Nuclear energy is an essential source of base-load electricity and 64 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas-free electricity production. Without it, the United States cannot meet either its energy requirements or the goals established in the President’s Climate Action Plan.
In the decades to come, we predict that the country’s nuclear fleet will evolve to include not only large, advanced light water reactors like those operating today and under construction in Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, but also a complementary set of smaller, modular reactors.
Those reactors are under development today by companies like Babcock &Wilcox (B&W), NuScale and others that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop next-generation reactor concepts. Those companies have innovative designs and are prepared to absorb the lion’s share of design and development costs, but the federal government should also play a significant role given the enormous promise of small modular reactor technology for commercial and other purposes. Most important, partnerships between government and the private sector will enable the full promise of this technology to be available in time to ensure U.S. leadership in energy, the environment, and the global nuclear market.
The Department of Energy’s Small Modular Reactor (SMR) program is built on the successful Nuclear Power 2010 program that supported design certification of the Westinghouse AP-1000 and General Electric ESBWR designs. Today, Southern Co. and South Carolina Electric & Gas are building four AP-1000s for which they submitted license applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1998. Ten years earlier, in the early years of the Nuclear Power 2010 program, it was clear that there would be a market for the AP-1000 and ESBWR in the United States and overseas, but it would have been impossible to predict which companies would build the first ones, or where they would be built, and it was even more difficult to predict the robust international market for that technology.
The SMR program is off to a promising start. To date, B&W’s Generation mPower joint venture has invested $400 million in developing its mPower design; NuScale approximately $200 million in its design. Those companies have made those investments knowing they will not see revenue for approximately 10 years. That is laudable for a private company, but, in order to prepare SMRs for early deployment in the United States and to ensure U.S. leadership worldwide, investment by the federal government as a cost-sharing partner is both necessary and prudent.
Some have expressed concern about the potential market and customers for SMR technology given Babcock & Wilcox’s recent announcement that it will reduce its level of investment in the mPower technology, and thus the pace of development. This decision reflects B&W’s revised market assessment, particularly the slower-than-expected growth in electricity demand in the United States following the recession. But that demand will eventually occur, and the American people are best-served – in terms of cost and reliability of service – when the electric power industry maintains a diverse portfolio of electricity generating technologies.
The industry will need new, low-carbon electricity options like SMRs because America’s electric generating technology options are becoming more challenging. For example:
- While coal-fired generation is a significant part of our base-load generation, coal-fired generation faces increasing environmental restrictions, including the likelihood of controls on carbon and uncertainty over the commercial feasibility of carbon capture and sequestration. The U.S. has about 300,000 MW of coal-fired capacity, and the consensus is that about one-fifth of that will shut down by 2020 because of environmental requirements. In addition, development of coal-fired projects has stalled: Less than 1,000 megawatts of new coal-fired capacity is under construction.
- Natural gas-fired generation is a growing and important component of our generation portfolio and will continue to do so given our abundant natural gas resources. However, prudence requires that we do not become overly dependent on any given energy source particularly in order to maintain long-term stable pricing as natural gas demand grows in the industrial sector and for LNG exports.
- Renewables will play an increasingly large role but, as intermittent sources, cannot displace the need for large-scale, 24/7 power options.
America’s 100 nuclear plants will begin to reach 60 years of operation toward the end of the next decade. In the five years between 2029 and 2034, over 29,000 megawatts of nuclear generating capacity will reach 60 years. Unless those licenses are extended for a second 20-year period, that capacity must be replaced. If the United States hopes to contain carbon emissions from the electric sector, it must be replaced with new nuclear capacity.
The runway to replace that capacity is approximately 10 years long, so decisions to replace that capacity with either large, advanced light-water reactors or SMRs must be taken starting in 2019 and 2020 – approximately the time that the first SMR designs should be certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The electricity markets are in a period of profound change. New energy sources are becoming available, new fossil, renewable, demand-side and nuclear technologies are preparing to enter the market. The very structure of the markets themselves is changing. Nuclear energy, because it runs 24/7 without producing greenhouse gas, will play an important part in that market. SMR technology, in particular, needs to be developed sooner rather than later. That way, in about 10 years, we can answer the questions about which companies will build those plants and where.