Publications

- September 1, 2020: Vol. 7, Number 8

Next-generation nuclear power at the tipping point

by Mike Consol

We are on the cusp of a golden age of nuclear power, as the industry enters what is destined to become the most innovative decade for nuclear since the fission process began generating power more than 60 years ago.

That is the essence of opening remarks made by Maria Korsnick at the virtually produced State of Nuclear Energy Industry 2020 conference. Korsnick, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, pointed to the nearly 50 percent forecasted increase in worldwide demand for electricity by 2050 (according to U.S. Energy Information Administration), the urgency of finding carbon-free energy alternatives to combat climate change, and the fleet of next-generation nuclear power startup companies as powerful forces quickly aligning.

“I’ve never been more confident in the future of nuclear energy,” Korsnick said.

There are currently more than 50 new nuclear plants under construction worldwide and at least 170 more in advanced planning stages, giving the United States what Korsnick called a “global opportunity” to compete against formidable state-owned nuclear enterprises in China and Russia. Over the past year, Korsnick said she and her team have spoken with leaders in countries from the Czech Republic to Brazil who “are entrusting their energy future to nuclear.”

She sees nuclear power as both a way to meet the world’s rising demand for energy and reducing emissions, while also raising living standards around the world, in part by supercharging innovation at home and exporting U.S. nuclear leadership overseas.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is preparing new licensing for advanced reactors being pursued by companies such as General Atomics, Holtec International, NuScale Power, Oklo Inc., TerraPower, Terrestrial Energy USA, and X-energy. The NRC recently accepted Oklo’s submission for the first license application for an advanced reactor, and in December the Tennessee Valley Authority received an early site permit for a small, modular reactor at its Clinch River site — the first such approval in the United States. In September, the NRC is expected to complete its first-ever technical review of an advanced reactor design, NuScale Power’s modular reactor.

“The next generation of technology is rapidly maturing,” Korsnick said.

Add to that decisions by lawmakers in December to approve appropriations for fiscal year 2020 that include $1.5 billion for nuclear energy programs, a 12.5 percent increase from the previous year, and the highest level of funding for nuclear in decades. Nearly $1 billion is going toward research and projects expected to be in progress before the end of the decade. For example, in March the Department of Defense announced a demonstration project for a mobile nuclear reactor that could be used to power remote military bases, and the Department of Energy is on the verge of announcing two new advanced reactor demonstrations. The new field of innovative startups are investing in modular and micro-reactor designs that can bring electricity to hard-to-reach places, such as Alaska, more safely and reliably than diesel generators or coal boilers. Those more advanced designs promise to be pollution free and will only need to be refueled every 10 to 15 years.

“Building technologies like this which, until recently existed only as designs on paper, is a major tipping point for the next generation of nuclear,” said Korsnick.

Simply using less energy is not a complete solution; what’s also needed is a simultaneous emissions reduction, she said. Many have long seen nuclear power playing an indispensable role in solving the equation between boosted energy output and reduced carbon emissions, particularly with projections showing carbon emissions must be dramatically reduced by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of climate change, including rising global sea levels that could displace more than 150 million people.

Korsnick added: “For a long time, we saw the climate crisis and asked, ‘How?’ As in, ‘how do we stop it?’ ‘How, at the very least, do we slow it?’ That question has been answered: The world’s most reliable and scalable carbon-free energy source — nuclear power — has to be part of the solution.”

Though she speaks to a near-term future of new construction of next-generation nuclear generating station designs, Korsnick also put a stake in the ground regarding the nuclear industry’s current performance. To wit: During 2019, the U.S. fleet of nuclear plants generated more than 809 billion kilowatt hours of electricity — the most ever — and prevented emissions of 476 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of taking more than 100 million cars off the road. What’s more, U.S. nuclear plants reduced costs, averaging $30.41 per megawatt hour, its lowest figure since 2002.

In total, nuclear reactors accounted for 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation and more than half the total carbon-free production, which is more than wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal and all other carbon-free sources combined. She was quick, though, to leave room for other surging players at the table.

“When it comes to wind and solar, I want to be absolutely clear: We need to develop every source of carbon-free energy that we can. The world is counting on carbon-free sources to complement one another, not just compete.”

But it’s nuclear that needs to be the backbone of future electricity production, she insisted, because no other emissions-free source of energy comes close to matching its around-the-clock reliability. U.S. nuclear plants operated at a capacity factor of 93.4 percent during 2019, their highest-ever level of reliability. That reliability and the industry’s safety record might have influenced the NRC’s 2019 decision to extend the operating life of existing reactors from 60 years to 80 years.

Turning abroad, Korsnick called emerging markets and the maturation of next-generation reactors an “unparalleled opportunity” to re-establish U.S. leadership by bringing power to developing nations while reducing carbon emissions.

“My hope and my firm belief is that when we reach 2050 nuclear power will be at the foundation of a carbon-free energy system,” said Korsnick.

To view the recorded video version of the State of the Nuclear Energy Industry 2020 and download the text of Maria Korsnick’s address, go to this link: https://bit.ly/3fPleeS

 

Mike Consol (m.consol@irei.com) is editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter @mikeconsol to read his latest postings.

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