, have been developing smaller reactors to supplement the U.S. power grid.
There are many potential problems with nuclear power, including radioactive waste which can be dangerous for thousands of year. However, supporters argue that these risks can be minimized. They also believe that nuclear power will be vital to stabilize power supplies in the future as the world moves away from fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide.
Jeff Lyash, President and CEO of Tennessee Valley Authority, puts it simply: Without nuclear power, you can't reduce carbon emissions significantly.
Lyash stated that he doesn't see any path to get there that does not preserve the fleet and build new nuclear. "And this is after we have maximized the amount solar that can be built in the system."
TVA, a federally owned utility, supplies electricity to seven states. It is the third-largest electricity generator in the country. It is adding approximately 10,000 megawatts to its solar capacity by 2035, enough to power almost 1 million homes each year. The TVA also owns three nuclear plants, and plans to test a small reactor at Oak Ridge in Tennessee. It hopes to reach net zero by 2050. This means that the greenhouse gas emissions produced are no more than those removed from the atmosphere.
A survey by the Associated Press of energy policies in all 50 US states and District of Columbia revealed that a large majority (about two-thirds) believe nuclear will replace fossil fuels. The U.S. could see the first major expansion of nuclear reactor construction in over three decades thanks to the momentum behind nuclear power.
Nearly one-third of states and the District of Columbia responded in the AP survey saying that they don't plan to include nuclear power in their goals for green energy. Instead, they heavily rely on renewables. These energy officials stated that their goals were possible because of technological advances in energy storage with batteries, investments into the grid for high voltage interstate transmission, and energy efficiency efforts to reduce demand.
The U.S. nuclear power debate mirrors the European nuclear power debate. Some countries, like Germany, are retiring their reactors, while others, like France, plan to keep using the technology or build more plants.
Although the Biden administration has taken aggressive steps to reduce greenhouse gasses, it views nuclear as essential to compensate for the decline in carbon-based fuels within the nation's energy grid.
U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm stated to the AP that the administration wants zero-carbon electricity. "That means nuclear, hydropower, geothermal, obviously wind on and offshore, that mean solar.
Granholm stated that "we want it all" during a December visit to Providence, Rhode Island to promote an offshore wind farm.
Biden signed the $1 trillion infrastructure package into law last year, which will provide $2.5 billion to support advanced reactor demonstration projects. According to the Energy Department, studies from Princeton University and Decarb America Research Initiative have shown that nuclear power is essential for a carbon-free world.
Granholm also spoke out in favor of new technologies that involve hydrogen and carbon dioxide storage before it is released to the atmosphere.
The reliability and emission-free operation of nuclear reactors has been proven over many decades. This is why the Nuclear Energy Institute trade association, Maria Korsnick, President and Chief Executive Officer, has brought the benefits of nuclear to the forefront.
She stated that the scale of the electric grid across the United States requires something that's always available, something that can really help be the backbone for the grid. It's a partnership between wind, solar, and nuclear.
Edwin Lyman from the Union of Concerned Scientists, director of nuclear safety, stated that nuclear technology still has significant risks. He said that while the cost of building new reactors may be lower than those built in the past, they will also produce more expensive electricity. He is also concerned that the industry may cut corners on safety and security in order to compete in the market and save money. While the group is not opposed to nuclear power, it wants to ensure that it is safe.
Lyman stated that he was not confident that the safety and security requirements would be in place to make Lyman feel at ease with the deployment or adoption of small modular reactors across the country.
Lyman stated that the U.S. has no long-term strategy for disposing of hazardous waste. This waste can remain in the environment for hundreds and thousands of years. There's also the risk of accidents and targeted attacks on both the reactors and waste. The dangers of nuclear disasters such as those at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, Japan in 2011, are a constant warning.
The United States already has about 20% electricity from nuclear power. This accounts for half of the country's carbon-free energy. The country's 93 reactors are located east of the Mississippi River.
In August 2020, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved one of the small modular reactor designs. It was from NuScale Power. The commission has been informed by three other companies that they are planning to submit their designs. All three use water to cool their cores.
NRC expects about half a dozen submissions for advanced reactors. These use liquid metal, gas or molten salt to cool the core. This includes TerraPower in Wyoming, which is long dependent on coal for power and employment.
Wyoming, which has the third-largest wind power generation capacity in 2020 after Texas and Iowa, is a state that has seen utilities abandon coal. Glen Murrell, the Wyoming Energy Authority's executive director, stated that it is unrealistic to assume all of the country's energy will be generated exclusively by wind and solar. He said that renewable energy should be used in conjunction with other technologies, such as nuclear or hydrogen.
