Colorado Needs Clean, Safe, Cheap Nuclear Power | Opinion


Judi Greenwald

The emerging advanced nuclear energy industry is poised to help communities across the country meet and maintain their long-term energy and climate goals. Ranging in scale from microreactors that can provide distributed power to medium-sized reactors that can power cities and large industrial facilities, advanced nuclear reactors promise clean, reliable and safe energy, and can help achieve the economic, energy and environmental goals at the state level. These new nuclear reactors, which should be ready for commercial deployment by the end of this decade, will change the way we approach energy and decarbonization in Colorado, the United States and around the world.

The Colorado state legislature is considering a bill that would initiate a feasibility study on small modular reactors, or SMRs. Advanced reactors, including SMRs, are fundamentally different from conventional nuclear reactors operating today and offer a more agile approach to carbon-free nuclear energy. SMRs are typically smaller in size and faster to build, making nuclear power an option for rural communities, municipal utilities, and industrial users. This business model differs from larger, more capital-intensive conventional nuclear reactor projects.

SMRs are also scalable, meaning they can meet a variety of customer needs, from small universities to large, investor-owned utilities. Their small size and flexible operations for different customers efficiently match changing energy demands and supplement renewable energy generation throughout the day without the need for large amounts of storage energy. Smaller reactors also allow for modular additions of nuclear power capacity that more efficiently meet the growing energy needs of growing communities. Their size and modularity allow factory fabrication of reactors and can reduce the time required for on-site construction and installation, reducing the risks and impacts of cost overruns and schedule delays.

The design, operation and maintenance of advanced reactors are based on safety. The emphasis on new safety features helps simplify siting requirements and may eliminate the need for emergency planning requirements in surrounding communities. Some advanced reactors also have improved fuel performance, which would reduce the volume of spent nuclear fuel produced during operation. Advanced reactors are subject to review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and will meet or exceed United States nuclear energy safety standards. Finally, while the focus is often on decarbonizing the power sector, decarbonizing all major industries and sectors of the economy is key to mitigating climate change. Advanced reactors can help provide clean, reliable, carbon-free energy for heat, power, and fuels to the residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation sectors.

States have begun to realize the potential benefits of SMRs and advanced nuclear energy more broadly. On February 8, West Virginia repealed its state’s ban on the construction of nuclear facilities. Other states like Montana, Kentucky and Wisconsin have also recently rolled back nuclear construction bans or eased restrictions on new facilities. State policy makers, communities, industries and other stakeholders are beginning to recognize the promise of rapid adoption of advanced nuclear energy through demonstration projects. Early adoption will bring well-paying jobs, hubs of technology innovation and academic partnerships, and centralized supply chains – anchors for a vibrant and rapidly growing industry in new states and regions. To realize these benefits, state leaders should consider various policy options that allow or encourage the deployment of advanced nuclear energy in their home state. This could range from: providing incentives for demonstration projects; establishing and funding public-private partnerships between universities, businesses and communities; or integrating advanced nuclear power into national clean energy standards and strategic planning processes.

An essential first step towards the adoption of advanced nuclear energy is for public decision makers, communities and stakeholders to understand the benefits of nuclear innovation. Building informed consensus will enable ambitious state-level climate and energy policies that can help introduce advanced nuclear technology in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Colorado can begin exploring this promising opportunity with a feasibility study for SMRs, as proposed in SB22-073. The bill would provide Coloradans with key information about how small modular reactors can help provide the state with safe, clean, reliable and affordable energy.

Judi Greenwald is the executive director of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.

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