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Rosy Prospects for Nuclear Power?

(May 28, 2020–Progress on reviving the nuclear power industry in the United States is a vital step on the way to actually creating a productive economy that can eliminate poverty and bring prosperity to both our country and the world. It is with that in mind that I wrote the following news report on some optimistic developments in the industry. I then submitted it for comment by my friend, nuclear engineer Ramtanu Maitra, who kindly provided the broader assessment which you will find below my article.—Nancy Spannaus)

Work on Small Modular Reactors Is Advancing

By Nancy Spannaus

May 26, 2020—Within the generally bleak record of the current Congress and Administration on crucial economic questions, one optimistic trend can be found—the advancement of work on small modular nuclear reactors (SMR). As this blog has reported before, SMRs represents a major potential for vastly expanding the use of nuclear energy, due to the benefits of potential mass production, reduced expense, and augmented safety.

 

Rosy Prospects for Nuclear Power?

A comparison of the size of SMRs with a traditional nuclear power plant. (Idaho labs)

On May 14, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a new program called the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ADP). The Department has allocated $230 million to fund a domestic private industry project that will build two reactors that can be operational with the next five to seven years.

The ADP is part of a larger effort being financed by the DOE toward giving new life to the embattled nuclear industry in the United States. The total price tag is $5.4 billion. The other two elements, as described by the DoE, are the

First-of-a-Kind (FOAK) Nuclear Demonstration Readiness Project pathway, intended to address major advanced reactor design development projects or complex technology advancements for existing plants which have significant technical and licensing risk and have the potential to be deployed by the mid-to-late 2020s, and the

Regulatory Assistance Grants pathway, which provide direct support for resolving design regulatory issues, regulatory review of licensing topical reports or papers, and other efforts focused on obtaining certification and licensing approvals for advanced reactor designs and capabilities.

These appropriations come in the wake of significant bipartisan efforts in favor of nuclear power in the Congress. The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, signed into law by President Trump in January of 2019, revised the regulatory structure to ease the financial burden on existing nuclear plants, and provide a licensing framework for the advanced reactors now under development.

Two other bills introduced in 2019, also with bipartisan support, have so far failed to become law. These are the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, which would further support the development of advanced reactors, and the Nuclear Energy Renewal Act of 2019, which would do more to preserve existing nuclear plants and support R&D.

Rosy Prospects for Nuclear Power?

An image of the NuScale modular reactor (energy.gov)

Dozens of companies are currently working on Small Modular Reactors and reporting significant strides. The most advanced in the regulatory process is the tiny reactor being developed by NuScale Power, which is headquartered in Oregon. This design has passed four steps of the regulatory review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and could potentially get the go-ahead for production by September of this year.

Jump-start Needed

Progress in developing the next stage of nuclear fission power is a crucial step toward the jump-starting of the U.S. economy, with more efficient, and clean, energy production and vastly expanded demand for electricity, in the face of expanded high-speed rail, and other infrastructure modernization projects. The expansion of nuclear is also a necessary step toward the development of the next qualitative jump, that to thermonuclear fusion power.

The Vogtle nuclear plant, under construction in Georgia.

Despite the reams of anti-nuclear propaganda and disinformation still churning out of many mis-named environmentalists, support for nuclear power as a safe, efficient source of electric power is finally growing in the United States. New groups, such as greensfornuclear, are being formed, as previously anti-nuclear ideologues realize that nuclear power represents the lion’s share of non-carbon-emitting power production, that its safety record is actually unparalleled, and that shutting down current plants has resulted in increased pollution (as well as cost).

Indeed, those destructive shutdowns are still going ahead, as with the case of New York’s Indian Point reactor which will begin to be decommissioned at the end of this month. From 2003 to today, the United States has gone from 104 to 98 operating plants; only one plant, the Vogtle plant in Georgia, is under construction. These plants continue to supply approximately 20% of the nation’s electricity with extraordinary reliability and increasing efficiency, and their loss is a body blow to our future.

Almost 60 years ago, President John F. Kennedy, a follower of FDR and the American System, put forward a program for expansion of nuclear power, including as a means of solving the water crisis through nuclear desalination. His approach, funded by a Hamiltonian National Infrastructure Bank, begs to be taken up and implemented today by those committed to reindustrializing the U.S. economy.

The Larger Context

A Commentary by Ramtanu Maitra, nuclear engineer

May 27, 2020–The recent announcement  by the Office of Nuclear  Energy of its Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP) is encouraging from the viewpoint that nuclear power, while under a full court pressure  from the  greenies  with their solar, tidal, wind and whatever, has not been forgotten. Seemingly, it is like re-inventing the wheel. Was it necessary to go through that route once again?

In my book, the problem that the DoE suffers is its leadership’s inability to accept the fact that for the long-term future, there exists no other alternative   to nuclear power – fission now, fusion later. It is the power of atom that can provide an endless source of steady and plentiful power. These plants, large and small, can be set up almost anywhere. Even those in the DoE who promote nuclear power, do so pointing out that it is a good emission-free clean energy source. No doubt, the proposed advanced reactors will add to the efficiency, safety, and all other requirements. That’s fine, but the issue is why the available nuclear power generating sources were not given the proverbial push to become the “virtually-only” power generation source, the way the coal-fired power plants were earlier.

Comparisons of power sources in terms of energy flux density.

For instance, the small modular reactors (SMRs) are an afterthought of the people, who, driven by their desire to optimize efficiency in the earlier years, had made building nuclear power plants an extremely capital-intensive affair and  in effect,   out of reach  of all  economically-weaker countries. Now that many developed nations, under the leadership of anti-nuclear ideologues, are busy abandoning nuclear power as a major power generation source, nuclear power plant manufacturers have moved away.

With the advent of SMRs, and failure of the much-touted green power sources, nuclear power has yet another chance to become the universal power generation source. As pointed out by Mrs. Spannaus in her write-up above, SMRs have made significant progress. However, it still needs a big push, and that has come from the DoE.  Despite the best efforts of the developers of these SMRs, many of them will wither away because of lack of funds, or because of too much delay in raising funds from whomever.

A Unique Opportunity

Here in the United States, we have a situation where the SMRs can make a major statement very soon and thus become a major exporting item. It would put the United States once again on the frontlines of nuclear power generation. Will that not be a good thing? But that would need the DoE to work hand-in-glove with not only the reactor developers but with manufacturers and infrastructure developers to make these SMRs virtual off-the-shelf items.

Russia’s floating nuclear plant, the Akademik Lomonosov, features modern small reactors.

The DoE has gone on record saying the American leadership in the nuclear energy industry is being ceded to countries such as Russia and China, who are quickly becoming leading suppliers of nuclear technologies. That is true, but it does not have to remain that way.

Consider the case of Puerto Rico. It generates 98% of its electricity from imported fossil fuels, and its power plants, built in the late 1960s, experience outage rates 12 times higher than the U.S. average. Puerto Rico’s power generation system gets devastated by recurring storms and hurricanes. By expediting  installation of SMRs in Puerto Rico successfully and in a hurry, Washington could send a signal to the hundreds of smaller nations with weak existing  power transmission and distribution system that nuclear power is highly flexible and  not a monopoly of economically-powerful nations.

By seizing such an opportunity, the United States could be of immense help to all nations, as well as ourselves.

(For more on the American System, see Hamilton Versus Wall Street, The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.)

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