Nuclear Power and the Future of Clean Energy in the United States

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President Biden signed a $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill this week. And got into the act: the Biden administration’s belief in the importance of nuclear power.

“We are very optimistic about these advanced nuclear reactors,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said at the recent United Nations Climate Conference. “We actually invested a lot of money in researching and developing these.”

There is even government funding provided to put shovels in the ground for new test plants.

“We plan to move the earth as early as 2023,” said Benjamin Reinke, senior director of a nuclear reactor and fuel design company. “We’re going to need a lot of manpower for this project.

But not everyone is so sure about the promise of nuclear power.

“I don’t think they can know at the moment how much these new plants will cost, if they will have a reliable fuel supply,” said Allison Macfarlane, former chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Today, About: Nuclear Power and America’s Clean Energy Future.

Guests

Ernest Moniz, professor of physics and systems engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Former US Secretary of Energy. Founder of the MIT Energy Initiative. (@ErnestMoniz)

Allison Macfarlane, Director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Author of “Uncertainty Underground”. (@allisonmacfar)

Rita baranwal, vice president of nuclear energy and director of nuclear at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a nonprofit organization. Former Deputy Secretary in the Office of Nuclear Energy, Ministry of Energy. (@ RitaB66)

Also featured

Benjamin reinke, Senior Director of Corporate Strategy at X-energy, a nuclear reactor and fuel design company.

Transcript: Highlights from the opening of the show

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The average commercial nuclear power plant in this country is about 40 years old. But nuclear technology has developed rapidly. These advanced reactors that Granholm mentioned well. The Infrastructure Act targets billions of dollars in favor of two companies, in particular TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates and X-energy, based in Maryland. The two promise to be able to commission their advanced reactors by 2028, pumping a total of 665 megawatts of carbon-free electricity into the grid.

BENJAMIN REINKE: We have designed a whole new type of reactor called the Xe-100. It is a small, modular gas-cooled high temperature reactor. It produces 200 megawatts of thermal energy, that’s heat. This turns into 80 megawatts of electrical power. And we will usually deploy them in packs of four. So that gives you a 320 megawatt electric grid.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s Benjamin Reinke from X-energy. The company is ready to build one of its modern reactors in eastern Washington state.

REINKE: It’s small and easy to build. We will therefore be able to manufacture the components and build them much faster. We will have less concrete, less steel in the reactor than you would have in a traditional light water reactor that is deployed today. And that means the reactor will be much more economical to build and operate.

CHAKRABARTI: X-energy also plans to build its new reactor near the Columbia Generating Station, an existing nuclear facility 10 miles north of Richland, Washington.

REINKE: The site is important because it has had years of site preparation. There is a lot of environmental work that has already been done, and it’s going to allow us to deploy this reactor faster than we could deploy anywhere else in the world.

CHAKRABARTI: However, there are key issues that the nuclear industry still faces: waste and safety. Reinke insists his advanced reactor, the Xe-100, cannot melt.

REINKE: The Xe-100 uses a type of fuel called TRISO-X fuel. Without going into the really cheesy details of why this fuel is cool, today the Department of Energy calls it the toughest fuel on Earth. Unlike a traditional uranium rod found inside today’s reactors, this fuel is packaged inside a pebble, a pebble that is about the size of what fits in. your hand. And this pebble is filled with materials that can’t melt until you hit really high temperatures. And these temperatures cannot be seen inside our reactor.

REINKE: So starting with the fuel, the reactor really has some important safety features that make it safe and inherently safe, and can’t melt. No.1 fuel cannot melt. And # 2, reactor physics shut down the reactor in an accident scenario. There is therefore no need for human intervention to be able to shut down the reactor and ensure that it is in a safe standby state.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s a whole list of promises. Safe. He also says that it is on time, or that it will be built on time. And on the budget, other issues that have continually plagued the nuclear power industry. Nonetheless, as you have heard through this infrastructure bill, the United States government is trying its luck.

REINKE: So people often ask, is that really realistic? Are we really going to be able to deploy an advanced reactor by 2027? The answer is yes. We’re as ready as you can be to deploy that, as shovel as you can be today. We have a great partner who now operates a nuclear power plant in the region. We have a local population with the skills to build this factory. We have already hired many qualified unions in the area, and they are excited to build this factory.

From the playlist

The hill: “On infrastructure and clean energy, America must play to win” – “The Rural Electrification Act was enacted 85 years ago this month. It was a visionary infrastructure program for the 20th century, the centerpiece of a federal energy investment strategy that brought growth and prosperity to the South, West and across the Rural America.

This article originally appeared on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.



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