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At COP21: Moniz on Small Reactors, Gates and Co. on New Technology

What has energy Secretary Ernest Moniz been doing at COP21? Plenty, we’re sure, plus this:

Modular reactors being developed by Fluor Corp.’s Nuscale Power can be a “game-changer” by making nuclear power plants more affordable to build, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said.

“The proof will be in the pudding in terms of the economic performance, but it looks very promising and that can be a game-changer,” Moniz told reporters at a round of United Nations climate talks in Paris. “If we have a viable pathway at building nuclear power in smaller bites, the whole financing structure can change and make it much more affordable.”

The problems of cost are quite real. While nuclear facilities remain good value for money, the up-front expenditure can be daunting for a relatively constrained market sector. Plant construction goes on - see Vogtle, Summer and Watts Bar for evidence – but it remains a major investment. This is where Moniz sees a role for small reactors.

Moniz offered a forecast for small reactors:

“If we can demonstrate let’s say the first modular reactor in the early part of the next decade, then what we hope is it’s part of the planning process in the middle of the next decade for our utilities,” Moniz said. “Around 2030 the 60-year lifetime of existing reactors will start to kick in, and that’s a time period when utility commitments to a new round of nuclear will be especially important.”

There is an effort underway to extend the life of nuclear facilities beyond 60 years, so it may develop that small reactors add to rather than replace existing capacity – that would be a win-win, both for the industry and for the effort to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. If shuttered nuclear plants are replaced with natural gas plants, then that’s that for any emissions regime.  Renewable energy does not set down a strong enough alternative path and beyond that, a brick wall looms.

But Moniz’s DOE is working on that issue, and let’s not forget this, from earlier in the conference:

Bill Gates has joined forces with Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma, Mukesh Ambani and a roll call of other billionaires in a push for billions of dollars of new private and public investment in “clean energy”.

The initiative includes $10bn of new spending commitments from 20 governments — among them the US, China, India and Brazil — and was unveiled at the start of talks in Paris on Monday to create the first new global climate accord in 18 years.

We hesitated to mention this development earlier, because it seemed a plan without much specificity. With Gates involved – he’s Chairman of the Board of TerraPower – there seems a place for nuclear energy here.

The movement’s definition of clean energy includes not only renewable power, such as wind and solar, but also nuclear energy, power grid technology, advanced transportation systems, and ways of capturing carbon from fossil fuel combustion.

There it is. Still not much specificity, but a little less vague. Nuclear energy is a discreet but still a real part of the COP21 conversation – a big reversal from the days when it was explicitly ignored – and that’s important.

Gates himself writes about The Breakthrough Energy Coalition and Mission Innovation, a collaboration between 10 countries, here. This being the teens, The Breakthrough Energy Coalition it has its own web page and Facebook presence. The White House announcement is here: it mentions nuclear energy in passing.

These [DOE and other agency] programs address a broad suite of low carbon technologies, including end use energy efficiency, renewable energy, nuclear energy, electric grid technologies, carbon capture and storage, advanced transportation systems and fuels.

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