New Nuclear Tech Won’t Help U.S. Avoid ‘Profound’ Climate Problem

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By Bobby Magill

New nuclear reactor technology such as NuScale Power LLC’s small modular reactors and government support for existing nuclear power plants won’t be enough to rescue the declining nuclear power industry, according to new research.

Nuclear power’s free fall and unlikely revival represent a “profound concern” about climate change because the U.S. is unlikely to cut enough carbon emissions from the electric power sector by mid-century to address global warming without nuclear power, according to a paper published July 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research assumes that it will be much more difficult to meet global climate goals with renewable power sources alone than it would be to slash carbon dioxide emissions with both renewables and nuclear power.

“The way to decarbonize the energy system is with a portfolio of everything we’ve got,” including wind, solar and nuclear power, the paper’s lead author, M. Granger Morgan, a professor of engineering and co-director of the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making at Carnegie Mellon University, told Bloomberg Environment. “We find it very troubling that we’ve taken a big chunk of the portfolio that could be used to decarbonize the energy system—we’ve taken it off the table.”

Morgan’s research reflects the nuclear power industry’s message that nuclear energy, with enough support to grow, could go far to cut carbon emissions to help slow global warming.

Nuclear power will likely be needed to supplement wind and solar power, which can only do so much to remove fossil fuels from the electric power grid, Danny Cullenward, policy director at climate research organization Near Zero and a research associate at the Carnegie Institution for Science who is unaffiliated with Morgan’s research, told Bloomberg Environment.

“There are few credible experts who believe a modern electricity system can be run on 100 percent renewable energy,” he said.

“What makes the new paper so interesting is that you have a respected senior energy scientist who is unabashedly pro-nuclear arguing that his preferred technology doesn’t have a realistic path to market in the near term,” he said.

Fading Away

Nuclear power, one of the largest sources of low-carbon energy, is fading quickly in the U.S.

About 20 percent of U.S. electricity comes from nuclear power plants, but electric utilities are closing plants across the country as companies turn to less-costly natural gas and renewable energy. Five nuclear power plants have closed since 2012, with nine more slated for closure through 2025.

“Right now, the cost of generating electricity from newly constructed nuclear plants is almost double the cost for power from a new natural gas combined-cycle plant,” Etan Gumerman, an environmental economics policy associate at Duke University who is unaffiliated with the paper, told Bloomberg Environment.

“The economics of other low-carbon technologies, including wind, solar and storage, have been improving rapidly to the point where they are more economical than nuclear for many situations,” he said.

The Energy Department has declared that keeping as many nuclear power plants open as possible is one of its top priorities in addition to subsidizing and supporting research and development of advanced nuclear reactors, including NuScale’s small modular reactors. The first of those is scheduled to begin operating in 2026.

Affordable But Not Economical

But Morgan’s team concluded that the market draw of cheap natural gas is too strong for both existing nuclear power plants and the next generation of nuclear reactors to overcome.

“In the absence of a dramatic change in market conditions, political will, and substantial subsidies, there is virtually no chance that the United States will be able to undertake the construction of additional large LWR (light water reactor) power plants in the next several decades,” the paper says.

The federal government would have to invest “several hundred billion dollars” in order to create a market for mass-produced small modular nuclear reactors, the paper says, adding that in the foreseeable future, small modular reactors would not be economically competitive against natural gas or renewables for electric power generation.

“We do not see a clear path forward for the United States to deploy sufficient numbers of SMRs [small modular reactors] in the electric power sector to make a significant contribution to greenhouse gas mitigation by the middle of this century,” Morgan’s team concluded.

NuScale’s first reactor and other advanced reactors planned elsewhere in the U.S. expected to begin operation late in the next decade represent “onesies and twosies of small reactors” that won’t be produced in large enough numbers to make a difference in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, Morgan said.

But NuScale believes that increases in natural gas prices and a need for “resilient” forms of low-carbon electricity sources will create new demand for small modular reactors, spokeswoman Mariam Nabizad told Bloomberg Environment.

“With our first client set for operation in Idaho in 2026, there are also many potential customers from other countries that have expressed in NuScale’s technology,” she said.

Decarbonization

Some climate scientists, including James Hansen, a former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies who in 1988 warned Congress about the dangers of climate change, say they fear that weaning countries off fossil fuels will be nearly impossible without nuclear power.

Countries will have to drastically cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 in order to prevent global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels—the point beyond which scientists say climate change becomes catastrophic. The Paris Agreement on climate change aimed to limit warming to that amount.

The U.S. government has failed to sufficiently support the nuclear power sector in time to decarbonize its power system before mid-century, Hansen said, speaking June 18 at the American Nuclear Society annual meeting in Philadelphia. Hansen was not involved in the Carnegie Mellon research.

“It’s like something’s not functioning,” Hansen said. “At the moment, these agreements like Paris and [the earlier] Kyoto [climate agreement] are wishful thinking” without governments making serious efforts to quit using fossil fuels by expanding the use of nuclear power.

A Safety Issue

The role of nuclear power in decarbonizing the electric power system as a way to address global warming divides climate scientists who see urgency in slashing carbon dioxide emissions but worry about nuclear power’s safety challenges.

“The future for the [nuclear] industry is bleak due to cost of new units, lack of meaningful climate change policy at the federal level, and concerns about safety and the perception of safety,” Frank Felder, director of the Center for Energy, Economic and Environmental Policy at Rutgers University, told Bloomberg Environment. Felder is unaffiliated with the research.

Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), worry that sea level rise and other effects of climate change will become a hazard for spent nuclear fuel stored at existing nuclear power plats such as the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts, which is slated for closure.

“As plants like Pilgrim shutter across the nation and plan to store spent nuclear fuel on site for years—even decades—to come, it is imperative that these plants and the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] regulations fully consider the impacts of climate change on dangerous nuclear waste,” Markey said in an April 25 statement.

Nuclear power could become more viable if spent nuclear fuel could be economically and safely re-used, Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., who is unaffiliated with the research, told Bloomberg Environment.

“Nuclear power that continues to generate substantial nuclear waste [is] not tenable” because of the high cost of disposal and related safety concerns, he said.

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