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Advanced Nuclear Reactors

October 01, 2018
Modern economies, and their dependent societies, have become incredibly dependent on the production of large-scale and reliable power. Large-scale and reliable power sources contribute to a resilient grid, which is necessary to stave off both natural and human-caused incidents that could restrict availability of electricity to a nation and threaten national security.[1] Due to the demand placed on energy grids, power sources must be economically viable, safe, and approved by the public. Because of the threat posed by global warming, however, power sources must also be clean. To date, no power source meets all these criteria. Coal is economically viable and can produce large-scale, reliable power but is neither clean nor safe  and is not favored by the public.[2][3][4] Natural gas is economically viable and can produce large-scale power, but it is not reliable, favored by the public, nor clean, and is only safe relative to coal.[5][6][7][8]

Renewables are safe, clean, approved by the public, and becoming more economically viable by the day, however they are not able to produce the large-scale, reliable power needed to support the developed world.[9] Finally, we have nuclear power, which is able to produce clean, large-scale, reliable, and safe power but is economically troubled and lacks the trust of the public.

Image: Amount of Nuclear Power Needed to Meet Energy Targets, Source: http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/Advanced_Nuclear_Energy.pdfImage: Amount of Nuclear Power Needed to Meet Energy Targets, Source: http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/Advanced_Nuclear_Energy.pdf

Though many activists will tout the for-now heavily-subsidized expansion of renewable capabilities as the solution to climate change, much more is needed if we are to meet our climate goals.[10][11][12] Unlike renewables, which are inherently limited within the context of modern electricity grids, nuclear power can produce enough carbon-free electricity to realistically impede climate change.[13][14] Although the nuclear power industry has been crippled by the exorbitant overnight costs of building outdated reactors and has further been damaged by the absence of trust following the Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns, there is still some optimism.[15][16] The next generation of nuclear technology will bring reactors that are significantly less expensive and virtually impossible to meltdown.[17][18] These advanced reactors aren’t some far-fetched or distant technology, like fusion reactors that are “always thirty years away,” but are demonstrated technologies that have the potential to remedy the shortcomings of nuclear power.[19] It is expected that they will be deployed between 2020 and 2030.[20]

There are multiple types of advanced reactors, but six have been identified as more viable than others: Very-High Temperature Reactors, Molten-Salt Reactors, Supercritical-Water-Cooled Reactors, Gas-Cooled Fast Reactors, Sodium-Cooled Fast Reactors, and Lead-Cooled Fast Reactors.[21] All six of these “Generation IV” designs will further improve safety and make nuclear power more sustainable, economically competitive, reliable, and resistant to proliferation.[22] The question of what is needed to ensure these technologies have a pathway to implementation, and what their effect on the energy industry will be, remains.

The United States has recently begun to focus on nuclear innovation once again. Within the past year, Congress has taken up two pieces of legislation focused on advanced nuclear technologies: the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, which enables private sector companies to collaborate with federal laboratories to develop advanced reactors, and the Advanced Nuclear Energy Technologies Act, which sets the goal of developing four demonstration projects by 2028.[23] Additionally, the Department of Energy has recently been directed to take immediate action to prevent the regression of nuclear power in the United States.[24] Even further, there has been a push to end the subsidization of renewable energy and to replace it with a carbon tax that would benefit all forms of clean energy, including nuclear.[25] Despite all of the focus on advancing nuclear energy, however, these measures are still not enough, by themselves, for advanced reactors to have a fair shot.[26]

Currently-operating reactors are heavily regulated, and for good reason, but these specific regulations are wholly incompatible with advanced reactors.[27] Advanced reactors operate in entirely different ways from the reactors in operation today, rendering a significant portion of the regulatory framework obsolete. More targeted regulations for each advanced technology will be required for innovation to occur; to do anything else would be comparable to requiring solar panels to include carbon-mitigation technologies like those found in coal plants. Because of this, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the body that oversees all nuclear power regulations, has developed plans to better regulate advanced reactors by 2025. Industry groups, however, claim that more needs to be done and that nearly no progress has been made in improving the regulatory climate.[28]

