When nuclear energy is still widely seen as one of the most promising solutions to climate change, as well as one of the most efficient replacements for the more traditional carbon-packed fossil fuels on which we so heavily depend, why is the nuclear sector in the United States is in steep decline? As many other countries are working on building up their nuclear industries, in the United States nuclear simply can’t compete with cheap natural gas and other renewables growing more affordable all the time in the nation’s wholesale electricity markets.
In fact, just within the last five years six nuclear plants in the United States have closed and almost 35% of the nuclear plants that remain are being met with the possibility of early closure or are facing retirement. Even with the application of the most promising technological advancements in development to boost efficiency and reduce cost, it likely wouldn’t be enough to make the plants competitive with other energy sources.
While many of these advanced nuclear technologies remain in the research phase and are largely untested, many of the current research shows great promise. Technologies under development that would be able to make new reactors both cheaper and safer than the current standard include small modular reactors (SMRs), generation IV reactors, and liquid-sodium cooled reactors.
The SMRs, thanks to their compact size, would require less investment in infrastructure and less on-site construction. The Generation IV reactors are innovative in that their design does not include complex external cooling systems, which, notably, are the apparatus that failed in 2011’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The benefit of the liquid-sodium cooled reactors is that they are able to utilize spent uranium and plutonium, meaning they can produce energy for much more extended periods of time without the need for expensive refueling. Related: Oil Rises After Choppy Start To The Week
In an effort to keep the United States from falling behind the rest of the world in terms of nuclear power, the US Energy Department is planning to invest $115 million to aid the development of some of these technologies, with the money going to an Ohio-based pilot project focused on producing a more energy-dense uranium, which would support the newer, smaller reactors that the nuclear industry is moving toward. While the US nuclear industry has floundered, other nations have stepped up.
China is building new nuclear power capacity, Russia has led the development of some nuclear projects in other countries, and Japan has been working hard to resurrect their once powerful nuclear sector in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. In fact, Russia is already capable of producing the higher-enriched uranium that the United States Energy Department’s new program is currently just now working up to producing. Without investment in new nuclear technologies such as this, the US could very well be left behind and left out of the global nuclear industry’s continuing evolution according to Dan Brouillette, Deputy Energy Secretary.
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While the advances in the nuclear industry currently being supported by the US energy department would go a long way toward making nuclear more affordable, it still wouldn’t come close to the ultra-low cost of natural gas thanks to the U.S.’ current fracking boom and subsequent shale oil and gas glut. According to some experts, what is possibly the last hope for nuclear to compete in the United States’ cheap and highly saturated energy market would be a price on carbon.
As the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago puts it, “There is a world where nuclear is competitive. It involves pricing carbon.” If fossil fuel producers in the United States were made to pay a price for their hefty carbon emissions, as has been implemented by many countries around the world since the 1990s (as far-flung and diverse as Denmark, South Korea, and Zimbabwe), nuclear would be able to hold onto its meager market share or even expand it.
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By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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