Nuclear industry hopes to expand production with new reactors

The US nuclear industry is generating less electricity as reactors are retired, but now plant operators are hoping to nearly double their output over the next three decades, according to the industry’s trade association.

The massive scaling-up envisaged by utilities hangs over the functionality of a new type of nuclear reactor that is much smaller than conventional reactors. About two dozen US companies are developing advanced reactors, some that could come online by the end of the decade if the technology is successful and federal regulators approve.

Utilities that are members of the Atomic Energy Institute project can add 90 gigawatts of nuclear power to the United States grid, most of which will come online by 2050, according to the association. Maria Korsnik, the institute’s president and CEO, estimates that this translates to about 300 new small modular reactors.

“We have innovation, we have capability, we have American ingenuity,” she said. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to bring these products to market.”

According to the US Energy Information Administration, US nuclear power generation capacity reached 102 gigawatts in 2012, when 104 nuclear reactors operated. The current 92 operating reactors in the country have a capacity of about 95 GW.

The Information Administration said their generation totaled 778 million megawatts in 2021, 1.5% less than the previous year and 19% of the country’s electricity. This is enough to power more than 70 million homes.

Building huge conventional nuclear plants is expensive and time consuming. A project in Georgia – the only nuclear plant under construction in the United States – is now estimated to cost its owners more than $30 billion. When approved in 2012, the first new nuclear reactors to be built in decades cost $14 billion.

Korsnick will talk about the prospect of doubling US nuclear output in a speech to industry leaders and policymakers in Washington on Tuesday for NEI’s Nuclear Energy Assembly conference. Kathryn Huff, Assistant Secretary of State for Atomic Energy, will talk about US priorities for nuclear power and goals for a low-carbon economy.

Korsnick, who spoke exclusively with the Associated Press ahead of the conference, said this is not wishful thinking; There is so much demand for nuclear power as companies strive to meet customer expectations and deliver on carbon-cutting promises, there is significant interest at the federal and state levels, and unlike conventional reactors, small reactors can be built on a large scale factory scale. can be made in the setting.

He acknowledged that there are challenges, such as a regulatory process that will need to be accelerated to license reactors, a supply chain that needs to be developed, and a need for more financial incentives, as the federal government has sought to scale up renewable projects. had done for last decade.

The largest public power company in the US, the Tennessee Valley Authority, launched a program in February to develop and fund new small modular nuclear reactors as part of its strategy to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Biden administration has embraced nuclear power to help reduce greenhouse gases in the U.S. It launched a $6 billion effort in April to protect nuclear power plants from the risk of closure, in which nuclear power is considered a carbon-burning source of energy. Cited the need to continue as open source that helps to combat climate change. Most US nuclear plants were built between 1970 and 1990, and the older fleet costs more to operate.

The US Department of Energy said in April that when it requested $1.7 billion in its fiscal year 2023 budget for the Office of Atomic Energy, it was one of the highest ever for nuclear power. The department is investing in advanced reactors.

And an AP survey of energy policies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia found that a strong majority — about two-thirds — say nuclear would, in one fashion or another, help replace fossil fuels.

Korsnick said that as more people are concerned about carbon-free electricity, “nuclear power is better.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists has cautioned that nuclear technology still comes with significant risks that other low-carbon energy sources do not, including radioactive waste and the risk of accidents or targeted attacks to reactors, and remains unresolved. The question is how to store hazardous nuclear waste. The group is not opposed to using nuclear power, but wants to make sure it is safe.

The Environmental Working Group has said that small reactors are going to be a “total financial defeat” as the cost of nuclear power never goes down, the costs and risks are transferred to rate payers.

And the Ohio-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis analyzed a small modular nuclear reactor being developed by Nuscale Power in Oregon, concluding that it is “too expensive, too risky and too uncertain.” The company said the report misrepresents NuScale’s costs, does not accurately reflect or examine schedule timeframes, and also fails to understand output.

Korsnick said that when companies show that test reactors can be built on budget and on time, they’re going to “sell like hotcakes.” She pointed to Wyoming, where communities competed to receive a demonstration project by Bill Gates’ company. TerraPower chose Kemmerer, which has been dependent on coal for more than a century.

Korsnick said he is optimistic about the future opportunities for nuclear power.

“Any way you slice and dice it, it comes back to the atom being a big part of the solution,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Daly in Washington contributed to this report.

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