TerraPower will build its advanced reactor demonstration facility in Kemmerer in western Wyoming, where a coal plant is closing. Natrium technology is a sodium-cooled, fast reactor that pairs with an energy-storage device.
Some lawmakers in West Virginia, another state dependent on coal, are seeking to repeal the moratorium that West Virginia has placed on new nuclear facility construction.
The Idaho National Laboratory will build a second reactor designed by TerraPower. The core of the Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment's Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment is as small as a refrigerator. It will also be cooled by molten salt.
Georgia is one of the states that supports nuclear power. It maintains that Georgia's nuclear reactor expansion will provide it with enough clean energy for 60 to 80 more years. The expansion of Plant Vogtle, which will see it go from two to four of its large-scale reactors, is the only U.S. nuclear project currently under construction. The project is several years behind schedule and now costs more than twice the $14 billion originally projected.
New Hampshire stated that nuclear would make it impossible for the region to achieve its environmental goals as economically feasible without it. The Alaska Energy Authority began planning for small modular nuclear reactors in 2007. This could be at distant military bases or mine sites.
According to the Maryland Energy Administration, while all renewable energy is admirable and costs are decreasing, there will always be a need for a variety fuels. This includes nuclear and cleaner natural gas-powered systems in order to provide reliability and resilience. Maryland only has one nuclear reactor, but the energy administration is in talks with small modular reactor manufacturers.
Others, mostly from Democratic-led countries, stated that they are moving beyond nuclear power. Others said that they didn't rely on nuclear power in the first place and don’t think there will be any need to do so in the future.
They claimed that the high cost of building new reactors is much higher than installing solar panels or wind turbines, and that safety concerns as well as the unresolved issue of how to store nuclear waste are major deal-breakers. Because of safety concerns and questions about hazardous waste, some environmentalists oppose small modular reactors. They are high-risk, high cost and highly questionable according to the Sierra Club.
Doreen Harris, President and CEO of New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, stated that New York has some of its most ambitious climate change goals. The future energy grid will be dominated in New York by solar, wind and hydropower.
Harris stated that she sees a future other than nuclear. The state's current energy mix will drop from almost 30% to around 5%. However, the state will still need long-duration battery storage as well as cleaner-burning fuels like hydrogen.
Nevada's sensitive attitude to nuclear energy is due to the failure to store commercially used nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain. There are no officials who consider nuclear power to be a viable option. They see the potential for geothermal and energy storage with battery technology.
David Bobzien (director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy) stated in a statement that Nevada understands nuclear technology's significant lifecycle issues better than other states. "An emphasis on short-term gain can't address the long-term problems with nuclear energy.
California will close Diablo Canyon's last nuclear power plant in 2025. It will then switch to cheaper renewables to power its grid until 2045.
According to state planning documents, officials believe they can achieve that goal if California continues its growth in clean electricity generation at an "record-breaking pace" for the next 25 year. This would mean California will build on average 6 gigawatts per year of new solar, wind, and battery storage sources. California imports power from other states in the Western U.S. grid.
Skeptics question whether California's all in renewable plan is feasible in a state with nearly 40 million residents.
Scientists from Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that California would be able to delay Diablo Canyon's retirement until 2035, which would reduce power system costs and decrease the likelihood of brownouts. Steven Chu, the former U.S. Energy Secretary, stated that the country is not in a position to transition to 100% renewable energy in the short-term.
He said, "There will be times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow." "And we'll need power that can be turned on and sent at will. This leaves us with two options: nuclear or fossil fuel.
California Public Utilities Commission said that it would likely need "seismic upgrades", and modifications to the cooling system, which could cost more $1 billion to keep Diablo Canyon open beyond 2025. Terrie Prosper, spokesperson for the Commission, said that 11,500 megawatts will be available by 2026 to supply state's long-term energy needs.
Jason Bordoff, the Columbia Climate School's co-founding dean, stated that although California's plans may be technically possible, he is skeptical about how feasible it would be to quickly build such a large amount of renewable capacity. Bordoff stated that there are "good reasons" to consider extending the life span of Diablo Canyon in order to reduce energy costs and emissions as fast as possible.
He stated that nuclear energy must be integrated in a way that recognizes its risks. "But the risks associated with falling short of our climate targets outweigh the risks of including nucleoid energy in the zero-carbon energy mix."