The U.S. will need to accelerate deployment of low-carbon advanced nuclear technologies to meet President Joe Biden’s goal of putting the U.S. on a path of net-zero emissions by 2050, according to a report released Tuesday.
Advanced nuclear power includes small modular reactors—which currently generate around 60 megwatts compared to the 1,000 megawatts of conventional plants—and even smaller microreactors that are small enough to be transported on a semi-truck.
“Even with recent growth in wind and solar power, nuclear energy still provides more carbon-free electricity nationwide than all other sources combined,” according to the report, authored by the Nuclear Innovation Alliance and the Partnership for Global Security, which advocates for nuclear and international security.
Nuclear power already provides about 20% of all U.S. electricity, and about half of U.S. carbon-free power comes from nuclear reactors, according to the report, “U.S. Advanced Nuclear Energy Strategy for Domestic Prosperity, Climate Protection, National Security, and Global Leadership.” The report is intended as a wake-up call for Congress and the Biden administration.
Republicans and Democrats have embraced advanced nuclear as a tool to combat climate change. The most recent example was in a year-end omnibus spending measure that accelerates deployment of such reactors and directs regulators to report what licensing and other regulatory requirements need updating.
The price tag to further accelerate advanced nuclear energy runs in the billions of dollars, and the year-end omnibus measure authorizes increased funding for many key components. But it will be up to appropriators to actually provide that funding in the future.
The report warns the U.S. is “losing global leadership” in nuclear power generation, partly due to a near-halt of conventional nuclear power but also the growing technological competition from other nations. Those include China and Russia, which employ state-owned enterprises that give their nuclear industries a leg up over private U.S. industry.
The report calls for continued congressional support for advanced nuclear technologies, including demonstration projects over the coming decade that would be needed to spur rapid global deployment after 2030, which could help other large-emitting nations tackle their own emissions.
Progress on advanced reactors has seen an uptick over the last few years, including a 2018 joint Energy Department-NASA demonstration of Kilopower, a fast microreactor.
The Energy Department in 2019 granted a site use permit for Oklo Inc. to build its compact fast reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory.
A nuclear title added to the year-end spending measure called for boosting nuclear energy programs, including $405 million in fiscal 2021 for an advanced reactor demonstration program and $295 million for a versatile test reactor program to provide improved testing capabilities.
The report also urges the Biden administration to appoint “nuclear-focused” positions in the White House as well as officials well-versed in nuclear technologies to top positions in the Energy Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“Personnel is policy,” the report said, and close coordination will be needed between the State, Commerce, and Energy departments to pave the way for building overseas markets for U.S. technologies.
That, it said, will help the global effort needed to combat climate change.
“The U.S. cannot solve climate change alone and thus efforts should also be made to engage the international community, establish fair competition in global markets, and support countries newly investing in advanced nuclear energy,” the report said.
While many of the privately designed advanced nuclear concepts have been developed in the U.S. and Canada, 130 advanced nuclear projects were underway globally in 2020, according to the think tank Third Way.
The bulk of U.S. nuclear reactors are older, with an average age of 38 years old, and the total number of reactors has fallen under 100 due to decommissioning of plants amid increased competition from wind and solar energy as well as high regulatory costs.
But backers of advanced nuclear power say those are more flexible in providing quick surges of power as needed to the electricity grid. Such reactors could help meet what would likely be a booming electricity demand in the coming decades if the U.S. moves to electrify its transportation network—a key component of Biden’s plan to decarbonize the economy.
Advanced reactors also can use a variety of coolants, including water, molten salt, high temperature gas and liquid metal, and be sized to produce just a few megawatts but also up to more than 1,000 megawatts—essentially the same as a traditional nuclear reactor. Widespread commercial deployment, however, will require modernizing nuclear regulations but also addressing financial challenges of funding advanced nuclear reactor construction, the report says.
Deploying advanced reactors can also offer advantages over traditional nuclear power when it comes to managing nuclear waste. Decades of opposition to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain have slowed efforts on permanent waste storage.
Some advanced nuclear reactors burn their fuel more efficiently, thus reducing waste, or have “better waste characteristics” that make it more easy to manage than traditional nuclear waste, said Judi Greenwald, the Nuclear Innovation Alliance’s executive director.
Third Way has urged the Biden administration to build on the technological advances in advanced nuclear power, some of which date to the Obama administration.
“This is important to follow through on deploying advanced reactors as part of an ambitious plan to decarbonize the power sector by 2035, which is essential for our climate goals and creating good-paying, union jobs,” said Jackie Kempfer, senior policy adviser for Third Way’s Climate and Energy Program.