Assuming these regulatory hurdles can be overcome, the future of nuclear power looks bright. Advanced reactors could represent anywhere from a 14% - 65% reductions in cost per megawatt-hour of electricity from nuclear power. On average, it is expected that the reduction in cost will be 43%.[29] To put this into context, a megawatt-hour of electricity from a Combined Cycle Gas Turbine, commonly referred to as natural gas, is 61% less expensive than current costs per megawatt-hour of electricity from nuclear power.[30] Making nuclear power economically competitive with natural gas would revolutionize the energy industry in the United States and allow us to feasibly meet climate goals, bolster national security, and reduce premature deaths.[31]

Image: Levelized cost of electricity in every U.S. county when nuclear power is at its current price (top) and when at average advanced estimate (bottom), Source: http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/Advanced_Nuclear_Energy.pdfImage: Levelized cost of electricity in every U.S. county when nuclear power is at its current price (top) and when at average advanced estimate (bottom), Source: http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/Advanced_Nuclear_Energy.pdf

Taking the average expected reduction in cost from advanced nuclear reactors, we could expect to see the levelized cost of electricity in the United States drop 10%, from $88.35 to $79.55 per megawatt-hour. The cost of carbon dioxide emission levels collapsing to the levels required to meet our climate goals would be negative. If we were to concurrently introduce a carbon tax comparable to what is being proposed a carbon tax comparable to what is being proposed and implement these advanced reactors, our emission levels would become even lower, and the levelized cost of electricity would still fall 6%.

There are readily apparent economic, environmental, and national security reasons to support a policy of nuclear innovation and regulatory reform. The injection of advanced nuclear reactors into the energy landscape will increase competition and technological diversity while lowering prices for the average consumer. The availability of large-scale, reliable, economically-viable, and safe clean-energy will allow the United States, and the rest of the world, to meet the emission targets required to impede climate change. Increasing fuel-source diversity will reduce dependence on specific fuels and expanding our base-load power capacity will increase national security. Supporting nuclear innovation is smart policy, but more importantly, it is good policy.


Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  [1]https://www.energy.gov/articles/secretary-perry-urges-ferc-take-swift-action-address-threats-grid-resiliency; http://scipol.duke.edu/content/first-look-white-house-statement-grid-resilience-and-national-security


  [3]https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2012/06/10/energys-deathprint-a-price-always-paid/#70a6504b709b; https://www.pennlive.com/life/2018/07/coal_mine_accidents_in_pa_have.html

  [4]https://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/coal-impacts#.W00-e9JKiUk; https://www.ft.com/content/5cd07544-7960-11e8-af48-190d103e32a4; https://www.economist.com/united-states/2017/12/14/subsidising-coal-production-is-a-really-bad-idea


  [6]https://www.forbes.com/sites/judystone/2017/02/23/fracking-is-dangerous-to-your-health-heres-why/#6c8e65df5945; https://futurism.com/fracking-among-most-harmful-forms-energy-production-study-finds/; https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/g161/top-10-myths-about-natural-gas-drilling-6386593/





  [11]https://www.iea.org/topics/renewables/; https://www.ft.com/content/44ed7e90-3960-11e7-ac89-b01cc67cfeec; https://www.nrdc.org/experts/noah-long/renewable-energy-key-fighting-climate-change; https://www.huffingtonpost.com/steven-cohen/the-answer-to-climate-cha_b_4337435.html



  [14]http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/Advanced_Nuclear_Energy.pdf; http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/Advanced_Nuclear_Energy.pdf













  [27]http://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/380532-updated-regulations-critical-to-making-the-nuclear-industry-safer; https://analysis.nuclearenergyinsider.com/us-urged-fast-track-step-step-reactor-licensing-control-costs; https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060029189; https://www.thirdway.org/report/unleashing-innovation-a-comparison-of-regulatory-approval-processes






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