CHANGE REACTION: The Push for Nuclear Energy

This past summer, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Nuclear Reactor Innovation Center as part of an effort to advance new nuclear energy concepts. Thanks to a joint signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a strong effort has been established to share technological expertise and computing resources in an effort to advance nuclear energy technologies and develop new reactor designs.

The DOE has also announced it will invest $115 million towards reviving the nuclear power industry through promising ideas such as Small Modular Reactors which could completely revolutionize the way energy organizations think about nuclear power. As of July, federal regulators had reviewed the latest in SMR designs, maintaining pace for the development of a 12-module plant in Utah by the middle of the coming decade.

The company behind the SMR design is NuScale, an Oregon based company whose reactors are only 9 feet in diameter and 65 feet high using light water cooling methods running on low-enriched radium fuel assemblies. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems is signed on to be the first carbon-free customer for the design, which does not rely on powered water pumps or circulatory equipment and can shut down and continue cooling itself indefinitely in the event of a catastrophe. The reactors operate in a subterranean pool that will absorb the shock of earthquakes, and in the event that power is lost the pool water begins to absorb heat and boil.

It is believed that the U.S. could lead the world in developing next-generation reactors, and that the partnership between the DOE and the NRC is important in making sure that U.S. nuclear technologies are available both domestically and abroad. Climate considerations are at a critical point, with clean and reliable energy solutions essential to global well-being. And with the addition of nuclear reactors in the United States slowing since 1996, the U.S. Energy Information Administration is continuing to push harder on technology sharing, as nuclear power supplied only about 20% of U.S. energy generation in the past year.

Of course, there are ever-present concerns about the safety of even new technology, in particular in the treatment of the hazardous waste that is produced. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute—the Washington, D.C. based nuclear industry trade association—there are three major misconceptions about nuclear energy that need to be addressed.

The first one involves the aforementioned issue of waste. According to the NEI, managing waste became politically stalled several decades ago despite the problem already having been solved. Storage of waste requires geological repositories like Yucca Mountain located in Tonopah, Nevada. But developing the site requires federal grants which have yet to be awarded. In the meantime, stringent storage controls are in place for the relatively small amount of waste that actually exists, and Graver manufactures a number of excellent products to assist in onsite waste treatment.

The second misconception according to the NEI is that nuclear energy simply isn’t safe. However, America’s nuclear power plants boast an unmatched safety record among all energy sources. In cases such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, reactor designs that were never or are no longer used in the U.S. helped informed how to improve nuclear technology, rendering such disasters impossible to reproduce.

The third most common misconception involves the preference of renewable energy that many feel can meet climate goals without exploring the nuclear options. But many group organizations involved in combating climate change agree that nuclear energy is essential to lowering carbon emissions in time to protect the climate. They advocate a combination of wind, solar and nuclear as the most effective—and time efficient—approach.