Clean Energy: Nuclear energy - in Tigard?
Editor's note: This is the last in a five-part series of articles about what Lake Oswego resident Bob Sack calls "underappreciated, carbon-free sources of energy that are under development right here in Oregon." Sack's first "snapshot," about geothermal energy, appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Review; "Blowin' in the (offshore) wind" was featured in the Jan. 3 issue; "A future for hydropower" ran Jan. 31; and "Catching a wave" was published on Feb. 14. Today's installment: "Nuclear energy — in Tigard?"
Nuclear energy is not exactly "clean." The history of accidents, the problematic disposal of spent nuclear fuel and the fears of nuclear proliferation make it the most controversial of the carbon-free energy resources. Add to these drawbacks the fact that the current cost of nuclear exceeds natural gas by a long shot.
Although nuclear energy is controversial, though, there is no question that it is the largest source (60 percent) of carbon-free electricity in the U.S. today. Overall, nuclear supplies 20 percent of all electricity in the U.S. (Fossil fuels supply 63 percent, wind 6 percent and solar 1.5 percent.) So if you believe that global warming is an existential threat that requires a truly aggressive revolution in energy production, then nuclear must be considered an option.
In the past, environmental leaders have usually been opposed to nuclear power, but some have come around to support it (for example, James Hansen, who pioneered the awareness of global warming). Now, a company now headquartered in Tigard called NuScale embodies the brightest hopes for advanced nuclear energy.
This company was formed in 2007 in Corvallis to commercialize the research done by OSU faculty in the Department of Nuclear Physics. The goal was to develop a small modular reactor (SMR), capable of being factory-built, transported by truck or rail to a site and able to generate 60 megawatts of electricity, enough for about 45,000 homes. Up to a dozen of these modular reactors can be clustered together on the same site.
The company has garnered $226 million from a cost-sharing grant from the Department of Energy and has raised $475 million from private investors.
NuScale scientists/engineers have seriously addressed both the issues of safety and cost with their SMR design. If needed, they maintain that their reactor will safely shut down and self-cool, with no operator action, no electrical power and no additional water needed. It is housed in a containment vessel submerged below ground in an earthquake-safe reactor building. The design incorporates many other safety features that are said to be "simple, redundant, diverse and independent."
Because the NuScale module can be factory-made and shipped to site locations, it will be quicker to build and less expensive than traditional large-scale designs — greatly reducing the up-front costs for plant construction. Although other companies are pursuing SMRs, NuScale leads the way. Their design is currently undergoing a certification review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission — the first and so far only SMR to do so. A safety evaluation/certification is expected in August 2020.
NuScale recently selected Virginia-based BWX Technologies to start the engineering work to manufacture its SMR, and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems is planning to build a 12-module NuScale plant at the Idaho National Laboratory, with deployment expected in the mid-2020s. So within a few years, electrons may be flowing through the Intermountain West grid from a carbon-free, Oregon-designed NuScale power plant.
I agree with Bill Gates that we should be pursuing new designs for nuclear reactors that are safer and less expensive. And along with the Union of Concerned Scientists, I support keeping our current nuclear plants running; if closed, they will be replaced by carbon-emitting power plants. Many experts say that the problem of disposing of spent nuclear fuel is technically solvable. Finland and Sweden are doing it, even though a political solution remains elusive in the U.S.
The debate concerning the role of nuclear energy will continue and may well be part of the upcoming presidential campaign. In my opinion, we need to pursue solar, wind and other sources of clean energy without restraint. At the same time, and above all, we will have to leave coal — and eventually a lot of natural gas and oil — in the ground. Without nuclear energy as part of the mix, that will be very, very difficult to do.
For more information, see "A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow," by Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist.
Bob Sack is a member of the Lake Oswego Sustainability Advisory Board (appointed by the City Council) and is on the board of the Lake Oswego Sustainability Network, a citizens' group. The views expressed in these articles are his own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the organizations with whom he is associated.