The Biden administration has acknowledged that America cannot reach the president's ambitious emissions-reduction goals without nuclear power generation, according to sources close to the discussion cited by Reuters.
With more than 90 nuclear reactors operating at 55 power plants across the U.S., nuclear energy generates about 20 percent of America’s electricity each year. In order to rapidly decarbonize U.S. power generation, federal support for America's current fleet of emissions-free nuclear reactors could be required, as well as funding for new nuclear technology.
A production tax credit for nuclear power generation could make its way into the $2.3 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan, according to reports, akin to the existing federal PTC that supports wind, solar and battery manufacturing. The idea of a nuclear PTC is supported by Biden's union allies, as well as politicians such as Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), according to Reuters. A clean energy standard, also supported by the Biden administration, could also benefit nuclear generation.
But in the meantime, nuclear reactors are closing down due to economics, risk and competition from cheap natural gas, wind and solar power. New York's Indian Point nuclear plant, located about 50 miles north of New York City, was permanently closed last week. Canary's Jeff St. John reported on what the imminent shutdown of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant means for the California grid. And Exelon plans to close four reactors in Illinois (with a total capacity of about 4 gigawatts) by the end of the year.
Microreactors to the rescue?
The Department of Energy website claims that more than 50 U.S. companies are working on new nuclear designs that are “smaller, scalable and even mobile” and suggests that micro-reactors will likely be the first advanced reactors to enter the U.S. market.
Oklo, a venture-funded startup, has been developing an advanced microreactor and plans to bring it to market this decade, despite an ill-fitting regulatory system and 40 years of stasis in the U.S. nuclear industry.
Founded in 2013, Oklo has managed to submit a combined license application for the design and operation of a “compact fast microreactor" that is now under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Oklo received a first-of-its-kind site permit to build its initial plant on a quarter-acre site at Idaho National Lab in 2019.
Caroline Cochran, Oklo's COO, told Canary Media, "We're about to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the acceptance of our application for review, and that means we're about a year into a three-year long process."
Oklo's microreactor uses a different fuel, different coolant and radically different scale than the dwindling number of light-water reactors that make up what's left of the commercial U.S. nuclear fleet.
The smallest reactor in the U.S. fleet is about 600 megawatts. NuScale's small modular reactor is constructed in 77-megawatt module increments. (NuScale also just closed a $40 million investment and strategic partnership with Japan's JGC Holdings Corporation.)
In contrast, Oklo envisions its first commercial product as a 1.5-megawatt “nuclear battery” for off-grid deployment in remote or island communities that now rely on diesel gensets. The fast reactor's design allows the nuclear heater to operate potentially for up to 20 years without having to be refueled.
Oklo's COO is optimistic: "Just the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] accepting our application shows that there's a path forward — they have never accepted an application they couldn't get to a 'yes' on." Cochran notes that the NRC has made the permitting process more efficient, but also points out the stunning fact that no plant with an application submitted since the formation of the NRC in 1975 has yet commenced operation.
Building microreactors might be the only path forward for commercial nuclear since today’s nuclear industry is encountering extreme difficulty in its attempts to build standard-size reactors. Last year saw the number of operating reactors in the world drop by nine. Just 2.4 gigawatts' worth of new nuclear plants were installed in 2019, compared to almost 100 GW of solar and 60 GW of wind. Nuclear power remains the most expensive form of generation except for gas peaking plants, according to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.
Active nuclear funding programs at DOE
The DOE's Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program funds private businesses with the goal of building two operational advanced nuclear reactors within seven years. The DOE launched the program last year with $80 million each for TerraPower's Natrium small sodium-cooled, fast breeder reactor design and X-energy's Xe-100 high-temperature, gas-cooled small modular reactor design.
The department intends on investing a total of $3.2 billion in this program over seven years, with industry partners providing matching funds.
One of the risk-reduction projects awarded funds to Kairos Power, a startup developing a fluoride-salt-cooled high-temperature reactor. The startup is planning to invest $100 million in an Oak Ridge, Tenn. test facility, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The DOE will furnish $303 million for the project.
An essay in The National Interest penned by authors opposed to nuclear proliferation contends that fast breeder reactors like those funded by the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program engender undue national security and economic risks. The authors argue that the DOE’s predecessor agency encouraged the fast breeder reactor technology as an ideal design in "a uranium-poor world," but because we live in a uranium-rich world, the expensive FBR designs don't make economic sense.
Judging by the most recent policy signals, the Biden administration is including nuclear as a part of the mix in meeting its 2030 decarbonization goals. The White House still faces a problem that predates Biden's terms as vice president: ensuring that the world's largest and oldest reactor fleet can continue to produce safe, emissions-free power.
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