With Democrats at the helm of the federal government, climate change and zero-carbon energy technologies have become front-page issues in Washington. But just out of port, this conversation has been run aground by the environmental movement’s fixation upon wind and solar and its near exclusion of the lone form of carbon-free electricity that can scale anywhere in the world: nuclear.

The CLEAN Future Act, introduced by Energy Subcommittee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), is the most recent example of wind and solar’s capture of the policy arena. The bill makes 54 references to solar energy and 27 to wind energy. Nuclear energy is referenced a paltry 12 times in its 981 pages.

If zero-carbon energy is the civically agreed-upon goal (and, no, we’re not there yet), safe and scalable nuclear is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet. Yet rather than increasing nuclear plant output and getting new nuclear projects underway, the U.S. is at the beginning of a nuclear retirement en masse. In 2021, 5.1 GW of nuclear capacity will be retired, 5 percent of the current U.S. total. Up for retirement are the Dresden and Byron plants owned by Exelon Corporation in Illinois, and Unit 3 of the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in New York.  

After a post-war period of growth, nuclear energy took on an unfair stigma. Despite the power of the atom providing 75 percent of France’s electricity without a single noteworthy incident, to cite one example, harnessing nuclear energy makes Americans uneasy. Public misunderstanding and intentional fearmongering from the back-to-nature set have left a lasting scar in the United States. (And HBO’s production of the Chernobyl miniseries in 2019 sure didn’t help.)

But if one were to read these signs as indicators of nuclear’s impending disappearance from the American energy landscape, one would be wrong. To far less fanfare than the celebrated installation of dilute solar and wind arrays and the rollout of new Tesla models, tantalizing developments have been made at the Idaho and Oak Ridge (TN) National Laboratories on new designs for nuclear energy. Technologies are on the horizon that could deliver all of their predecessors’ benefits while being more adaptable and even safer, perhaps renewing nuclear’s appeal.

Small Modular Reactors

Small modular reactors are marvels of efficiency. To achieve a nameplate capacity of 720 MWe, a NuScale small modular reactor would require just 35 acres, whereas a traditional plant would take up nearly 600 acres. Because they’re simpler and smaller, these reactors can be utilized in locations that could not support larger reactors, including smaller markets, remote and isolated areas, and areas with less access to the water necessary to cool larger reactors. Unlike the large plants with equally large staffing requirements, a small modular reactor has passive safety features that cause it to shut down on its own in the event of an emergency without requiring outside action by operators or inputs such as cooling water. They can also be sited below or partially below ground to present less of a target for terrorism.

Small modular reactors can have a wide range of power outputs, depending on the number of modules, meaning that they can replace retiring power plants or complement an existing fuel mix depending on what is needed. And, construction is less expensive in terms of both time and money. Parts can be factory-made and shipped to sites for assembly, allowing for quicker construction with lower costs than traditional reactor designs.

The first reactor of this kind will be a twelve-module unit that will be built by NuScale Power, which is expected to be sited at Idaho National Laboratory and begin operation in 2029.

Advanced Non-Light Water Reactors

While small modular reactors operate on the same general principles as large-scale plants, there are also new reactor designs currently in development with some fundamental differences. These include molten salt reactors and high-temperature gas reactors.

Molten salt reactors operate at higher temperatures than light water reactors, increasing efficiency and reducing waste. They also operate at lower pressure which reduces operating risks. While these designs still use controlled fission and steam to spin turbines, the key difference is that in these designs, nuclear fuel dissolves into the coolant (the salt) itself. That means no radioactive water on the loose in the event of a meltdown, and no spent fuel rods to store.

High-temperature gas reactors utilize a revolutionary process involving virtually indestructible, billiard ball-size, sealed kernels of uranium. The kernels are loaded in the reactor like a gumball machine and helium is pumped down through the pebble bed to extract the heat into a steam generator that produces electricity. 

These reactors make meltdowns nearly impossible. They can also be sited almost anywhere, some say within 500 meters of urban areas, and enjoy many of the same benefits as small modular reactors, like quicker construction and lower costs. They are also able to “load-follow” and can go from 40 percent to 100 percent power output in 20 minutes.

How Will Government Respond?

New reactor designs could lead to low-cost, low-risk, zero-carbon energy production that’s incredibly flexible, provided regulators don’t make the economics untenable. At present, these new designs are situated in a regulatory no-man’s-land. Their future rests in the hands of the Biden administration’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission. During the four-year Trump term, the NRC moved in an innovation-friendly direction. If this attitude continues, it could mean these designs come to fruition. Ultimately, political considerations will likely decide the course that the development of these technologies takes. What we know is this: While Washington squabbles over the pork roast known as the CLEAN Future Act, real progress is being made towards zero-carbon electricity in Idaho and Tennessee. Let’s hope Biden’s NRC recognizes this high-leverage opportunity.