nuclear power reactors in USA
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Predicting the future of nuclear power in the USA is impossible, but we can discuss some of the factors that will affect it over the next 20 to 50 years. Technically, nuclear power for electrical generation in the USA has proven to be a sound and safe source of energy. However, with major accidents in Russia and Japan, the country’s emotional appetite for nuclear power is low. That balance of the positive technical potential, the emotional toll accidents have created, and the strong desire for reducing our carbon footprint will eventually set the path for nuclear energy in the future.

Statistics from the U.S Energy Information Agency show that in 2020, the United States produced four trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity. Around 60% of that came from burning fossil fuels. That entire 60% of electrical energy will need to be replaced in its entirety if we are to seriously move towards a greener earth with low carbon footprint. 

President Joe Biden is serious about a shift towards an eco-friendlier solution. He has set ambitious goals for fighting climate change. One such objective is to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by half by 2030. By 2050, he aims to have a net-zero carbon economy. The plan demands electricity generation to shift towards being carbon-free by 2035. Ambitious goals and specific deadlines are being set again. Achievable of course, but where does nuclear power fit into the United States’ new carbon identity? 

Renewable Energy 

In the United States, renewable energy produces 20% of the total energy production; a feat that was recently accomplished in 2019. This figure is set to grow significantly by 2050. It is no debate that the effectiveness, efficiency, and environment-friendly aspect of renewable energy have led experts to favor it as the alternative to the status quo. Renewable energy is the safer, cleaner bet but it comes with a cost and its own set of technical challenges. 

alternative energy solar panels and windmills in USA
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The attractiveness of renewable energy has not discounted nuclear energy altogether. In terms of performance and production, the two match up nicely. Nuclear power’s carbon footprint is the same as for wind and less than for solar. It’s orders of magnitude less than coal. Nuclear power plants take up far less space than both solar or wind farms, and they have the capability to produce power at night or on days where the weather is calm. Keep in mind that in 2020, nuclear power generated as much electricity in the U.S. as renewables did, 20% of the total.

The State of Nuclear Energy Today 

When stepping back and getting a big picture of the nuclear energy sector today, it’s critical to understand that most of the nuclear plants in the United States were designed and built 25 to 40 years ago. Most of them have an average design life-span of around 35 years so many will start to reach the end of their original design life in the next 5 to 10 years. The average age of these nuclear reactors is about 39 years old.

The USA first started producing commercial nuclear energy in 1958. At the end of 2020, the USA had 94 operating electrical generating nuclear reactors at 56 locations in 28 different states. The oldest reactor plant still operating is Nine Mile Point Unit 1 in New York, which first produced power in December 1969. The newest reactor come online is the Watts Bar Unit 2, came online in 2016. At that time, this was the irst reactor to come online since 1996, or 20 years with zero new reactor completions. U.S. nuclear electricity generation capacity peaked in 2012 at about 102,000 MW when there were 104 operating nuclear reactors. 

With environmental, technical, and political issues to solve, nuclear power plants have become extremely expensive to build. Several projects have been recently cancelled.

Yet with all these issues, nuclear power still presents an opportunity worth pursuing if the United States is serious about achieving its carbon milestones. 

When we look towards the largest greenhouse gas emitter in China, we will see how they increased their nuclear energy output by 6 percent in 2020. There are currently 17 new reactors in the pipeline under construction. India, another big gas emitter, is building six. 

President Biden’s climate initiative supports research into “affordable, game-changing technologies to help America achieve our 100 percent clean energy target.” In the plan, Biden emphasizes focusing on small modular reactors, as well as the issues that challenge the prosperity of nuclear energy development, which would most notably be cost, safety, and waste disposal.

Can small modular reactors and nuclear plants be the solution for the prominence of the nuclear energy sector? It may be. Other countries have found that module to best fit their transition plans and goals. 

small scale nuclear plant diagram
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When you look at NuScale, they are in the process of building a small modular light water reactor that could generate 77MW. It will take up the space of only 1%  of a conventional reactor. It has been designed to cancel out any pumps and other moving parts, thus addressing a big part of the safety issues. The reactor is self-sustainable, meaning it can shut itself off and cool itself down without the interference of an operator. Its compact size allows it to be implemented in communities that require less power, as well as for any medical and military applications.

The Bottom Line 

When it comes to the Nuclear Energy sector, the bottom line is that it’s not obsolete, rather it needs innovation and government support. There are ways to address the concerns of the nuclear energy sector, tackle these concerns, and revive the sector. All key players are eager to contribute, from design to construction, all the way down to an industrial sealant and lubricant supplier like Huron Industries Inc. 

A recent MIT report provides the most convincing reason why we should revive the nuclear sector. The report found that in the next 10 years, the most cost-efficient, reliable grid comes from not a full pursuit of a sole energy source, rather an energy mix. Their analysis shows that a big share of nuclear, a big share of renewables, and some storage provides the best mix for low-carbon, reliable, and at the lowest cost. This is a roadmap worth considering to meet our reduced carbon footprint goals. 

Consider this vision of the future where we have balanced energy production and low carbon output. The USA would have 1/3 of its average daily energy from each source of nuclear, solar, and wind. Nuclear power would have the capacity in any area to carry all the load on no-wind and no-sun days. Coal, gas, and oil-fired power plants would supply a small amount of energy each day and be on standby both strategically and also for surges. The USA’s gas and oil industry could then export to power other less fortunate countries with lower carbon output then they have now as they build their economies to afford a low carbon footprint as well. 

Don’t count nuclear energy out if the industry can just eliminate the risks totally and also solve the emotional issue that has been created from past accidents.