Nuclear energy has been the subject of vigorous debate for decades, punctuated by the emergence of new technologies and unfortunate accidents.
This session, Washington legislators took a serious look at further incorporating nuclear into the state’s energy profile. Out of the six bills introduced this session, one remains, and it concerns technology that some say will revolutionize nuclear energy.
Sponsored by Senator Sharon Brown (R), SB 5113 requires the Department of Commerce to expedite siting and manufacturing of small modular reactors (SMRs). SMRs are the latest advance in commercial nuclear technology, and many believe they are a solution to the sector’s most salient problems, including safety and cost.
What are Small Modular Reactors?
Nuclear reactors are categorized as either Generation I, II or III, with Generation III (also referred to as “advanced nuclear”) constituting the newest reactor models in use today. The adoption of nuclear technology has been exceptionally slow. Only 15 of the 442 nuclear reactors operating worldwide are considered to be Generation III (another 14 Generation III reactors are under construction).
SMRs fall into an entirely new category: Generation III-plus. They are smaller than nuclear power plants, include “passive safety features,” and produce less energy. The projected timelines for SMR viability range from the present to 2025–2030. The world’s first four Generation III-plus reactors are under construction in China, and there are currently more than 45 SMR designs being developed.
The advantages of SMRs are hotly contested. The U.S. Department of Energy has come out in favor of them, saying that they are “anticipated to be cost-effective and incredibly safe.” However, other groups, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, claim that “Small modular reactors are unlikely to solve the economic and safety problems faced by nuclear power.”
The Obama Administration has been particularly supportive of nuclear energy in general. After tripling the amount of loan guarantees for nuclear industry in 2010, he approved $425 million in spending specifically for SMRs in 2012. The first project to be receive support from this latest round of funding is in Tennessee, and it’s estimated to be up and running by 2022.
What’s Happening in Washington
Washington is home to one commercial nuclear reactor (a Generation II), which provides 4% of the state’s electricity. Compared to other states, this percentage is low. Nineteen states get 20 percent or more of their electricity from nuclear power plants, and out of these states, 7 receive 40 percent or more of their electricity from nuclear. Vermont leads the pack, with a whopping 73.3 percent of its power coming from nuclear.
To be clear, Washington’s small nuclear capacity isn’t necessarily a deficiency. The state has a plentiful supply of hydro-powered electricity, which is low-carbon and low-cost.
In response to questions about the importance of nuclear energy for Washington State, Senator Brown said “Washington needs to be a part of the national conversation on small modular reactors. SB 5113 brings Washington into that conversation and takes a significant step toward recognizing the important role that nuclear power, SMRs and other emerging clean-energy technologies will have in an all-of-the above state energy strategy.”
Nuclear’s Bad Rep
For most people, the word “nuclear” immediately raises safety concerns. Accidents, including the Hanford site in Washington, have heightened these concerns. Geological storage, although controversial, remains the best option for storing nuclear waste. Recently, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) released the final two volumes of a five-volume safety report that concludes that Nevada’s Yucca Mountain meets all of its technical and safety requirements for the disposal of highly radioactive nuclear waste, but the project remains unfunded.
The more immediate concern regarding SMRs is their ability to withstand unforeseen natural events, such as the earthquake that caused the accident in Fukushima, Japan. SMRs include “passive” safety features, meant to avoid overheating and the buildup of hydrogen gas that causes disasters like Fukushima. These safety features use natural forces, rather than electricity, to pump water for cooling purposes and prevent the buildup of explosive gases in the event of a power outage.
Before any nuclear reactor can be used, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must approve it and fine tune regulations. In August 2012, the NRC provided to Congress a requested report addressing advanced reactor licensing. It illustrates regulatory challenges that may occur if advanced reactor initiatives evolve into licensing applications. According to the NRC, applications for licensing of SMRs are expected to start rolling in as early as late-2015.
Is Nuclear Really Carbon-Free?
Nuclear energy is often categorized as “carbon free.” Of course, there is no such thing as a truly carbon free energy source, but nuclear does indeed have a lower carbon footprint than other continuous energy sources (namely coal and natural gas). Nuclear power by itself does not generate greenhouse gasses, but the processes associated with it do.
