- Nuclear power must be part of the solution to reduce carbon emissions
- Nuclear power plants of the future look very different than power plants today
On Tuesday, William Freebairn, managing editor of Platts Nucleonics Weekly, Jack Bailey, the Sr. Vice President of Businesses Development at NuScale Power, Keith Bradley, Program Leader and Senior Technical Advisor for national and global security programs at Argonne National Laboratory, and Mark Haynes, President of Concordia power met to discuss the future of nuclear power and the political and technical hurdles.
Freebairn opened this discussion on energy technology by asking what the future of energy landscape looks like, given financial issues concerning the field?
Bailey remarked that the energy industry must look at the big picture: reducing carbon emissions. The key to this, he said, is “if we have technology that can be deployed that could reduce any one of these sectors by near 100% we should do it.” He then delved into the policy reasons of why nuclear energy should be part of the solution. First, the clean air value (no greenhouse gas emissions for nuclear energy) is important for reducing emissions. Nuclear reactors supply reliable production of energy and fuel supply – interruption of gas or oil supplies does not affect nuclear reactors or nuclear material. He added that the economic implications are important: “Nuclear energy makes more jobs per 1000 megawatts than any other technology we use to make power.”
Bailey then described the NuScale power module. These reactors are small, can be built entirely in a factory, and rely on basic physics principles for safety. “Physics is a reliable way to make things work.” They are able to sustain themselves indefinitely after a catastrophic event with no operator action, no AC/DC power, and no additional water. However, large initial investments with long-term returns, high costs for first-time early movers, and rigid regulation are challenges to building and deploying these reactors.
Bradley spoke about innovation risk and how to make smarter decisions. “Energy security is about a lot more than protecting the power source. Society, as it depends critically on the energy supply, should be interested in ‘energy confidence’. We need to think of energy supply and availability as an ecosystem.” He recommended a diversified portfolio of energy storage, including batteries and biofuels. He also cited the need to break down ‘silos’ and have scientists share expertise with the community. “This is a global problem and we need a mechanism to bring the community together to tackle big problems.”
Haynes explained the differences between advanced nuclear reactor designs: Some have higher operating temperatures, so they are more thermally efficient and produce less waste heat, some have better fuel utilization, some can burn spent fuel, and some can burn thorium. Likening reactors to golf clubs, he said “you’re going to need a lot of different types of clubs to play the game.” He displayed the 2012 US primary energy consumption by source and sector, which shows that electrical energy is the least carbon–intensive of all the sectors. Because nuclear power would go 100% to the electricity sector, he labeled it a “one-trick pony.” From a public policy perspective, being a leader in nuclear power grants the U.S. several things: environmental goals, exports, entry into other energy markets, and support to build a high-tech industry. It also would grant the U.S. a real, legitimate say in non-proliferation negotiations. Haynes warned that we are losing that power in the U.S. by not building new reactors. “If we don’t buy now, we will pay later.” He explained that here are 30 countries going nuclear right now, and 60 more interested in it. The IAEA projects that 15 of those 60 countries will go nuclear in the next decade. It’s a “whole lot better to be in this game with more than one kind of golf club.” He also spoke on the barriers to building new reactors. They include the low cost of natural gas, long-term payoff of nuclear investments (15 years to break even), utility structure and long regulatory process, and more generous subsidies for other forms of energy (renewable). Power-purchase agreements, loan guarantees and government partnering with industry could help. “We as a country do not have a lot of time to mess around – we need to get on with this.”
A question on nuclear waste and disposal was asked to the panel. All agreed that this is a problem, but that the solution for spent fuel is as much a political one as a technical one. Haynes commented that there are reactor types that can burn spent fuel, so it is possible to reduce the amount of waste. The NRC determined that it if safe to store spent fuel in canisters on site. Bradley added that the volume of spent uranium is very small so a nuclear waste repository would also be small. He stated, “The Yucca mountain experience won’t be the experience of the future.” In fact, the technology to deal with spent fuel has been in place for decades. Bailey added that the past 50 years prove that we can store fuel safely. Even in the case of Fukushima, the stored spent fuel was never the problem.
Responding to a question about safety of nuclear power, Bradley added that these systems have been tried and tested for 30 years. He asked, “At what point is it safer than what we’re doing to produce energy today?” He then cited the number of coal mining deaths over time, and stated that nuclear power is safer in metrics of saving lives. In case of catastrophic events, all reactors are required to design for worst-case scenarios in their region. Newer power plants have Fukushima in hindsight. “Fukushima got it [the catastrophic events] wrong. The rest of us are going to make sure we get it right.”