Nuclear Power Gets a Fresh Look as Nations Chase Climate Goals
Although efforts to battle climate change have been largely dominated by renewables, the International Energy Agency says achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will require doubling nuclear power worldwide. It accounted for just 4% of primary energy consumption in 2020, according to BP Plc’s Statistical Review of World Energy. “Nuclear needs to be part of the broader conversation,” says Joseph Majkut, director of the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C. “We’ll need to build quite a lot to get there.”
The U.S. is at the forefront of efforts to design smaller nuclear systems. These so-called SMRs— small modular reactors—are expected to be faster, easier, and cheaper to build than the massive conventional nuclear plants that are common now. TerraPower LLC, which has secured $80 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop its technology, is planning to install a new type of reactor at a Wyoming coal-fired power plant that’s scheduled to close in 2025.
The Bill Gates-backed company says the system could be operational as soon as 2028 and has a projected cost of $4 billion. Contrast that with the $29 billion price tag of the two reactors being added to the 1980s vintage Vogtle nuclear power plant in Georgia, a project that has been plagued by delays and massive cost overruns.
NuScale Power LLC expects to complete an SMR plant in Idaho by 2029. The goal is to fabricate the key components at a factory and ship them to the project site to be assembled. The company is also chasing opportunities abroad, including in Romania, where it may be able to build a plant even sooner, by 2028.
European countries have announced some of the world’s most ambitious climate goals, which is why many are looking to add more emission-free nuclear power. Skyrocketing electricity prices and concern that the European Union relies too much on Russian natural gas are aiding the case for nuclear.
There’s a market realignment under way on the continent, with former Soviet republics looking for alternatives to Russian-made reactors. Poland, the EU’s most coal-dependent nation, is working with NuScale and talking to Electricité de France SA (EDF) about supplying multiple conventional nuclear plants.
France already gets about 70% of its power from nuclear, more than any other country. The government is funding efforts by EDF to develop SMR technologies and also considering building more big facilities, in part because some of its reactors are nearing the end of their life spans. Germany, where aversion to nuclear power helped birth a national political party, is bucking the trend: It’s set to decommission its three remaining reactors this year and has no plans to build new ones.
No country is plowing more money into new nuclear plants than China, whose fleet is on track to surpass that of the U.S., the world’s largest, by the middle of this decade. The country plans to build at least 150 reactors over the next 15 years at a cost of as much as $440 billion. China is also pushing to export its expertise to developing nations, including Pakistan.
Other Asian countries are being more cautious. Japan is evaluating SMRs but has been wary of restarting any of its reactors since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Its most recent national energy plan sets a goal of getting 20% to 22% of its power from nuclear by fiscal 2030, up from about 5% in 2020, but doesn’t spell out whether new plants would get built.
Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that while the world needs more carbon-free electricity, nuclear reactors need to make economic sense to earn a bigger share of the global power mix. Hefty government subsidies may not be a sustainable strategy for building and operating power plants. “Nuclear has a huge disadvantage,” Lyman says. “It’s expensive.”
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