Following the opening of its first commercial nuclear power plant in 1958, theindustry flourished with 112 plants operating by the 1990s. But appetite for nuclear energy soon waned as the US “shale revolution” drove gas prices down. Nuclear energy’s days were numbered, or so it seemed.
Now, to the surprise of many, nuclear energy is back. Today, nuclear constitutes 19 per cent of the US energy mix and there are plans to double the capacity of nuclear energy by 2050. Why is it making such a comeback?
I decided to lead a delegation to the US to find out. We travelled from east to west,meeting with a range of stakeholders from industry to government to academia.
I began these meetings by outlining the status of Australia’s climate change debate and the challenges of our energy system. This prompted knowing smiles. As one congressman said: “We get it, because we’ve been there too.”
Fierce debate about climate change beset the US for years, accentuating fault lines between Republicans and Democrats.
The nuclear industry kept a low profile in those early debates. “We just assumed no one liked us much,” said one industry leader.
More recently, the stature of nuclear energy has risen and a remarkable political bipartisanship has converged in its favour.
For the left, climate change was the dominant concern. For the right, energy security was paramount. But both landed in favour of nuclear energy.
The US now recognises that it can’t keep its economy healthy and hit net zero by 2050 without zero-emissions nuclear energy.
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine reminded the US that energy security is a prerequisite for national security, accentuating the need for nuclear power plants with their level of protection against adversarial threats and fuel density allowing multiple years of supply to be stored onsite, free from supply disruptions.
My trip also revealed other drivers behind US bipartisanship for nuclear energy.First, nothing unites. Congress like the geostrategic challenge of China and the contest underway in fields like space, quantum computing, virtual reality and semiconductors.
China and Russia have been rapidly playing catch up in nuclear energy in recent decades, carrying strategic consequences for the US
Some 50 non-nuclear nations are now considering adopting nuclear energy, and first mover advantage in Small Modular Reactors (SMR) and Microreactors (nuclear batteries) will be critical in setting global norms, standards and protocols for decades to come.
Second, technological innovation has changed the game.
Next-generation nuclear reactors take affordability, reliability and safety to a new level. Generation III+ reactors are mature, proven technologies with improved fueland passive safety in simple, standard designs with modular construction that operate for up to 80 years.
Take the GE-Hitachi BWRX-300 on which our delegation was briefed. This SMR includes the benefits of Generation III+ technology while also giving comfort to regulators by using the same fuel and many of the same components that exist in traditional GE-Hitachi plants.
Add GE-Hitachi’s supply chain and you understand how SMRs can offer lower risk and faster deployment, and lower construction and operating costs than traditional reactors.
We inspected the site of the first BWRX-300 build, due by 2029, in Ontario – one of four Canadian provinces signed-up to a SMR road map.
SMRs are more than just smaller, simplified versions of previous reactors. They’re also designed for decarbonised grids.
When the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, SMRs can generate zero-emissions for the grid. And when the wind picks up and sun reappears, SMRs can either ramp down or be temporarily reassigned for other purposes, such as producing hydrogen.
Not all Generation III+ designs are SMRs. The Westinghouse AP1000, for example,could power around 1 million homes whereas a SMR could power between 50,000 and 300,000 homes. But the AP1000 is still Generation III+ with features including passive safety, allowing it to shut down without operators.
What really caught my eye when we visited Westinghouse in Pittsburgh was its Generation IV nuclear battery, called the eVinci.
Ideal for remote communities, mining sites and islands, nuclear batteries can arrive at site on the back a truck and be operational within 30 days. During their 5-to-20-year life, they could power 1000 to 20,000 homes without refuelling, after which they can be hauled away. The first nuclear battery will be operating by 2027.
Evidence of a burgeoning nuclear industry for next-generation technology can also be seen in SMRs developed by new players.
NuScale’s integrated reactors offer exceptional flexibility with modulars making for simple expansion. Its first build will be in Idaho in 2029.
X-Energy’s high-temperature reactor will be operational and providing process heat to a petrochemical facility in the US by 2029. And Terra Power’s fast reactor with thermal storage is set to replace a coal-fired power station in Wyoming by 2030.
Economics is a further factor driving nuclear’s re-emergence. Meeting after meeting revealed that nuclear energy brings the cost of energy down for households and businesses. This is the opposite conclusion drawn by Australian critics of nuclear energy.
When asked how policymakers came to appreciate the economics of nuclearenergy, one executive said, “they did the maths”.
Environmental advocates, industry, private equity, centre-left and centre-right think-tanks, members of Congress – all told us that near 100 per cent renewables was neither practical nor affordable, and that we needed nuclear in our energy mix.
Jaws dropped when I’d explain that 80 per cent of Australia’s baseload generation is due to exit the grid by 2035.
“Stop blowing up your coal plants – you’re not ready to live without them yet,” said one industry leader. She went on to explain the merit of replacing coal-fired powerwith nuclear power plants.
These views were backed by a representative from the Energy Department who told us: “When it comes to renewables, the last 25 per cent is much harder than the first 25 per cent, so you better find something else that can help you get there – nuclear energy is the only proven, scalable solution”.
A renewables grid requires massive amounts of new transmission lines that the US considers too expensive, too difficult to permit and lacking community consent.But, unlike Australia, US policymakers focus on “total system costs”, not “levelised cost of energy” (LCOE) for individual technologies. It makes sense as it’s the cost ofthe whole system that hits people’s power bills.
The LCOE method preferred by the Australian government has the unfortunate consequence of pitting technologies against each other in a new and absurd front of the climate wars.
“Total system cost” analyses have shown electricity grids to be cleaner, cheaper and more reliable with the inclusion of nuclear energy – paving the way for the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and $US500 bn of government spending and tax breaks for leading edge technologies.
Significantly, the IRA, does not preference wind and solar technology over nuclear.It takes an “all of the above” approach.
Individual states have also concluded that grids will be cleaner, cheaper and more reliable with nuclear energy in the mix. Former nuclear-free US states like Wyoming, Montana and West Virginia have been persuaded to pursue nuclear to replace coal.
We found the same in Canada, where the Minister for Energy, Todd Smith, spoke to data from the regulator that showed nuclear energy as the lowest cost of all sources,except hydro-electric.
North America has done the maths. It has mapped its course to a net-zero future and it’s one that sensibly includes next-generation, zero-emissions nuclear energy.
I left enthused for the US and Canada, but concerned about the pathway Australia is taking. We must be bold, ambitious and optimistic in tackling the challenges of climate change and energy.
Our aspiration must be achievable and focused on the type of Australia we want our children to inherit mid-century: a nation that is cleaner and healthier, but also richer, stronger and independent.
The starting point is to take an “all the above” approach and consider all technologies, including zero-emissions nuclear energy.
Ted O’Brien is the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy
As published in The Australian, 3 May 2023