New, Safe & Small Reactors are Under Design
Most of us have heard the recent news that Virginia is one of the best places to do business in the United States. But unless policymakers make a concerted effort to address the Commonwealth’s high energy needs in the next decade our rating will no longer be so high… and consumers will likely pay the price through higher electricity rates and dramatic shortages.
Currently, Virginia is the second largest importer of power out of all 50 states, with only California ahead of us. By 2021, Virginia will need over 4,000 megawatts of additional power just to meet demands, an amount equal to four large older design nuclear reactors. With the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan fresh on the minds of the public, some are again questioning the safety of nuclear power. Those fears threaten the development and deployment of much safer, next generation technologies. One key, safe and innovative solution under design and pending approval at the nuclear regulatory commission (NRC) are Small Modular nuclear Reactors (SMRs),
First, the Fukushima disaster could have easily been avoided. Even the older plant design, could have withstood the tremendous earthquake, but generators placed below sea level and a Tsunami wall that was 7 meters too small allowed the emergency power to fail causing overheating and nuclear fuel failure. Here in the United States, we virtually have no similar scenarios… but the good news is that some new technologies ready for design certification and licensing in the next few years do not even need water for cooling. These SMR designs include some that are air cooled, with no pumps or emergency power back ups required. Ranging between 25 and 200 megawatts in design, these new plants are being considered to be manufactured by Babcock and Wilcox, Westinghouse, Hyperion and NuScale. These new nuclear power plants provide much safer, new designs that represent the best and safest technologies American scientists have to offer.
Many of these new nuclear power plants are built underground and with modules that can be increased in number to meet demands, with smaller land requirements and no possibility of contaminating water. The only issue remaining with some of these designs is what to do with spent fuel or reactor cells… and that is an issue that federal policymakers have yet to resolve. Meanwhile, traditional nuclear power has also been stymied at the federal level.
The U.S. nuclear industry has been handcuffed and virtually negated by regulatory, political and financial impediments that have harmed consumers, threatened our energy independence and impeded out ability to compete abroad. In America, it takes over four years to license a nuclear power plant, and no new plants have broken ground in over 30 years. In France, over 75 percent of the power is provided by clean and safe nuclear energy. But here in America, less than 20 percent of our power derives from nuclear power.
Our regulatory system is inefficient and impedes access to efficient, clean nuclear energy. For instance, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently stopped construction of a nuclear power plant by requiring a large financing fee (almost a billion dollars) on a Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee. Hopes of a nuclear renaissance were diminished by the loss of this leading contender to obtain a DOE loan guarantee. The existing fleet of 104 U.S. nuclear reactors is subject to regulatory processes that financially burden the industry without a cost-benefit analysis by the NRC to determine if such expenses are best used for public health and safety.
Another key component of the need for a nuclear renaissance and new technologies is jobs. During the last 30 years, while America’s nuclear technology has been stymied and litigated into dormancy, our international competitors have thrived. In particular, Russia, China, Korea and France are exporting nuclear power and expertise, while we sit on the sidelines. In fact, the Chinese have two U.S. designed Westinghouse AP 1000 megawatt plants under construction. Shortly, the Chinese will be building and exporting U.S. designed nuclear power plants around the world while we do nothing. A resurgence of nuclear power in America would make us more competitive, provide consumers and business with lower cost, safe power, and create jobs on an unprecedented level. From site preparation, to construction, engineering, security and high tech operations, nuclear power plants could employ tens of thousands of Virginians over the next decade.
In terms of SMRs, they can be mass produced in the United States with existing facilities and provide a high level of safety relative to both natural and terrorists threats. The NRC did perform post 9/11 safety analysis for our existing fleet of large reactors. This gives an extra level of safety to the U.S. reactor fleet. However, the NRC apparently did not share this information with our international partners, which could have mitigated the damage in Japan.
The NRC has been more reactive than proactive to this new technology and needs more direction and support to efficiently license these reactors in a timely manner. In order to have energy security in the future and to export our expertise in critical nuclear technologies that have no “military applications” or vulnerabilities, we must place an emphasis on making sense of the federal and state bureaucracies that have stymied a critical component of the energy solution for America.
The NRC and recently OMB must be redirected to ensure our nuclear industry is safe and competitive without unnecessary and costly delays with a more predictable, efficient and stable regulatory environment. Our national security, energy independence and economic future as a nation depend on it. Urgent Congressional action is needed to redirect these agencies to speed up and enhance nuclear power with consideration that SMRs will be a major component of the nuclear renaissance.
A national energy “Apollo” type program should be enacted in consultation with industry, labor and government, to target creating one million new clean energy jobs; energy independence; and a secure energy supply including clean and safe nuclear power before the end of the decade.
It is likely that the first of this new generation of SMRs will be built at secure federal facilities providing safe, dedicated power for national security needs at DOE and military facilities. But the technology will come to fruition, and it will one day help Virginia avoid higher energy costs and reduce the heavy energy importing we do today … and help keep the Commonwealth open for business.
(Robert L. Hartwell is President of Hartwell Capitol Consulting LLC, a public affairs firm, Senior Consultant to American Systems International Corporation and former Chief of Staff for two U.S. Congressmen. He has long been active in government and community affairs.)