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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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High Profile Nuclear Reactor Rollout Faces 3-Year Delay

The U.S. nuclear industry, with a fleet of plants already outdated and a bit shabby, has never been able to recover from the market’s inundation with cheap fossil fuels in the wake of the shale revolution. But now shale may be croaking its last breath any day now, nuclear has one foot in the grave, and carbon-neutral forms of energy production are more important than ever. Nuclear, despite all of its other highly publicized drawbacks, is a powerhouse (so to speak) of completely greenhouse gas emissions-free energy.  The United States still holds its title as the largest producer of nuclear energy in the world, but that era is also coming to a swift end. Russia and China are adding nuclear energy capacity like nobody’s business, and China in particular is on track to jettison to the top of the rankings. “GlobalData Plc predicts that China will pass France as the world’s No. 2 nuclear generator in 2022 and claim the top spot from the U.S. four years after that,” Bloomberg Green reported in June.

But the ageing U.S. nuclear fleet could finally get some love as pressure mounts to build a green stimulus package for post-corona economic recovery in the United States. Presidential candidate Joe Biden has included a nuclear boost in his proposed energy plan, a major part of his platform. 

For years now, scientists have touted small modular nuclear reactors as a silver-bullet solution to the United States’ ageing and ailing nuclear energy industry. Biden’s energy plan mentions them by name, saying that his pathway to 100% clean energy will include “small modular nuclear reactors at half the construction cost of today’s reactors.” Related: U.S. Oil Exports To China Soar 139% In July

But now, after years of promotion, some drawbacks to these safer, cheaper, and more efficient small reactors are beginning to emerge just as the industry starts to get off the ground. “Nuclear advocates fret as first maker of small reactors encounters trouble,” a Washington Examiner headline stated this week. The article tells the story of NuScale Power, an Oregon-based nuclear company, which is getting a rocky start as their first customers have asked to push back timelines and bristled at rising costs, which is a small enough story, but ultimately could set back the entire industry. “The company expected to be the first in the United States to operate a small nuclear reactor is facing setbacks that have caused supporters to question whether the novel technology will ever realize its potential as a tool to combat climate change,” writes the Examiner. 

NuScale’s first customer, Utah’s Associated Municipal Power Systems, “a group of small, community-owned utilities in six Western states,” has pushed the date of operation of their first reactor from 2026 to 2029. The power group still needs these nuclear reactors to replace a closing coal plant, but not as soon as they had initially thought. These minor setbacks are one thing, but if the project falls through altogether, that could spell big trouble for the nuclear industry and for the adoption of small modular reactors. “The setbacks are not fatal,” Erik Olson, a Breakthrough Institute climate and energy analyst told the Examiner. “But if this project falls through, that would be an enormous blow to the promised next wave of nuclear power.”

While NuScale is the first and therefore the most high profile of small modular reactor companies in the U.S., it is not the only one. “There are a number of other small reactors in various stages of development, so all is not riding on NuScale. That includes California-based Oklo, which is building an even smaller, 1.5-megawatt advanced reactor that recently became the first nuclear design that does not use water as a coolant to have its application accepted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

It’s a new technology, and some bumps in the road are to be expected, but enthusiasm and excitement around these new projects are crucial for more widespread adoption. If things do fall through for NuScale, we can only hope that another company steps up with something bigger and better (or should I say smaller) to keep the momentum going and keep the United States from falling further behind in the global clean energy transition. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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Leave a comment
  • Henry Hewitt on August 27 2020 said:
    Thanks Haley,

    "Bumps in the road"? Too expensive; too risky; too late. Even if we needed it, and we don't, it's still too risky and the Miracle Occurs Here pages in the PowerPoint still don't read that well. Game over. The Economist was right: It's still "The Dream That Failed". Wake up.

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