Nuclear Sector Deep Dive: Revisiting a Source of Carbon-Free Energy

By: Malvika Singhal
May 13, 2023
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Est. Reading Time: 6 minutes
The first NuScale Power small modular reactor (SMR) plant in the United States will begin operations in Idaho. Image Credits: NuScale Power, LLC
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As the U.S. begins to grapple with the threat of climate change, many states are re-examining their stance on nuclear energy. In the past, when the outcomes of nuclear energy were still being explored, environmentalists and local activists used escalated financial costs, lack of skilled labor, and safety concerns such as radiation poisoning to provide a cautious perspective of its future use. As a new decade awoke in 2020, renewed interest  in nuclear energy cropped up. Federal initiatives such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and updated, improved safety standards have changed the discussion on the centrality of nuclear energy in energy security. 

Early Incidents Shaped the Debate

After WWII, as the U.S. looked to put behind the tragedy of war, there was a new potential technology of nuclear fission. The U.S. was keen on finding novel uses of nuclear power for good, including as a source of electricity. For the next two decades, the U.S. would build power plants both at home as well as across the sea in Europe. 

Then came the Three-Mile Island accident. 

In March 1979 near Middletown, Pennsylvania, one reactor of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant partially melted. While this accident is still the most serious accident at a commercial nuclear power plant history in the U.S. , there were no health hazards to report to the surrounding community. The people living closest to the accident would have experienced an extra dose of radiation that is less than what an average person would experience in a year from the background environment.

Yet, public support toward nuclear energy reportedly fell from 69 percent to 46 percent. Only seven years later, in April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was damaged in Ukraine. Unit 4 of the plant was destroyed after a systems test went awry. Unlike the Three Mile Island accident, there was radioactive release from the site that was severe enough to kill 28 workers and give another 106 radiation sickness.

Shortly after this accident, but before global warming came into view, Americans were content with the dependence on fossil fuels. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that climate change activists envisioned the future of nuclear energy as a solution to the overheating planet. This vision came to light in 2008, when utilities in the American South decided to build a couple of nuclear reactors. In order to keep costs down, the reactor parts were built off-site, which reduced accessibility and furthered the risk of poor quality control. Reports claimed that pipes were misshapen and cracked. This is particularly concerning for welded components, since they must be able to withstand immense heat and pressure. Soon after, the project was halted.

This was an eye-opening venture since it revealed how critical quality control is during plant construction. 

In 2011, the Fukushima disaster took place, in part due to the tsunami that hit the region. The backup generators for the plant were damaged, and when the eventual loss of power led to failed cooling systems, fuel rods began to melt and released radiation. Explosions from built-up, pressurized hydrogen gas would continue for a few days after.

However, the present combined concern of rising carbon emissions and increased costs of non-renewable energies leads us to the current consideration of nuclear energy.

Nuclear Energy in Today’s Policy Discussions

On November 15th, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This initiative includes provisions toprovide relief for struggling power plants as well as fund a demonstration program for regional clean hydrogen hubs, including nuclear energy.

Notably, based on data collected by ecoAmerica’s 2021 American Climate Perspectives Survey, over 50% of Americans say the U.S. should be spending more on nuclear energy regardless of political identification. Since 2018, Democrats have slowly increased their support toward nuclear energy. Among opponents of nuclear energy, the single most cited reasons for disapproval are clean-up of related pollution and modernization of nuclear power. 

Nuclear Energy at the State Level

Some states are still deciding on their stance for the future of nuclear energy. For example, Diablo Canyon is currently the last operating power plant in California. However, due to lack of support and pressure from environmentalist groups, it is being considered for shut down. The argument against Diablo Canyon has included the potential risk of an accident caused by earthquakes due to their frequency in the area. Additionally, the president of the trade association for all the Community Choice Aggregations in California cites “expense, toxic waste, environmental risk, and catastrophic accidents” as reasons to shut down the Diablo Canyon plant. Diablo Canyon supplies 9% of the state’s total electricity with profit.

Wyoming is a current leader in the latest innovation in nuclear energy. Through the support of founder Bill Gates and the U.S. Department of Energy, the “Natrium” design for power plants is currently planned for construction starting in mid-2023. Natrium power plants are not only cheaper, but they would also use new liquid sodium technology that stores converted heat into molten salt, instead of water. As a result, the heat can be either stored and later accessed for future need or be converted to electricity immediately by a steam turbine generator via a heat exchanger. This storage feature would allow greater flexibility of energy demand cycles, which is a concern surrounding adopting nuclear power. In other words, nuclear energy may be able to keep up with energy demand at whim of the consumers’ changing needs.

The TerraPower facility that follows the “Natrium” design will be constructed in Kemmerer, Wyoming. It is currently supported by both Democrats and Republicans in the state, and the goal is to have the plant run for 60 years. The plant can regularly generate 345MW of energy and up to 500MW at peak demand. An additional benefit touted by the industry is that the TerraPower facility will provide job opportunities. According to TerraPower CEO Chris Levesque, around 2000 workers would be employed at the peak of plant construction. Another 250 would be employed to maintain operations of the plant.

A few states have already  adopted nuclear energy as a long-term energy source. In Washington, the Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power plant that generates 1200 MW of power west of the Columbia River, is the third-largest source of power in the region. Tigard, Oregon’s NuScale Power is a leader for small modular reactor (SMR) design plants. SMRs use the same nuclear science as traditional nuclear reactors, but the main difference is the ability to construct SMR components in a factory. Though, as previously mentioned, this could lead to quality control concerns. According to an interim report by the SMR Regulators’ Forum, quality assurance requirements are expected when specifically addressing modular components. In combination with being more portable, SMRs can be installed in locations that would not be able to support a large, traditional reactor.

Local Policy and Nuclear Energy

So how is nuclear regulated, and how is this power distributed in individual states? 

Most of the nuclear energy companies in the country are privately owned. These companies are subsidized by the government, which maintains tight control on regulating fuel storage, reactor construction, environmental regulations, and more. 

States, however, assert influence through state public service commissions, which regulate the sale of electricity to consumers. The deregulation of electricity prices in the 1990s opened up more opportunities for nuclear power production consolidation in states. Large power companies began to purchase plants from deregulated states. Currently, ten states with nuclear power plants are deregulated. In this case, the energy that nuclear power plants generate is sold on the open market. At this point, energy distribution companies will choose which energies to buy.

Additionally, county governments can impose property taxes, which becomes relevant when deciding where to locate future nuclear facilities. For example, Calvert County in Maryland has allowed tax incentives for the new reactor to be built there.

The Nuclear Waste Act provides individual states with the power to veto legislation that would allow the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission to place a waste repository within their boundaries.

There is much to consider; however, it is clear that the power of choice for or against nuclear energy is concentrated at the state level. 

How to Stay Involved

The National Conference of State Legislators recommends a few ways to stay in touch with nuclear energy policy in your state.

One way is to communicate directly to lawmakers and members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who regulate nuclear facilities.

Understanding the various energy standards of your state is beneficial in demystifying your state’s stance in nuclear energy as well.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 05/13/23
Updated: 06/1/23
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