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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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The Biggest Challenges Facing America’s Nuclear Sector

Nuclear power

In the United States, the common sentiment about the nuclear industry is that it is doomed. As cheap natural gas prices out nuclear, more and more plants are going offline, and many of those that are hanging on are doing so in large part thanks to sizeable government subsidies. And then there is the crushing cost of nuclear waste management that is already weighing on taxpayers and will only get worse. But this is not the whole story.

While nuclear is in decline in the United States, it is still going strong worldwide, with countries like China and Russia investing heavily in bulking up their own nuclear energy programs. What’s more, many leading energy experts assert that leaning into nuclear may very well be the world’s only shot at achieving the reduction in carbon emissions necessary to meet the climate change goal set by the Paris Agreement.

“At 10% of global power supply, nuclear power is the second-largest electricity source (after hydropower) that emits no carbon dioxide,” reports Axios. “It’s declining in most places around the world, including the U.S., due to aging reactors, cheaper energy alternatives and public unease about radioactive risk — despite its benefits to addressing climate change.”

Although United States president Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, polling has shown that most U.S. citizens still support the agreement and want the United States to comply with its original pledge. Nuclear energy may be one of the best ways to achieve that goal. And while the United States nuclear industry is struggling, it is still the largest in the world, representing a whopping 30 percent of all nuclear power produced globally.

While nuclear is struggling in the United States, it is certainly not dead. And there are some companies who are still working toward an innovative nuclear future in the U.S. In order to make nuclear energy less cost-prohibitive and therefore more competitive with the ultra-cheap fossil fuels flowing out of the West Texas Permian Basin, the best bet is making nuclear reactors much smaller. These small nuclear reactors make it possible to standardize and build off-site, greatly reducing overhead costs. 

One such company is NuScale, an Oregon-based company that is currently “expecting a key technical review to be complete by year’s end and final design approval from the government by the second half of next year. If all goes as planned, it aims to be operating by 2026 a new kind of reactor that’s far smaller than today’s technology” according to a feature from Axios, which brands NuScale’s operation as “the next generation of nuclear energy.” Related: Iran’s Tactical Move To Skirt Sanctions

With its promising business model and innovative approach to nuclear, NuScale has garnered a fair amount of governmental support. The company has received approximately $300 million in federal funding and their first client is set to be the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, which provides energy to the Intermountain West as part of the Utah state government. That being said, their budget still pales in comparison to their state-owned counterparts in Russia and China. 

When asked by reporters at Axios what the company’s biggest challenge is, NuScale chief commercial officer Thomas Mundy replied, “Right now it’s going head to head internationally against state-supported technology companies, basically Russia and China. We’re a small commercial enterprise, we’re not a state-owned entity. We don’t have financial backing like what those companies have and going head to head and being able to offer competitive financing package presents a challenge for us.”

One of the biggest proponents of nuclear in the United States, a certain Mr. Bill Gates, has also called on the Energy Department and Congress for greater U.S. government funding of advanced nuclear projects such as his own TerraPower. If the United States hopes to stay competitive in the future of nuclear--and make no mistake, globally that future will be long and prosperous--they should heed the calls of those working to keep U.S. nuclear relevant.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com


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Leave a comment
  • Michael Keller on July 18 2019 said:
    Surprisingly, there is a Hybrid design under development in the US that marries natural gas (or coal gas) and nuclear fuels. This patented design uses a helium gas reactor/turbine to drive the air compressor of a combustion turbine. Basically, an advanced type of combined-cycle plant.

    The approach relies on classic economics (bigger, better, more efficient) to win in the marketplace. The low cost of nuclear fuel and the low build cost of gas plants achieve a remarkably competitive power plant. The DOE’s “fair-haired” small reactors get economically crushed, just like their bigger cousins.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, the DOE nuclear folk are “less-than-helpful” because the Hybrid also uses fossil fuels. Ditto for DOE fossil folks because the Hybrid also uses nuclear fuel. There are other reasons as well. Really boils down to the DOE is primarily interested in funding themselves, with the nation’s strategic interests really not much of a consideration. The “swamp” in action.

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