The real question is: how does nuclear energy compare to its competitors when using life-cycle analysis? Life-cycle analysis accounts for the environmental impacts associated with all the stages of production, including “raw material acquisition, materials manufacture, production, use/reuse/maintenance, and waste management.” Proponents of nuclear energy in general argue that nuclear could replace natural gas as both a baseload energy source and as a supplement for renewables like wind and solar, which are not available 24/7.
Natural gas has become the “go-to” for reliable energy with lower carbon output due to its low cost. It is often touted as a bridge fuel, serving our energy needs until advances in renewables and carbon capture and sequestration catch up. The opportunity to replace natural gas would make renewable energy much cleaner and reduce greenhouse gases significantly.
The life-cycle analysis of nuclear energy varies based on the type of reactor, as well as other factors like the grade of uranium ore used. Collectively, research has shown that nuclear energy is clearly better than fossil fuels and about the same as renewable energy sources when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Today’s nuclear energy life-cycle carbon emissions (which do not come from advanced technologies) are about 17 tons of carbon dioxide per gigawatt-hour (GWh), which is only slightly more than our cleanest electricity sources. For example, geothermal generates 15 tons/GWh and wind generates 14 tons/GWh. Taking into account that sources like geothermal and wind must be paired with a continuous energy source (which raises their carbon output) evens the playing field.
What differentiates nuclear from other low carbon fuels is its 24/7 availability. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear energy facilities generate electricity at 91 percent capacity factor (representing the percentage of time that the plant could operate at its full potential). It’s consistency allows it to compete on measures of reliability with carbon-intense resources like coal (58.9 percent capacity factor), and natural gas (50.3 percent).
Nuclear also poses fewer challenges than integrating renewables, such as weather-dependent solar and wind, which require storage or backup generation to overcome low capacity factors (~30%), and environmental regulations restricting rapid fluctuations in water flow through dams. While high capacity factor doesn’t necessarily mean the resource can adjust to fluctuations in energy demand quickly (this is currently challenging for nuclear too), emerging SMR technology might allow nuclear’s abundance and reliable availability to scale and more adequately match local demand.
The Economics of Nuclear Energy
While some contend that environmental concerns will propel the adoption of nuclear energy, others remain confident that cost-competitiveness is the final sticking point. As mentioned earlier, it is particularly important to compare nuclear energy from SMRs to compares to other dispatchable technologies– those that provide continuous energy that is available on demand. Today’s nuclear power plants are notoriously costly to set up, and these high upfront costs prevent nuclear from competing in liberal energy markets without high government subsidies. There are conflicting opinions about whether or not SMRs would mitigate the economic hurdles associated with nuclear energy.
SMRs cost about $1-2 billion dollars, compared to $20 billion, which is the approximate cost of a new nuclear power plant. Because SMRs are smaller, proponents argue that they will require fewer construction materials, fewer operating personnel and that affordability will increase with mass production. Opponents say that lower costs don’t necessarily make SMRs cost-effective because SMRs produce less energy. Additionally, cost savings through economies of scale are purely speculative at this point.
Levelized cost projections (estimates of the cost of each unit of energy produced) for 2019 and 2040 reveal that nuclear energy is slated to outcompete coal, but will still face price competition from natural gas. These projections do not include SMR models, so it’s possible that nuclear produced by these new technologies would be cheaper than natural gas. But, even with Generation III reactors, nuclear energy is close enough in price to natural gas that its environmental benefits may make it more attractive as the pressure to reduce greenhouse gases continues to grow.
The graph above shows that with “advanced nuclear” technologies (which do not include SMRs) still fall short of coal and natural gas.
The Perfect Storm
Although the benefits of SMRs are presently debatable, growing demand for energy coupled with the pressure to reduce carbon may set the stage for the widespread adoption of nuclear energy. Right now, SMRs represent the industry’s best hope for proving nuclear energy that is not just environmentally friendly, but safe and cost-effective too.
Variables such as the availability of financing, where materials are sourced from, and the regulatory environment will also affect the viability of these new technologies, both in Washington and across the globe. Washington has one of the cleanest electricity mixes in the nation, but this shouldn’t stop the state from cautiously making room for nuclear energy as technological improvements permit.