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Advanced Nuclear Energy Projects Stumble Despite White House Support

Ken Silverstein

During the COP26 climate conference, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said that the United States is “all-in” on nuclear energy — that it provides 20% of the country’s electricity and more than half of its carbon-free power. She said that the Biden Administration would concentrate its limited resources on preserving the existing nuclear fleet and on developing small modular reactors. 

The White House supports an expansion for all next-generation nuclear reactors — plants that are safer and more efficient than current designs. It also wants to build a “test reactor” that could speed up the commercialization of those cutting-edge technologies, but thus far, lawmakers are skittish. 

“One of the key advantages of advanced nuclear energy is that we think it can have lower costs,” says Judi Greenwald, executive director of The Nuclear Innovation Alliance, at a conference held last week by the Global America Business Institute. “It can also be built in smaller increments and matched with the growth in electricity demand. That makes it easier to finance.”  

According to the Third Way, the total electricity consumption could double over 30 years. And much of that demand will come from emerging countries. The think tank says that advanced, futuristic nuclear power could serve 16% of the electricity demand by 2050.

At present, 32 countries operate nuclear plants, and the fuel source makes up 10% of the global pie, says the International Atomic Energy Agency. It adds that the use of nuclear energy would need to double by 2050 to meet the goals of prior climate conferences — to keep temperature increases to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. 

All this is in the context of the U.S. House and Senate actions, where lawmakers “zeroed-out” funding for the so-called Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) at the Idaho National Laboratories. That testing site can fast-track improvements, such as shutting down potentially troubled reactors while limiting the amount of radioactive waste created by those units. Such research and development, for example, has been able to increase capacity rates from 60% 50 years ago to 90% today. 

“Utilities can eschew 1,000-megawatt nuclear facilities,” says Jackie Toth, senior advisor to the Good Energy Collective, at the conference. “But with a new set of advanced reactors, they are taking a second look. They can reduce costs, increase safety benefits, and make more efficient use of the fuel … VTR has propitious funding support. But we need to beat the drum. We will recoup our investment. Things are moving forward concerning engineering and design.”

Messy Politics

Small modular reactors — 50 megawatts to 300 megawatts — can also use those advanced nuclear designs. Today’s larger nuclear reactors use second-generation light-water facilities that are operating near capacity. But third-generation light-water reactors are coming while fourth-generation reactors will follow.

Third-generation nuclear units are improving safety protocols while using water as a coolant and uranium as a fuel. Fourth-generation, known as very high-temperature reactors, can use molten salt as a coolant while varying the fuel type. They achieve superior thermal efficiency with more potential for industrial applications such as steel-making and hydrogen production. 

For now, Russia is the only country with a test reactor similar to VTR — one that can simulate conditions at commercial sites to improve the operations of future plants. Given the current geopolitical differences between the United States and Russia, there is little reason to believe that the two countries would have a formal cooperative agreement. Even then, it’s in the United States’ interest to lead the effort and export its cutting-edge nuclear technologies.  

The cost of VTR could be as much as $6 billion over six years — noteworthy, considering the Department of Energy’s budget this year is nearly $40 billion, says Jennifer Gordon, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. She adds that Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy industry gives it a guaranteed source of funding. In contrast, the United States’ private model requires investors to buy-in — not to mention the elected policymakers in a democratic system. 

“You don’t want to be the company that deploys beta max that is the first thing out but then becomes out-innovated,” says Gordon, during the discussion and a reference to the need for a nuclear testing facility, or VTR. “There is a need for nuclear innovation” — a result of global leadership and a passion for solving the climate crisis.

Better Mousetrap 

To be clear, a demonstration project and a testing facility are different animals. TerraPower and PacifiCorp, for example, said in June that they would place a right-sized nuclear reactor in Wyoming where a coal plant once stood. Its Natrium facility, which Microsoft MSFT Bill Gates founded, is an electricity-generating reactor that is getting Energy Department support: $80 million, a small part of the overall cost. The goal is to have it up and running by 2030. 

VTR will not produce power for consumers. It is a test facility that can, for example, predict the long-term wear-and-tear on reactors through modeling. The process can take a matter of weeks. Designers can therefore build a better mousetrap. 

But some experts say that VTR is too costly and that advanced nuclear reactors are unproven. The Union of Concerned Scientists says that the jury is still out as to whether those units can reduce costs, limit nuclear waste, burn uranium more efficiently, and strengthen safety. 

“Despite the hype surrounding them, none of the non-light-water reactors on the drawing board that we reviewed meet all of those requirements, says Dr. Edwin Lyman, a physicist and the director of nuclear power safety, in a report. “High-temperature, gas-cooled reactors may have the potential to be safer, but that remains unproven, and problems have come up during recent fuel safety tests.” 

Those points, however, are refuted by Ted Nordhaus, executive director of the Breakthrough Institute. In a column penned for The Hill, he writes that peer reviews have contradicted Dr. Lyman’s analysis. Moreover, Nordhaus draws a distinction between VTR that is publicly funded and fosters innovation, and the Natrium project, a private facility that will generate electricity.

“Both the VTR and the Natrium reactor are wise investments in a critical technology that we are likely going to need.”

The Biden Administration understands that global climate goals will be hard to reach without carbon-free nuclear power that can run 24-7 — especially to feed the expected energy appetite from emerging nations. The United States has an opportunity to not only lead but to also export those next-generation technologies — a reason it should resume funding current projects.

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