Why Nuclear Energy Is On The Verge Of A Renaissance
For some, the word nuclear may conjure images of mushroom clouds or bring back memories of disturbing nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Today, fears over nuclear safety are at the forefront again as Russia's war on Ukraine rages on. The nuclear threat remains present. Russia has control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine. This was after an unprecedented attack on that facility.
The nuclear weapons program was the first atomic program, and out of that grew the application of that technology, of the splitting of the atom for energy production, not for destruction. And so it's very difficult to separate those two things. And a lot of people who are, for example, concerned about nuclear weapons and the proliferation of nuclear weapons and things like that tend to be anti nuclear reflexively as a function of the connection between those two things. There's so much fear and so much misinformation. And I think even now our media and TV like our entertainment, it's a convenient villain, I think nuclear is, because it is scary and radiation scary and our industry hasn't done a good job of talking about that. Like how it's okay to be scared, but that's not the same thing as dangerous.
Despite public fear around nuclear power, the technology has proved to be an emission-free, reliable way to produce large amounts of electricity on a small footprint. As a result, sentiments about the technology are beginning to change. Even Elon Musk has come out as a vocal proponent of nuclear power. The United States derives over 50% of its zero carbon output for electricity from its nuclear power plants. And so there's been a lot of money both at the state level and now at the federal level, for keeping existing nuclear plants open so that we continue to retain that zero carbon value. And also a lot of money going into what's called 'the next generation of nuclear power,' which is smaller reactors that are designed to be safer, and cheaper and easier to deploy.
CNBC visited Idaho National Lab to see one of these next generation nuclear reactors. What you're looking at is called PCAT. It's a full-scale prototype of the Marvel reactor, and the Marvel reactor would be the first of its kind that will be able to demonstrate how we can really miniaturize a nuclear system into something that is portable and transportable. There are 93 commercial nuclear reactors at 55 sites operating in the United States, with 26 reactors in some phase of decommissioning. Only two
new reactors, at the Vogtle plant in Georgia, are currently under construction. Most of the historical reactor development happened in the 1950s, sixties and early seventies. This was at a time when our energy demand was growing very quickly, much more quickly than it is now. And sources of energy were thought to be relatively scarce. All 93 of the nuclear reactors operating commercially in the U.S. today are what are known as light water reactors.
The most widely used fuel for such reactors is uranium, a common metal mined from rocks all over the world. The United States imports the majority of its uranium. Canada, Kazakhstan and Russia are among the nation's biggest suppliers.
But in the wake of the war in Ukraine, the United States is urging domestic producers to step up. A light water reactor works primarily by using fission reactions to produce heat. Nuclear fission occurs when a heavy atom, like a uranium atom, is bombarded with neutrons or interacts with with neutrons. These particles interact with the nucleus of a uranium atom and makes it unstable.
It splits apart. When it splits apart, it produces large quantities of energy. That energy release heats up the coolant, which in light water reactors is water. That heated water then produces steam. The steam turns a turbine, which turns a generator, which produces electricity. Worldwide there are about 440 operational nuclear reactors that are responsible for supplying around 10% of the world's electricity.
The United States, once a leader in building out nuclear power plants, has today fallen behind countries like Russia and China. There were several accidents which really affected the public perception of nuclear power. The Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the Chernobyl accident in 1986, and Fukushima in Japan in 2011. There hasn't been much construction of nuclear power recently because of the change in perception after these accidents.
And also in the nineties, the deregulation of the energy markets in the United States left nuclear power competing with all other kinds of energy on an open market. And in those markets, natural gas is cheaper. The sheer volume of money which is required to build large reactors in the United States today and the amount of time that it takes is a significant disincentive. Any utility company is going to say, you
know what, it's a lot easier for me to build a gas plant. It's cheaper and people don't care as much. Aside from challenges around public perception, costs and construction time, another often cited criticism is the fact that nuclear power plants produce radioactive nuclear waste. Allison Macfarlane specializes in nuclear energy and nuclear waste disposal and served as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory
Commission for two and a half years. Once the spent fuel comes out of a reactor, it's very hot, both radioactively and thermally. That material needs to be placed in a pool where there's active cooling, water's actively circulated, and that keeps that material cool while some of the initial radioisotopes decay away. And then it does get cool enough, after about five years, that you can remove it from the pool and put it in dry storage, which are basically these concrete and steel casks that sit on a concrete pad and passively cool the material. But yes, that's a that's a safe practice and it's a standard practice all around the world to do that. In the U.S., nuclear waste is stored at the nuclear
reactor facilities because there's no national waste repository. Plans to establish such a repository at Yucca mountain in Nevada have been thwarted by local and federal politics. There are some countries like France that also reprocess spent nuclear fuel.
It is possible to take used fuel and process it, recover the useful materials, the remaining enriched uranium, the other fissile material such as some of the plutonium, and that could be used as fuel in future reactors. But that too is not a perfect solution. That costs a lot of money.
We won't do that in the U.S. because uranium is plentiful and cheap. Another common argument against nuclear power is that we already have other renewables to help us decarbonize. Nuclear is a baseload power source. That means it runs all the time. For renewables to be used all the time, you need to have a huge build-out of battery technology.
Right now, that doesn't exist. Nuclear power in the United States has changed its future, and its prospects have changed quite substantially over the last 2 to 3 years. There were a number of plants that were in line to be shut down and some were shut down. But a number of states and now the Biden administration has made a determination that you need those plants and their zero carbon electricity output in order to meet the climate objectives of the country and also at the state level. The war in Ukraine has disrupted energy markets in Europe and reignited conversations around the need for countries to be energy independent. In the wake of Fukushima, the German government made a determination to shut down all of their nuclear energy and make themselves even more dependent on Russian natural gas.
Back in the U.S., one of the plants scheduled to be decommissioned is Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in San Luis Obispo, California. The state's last remaining nuclear power plant has a long history of anti-nuclear protests. Lately, there's been heated debate on whether to extend the plant's lifespan beyond its planned 2025 retirement. The reasons why nuclear power plants are shut down are often complicated and typically come down to political and economic factors.
The two drivers for nuclear are price and politics. But one Diablo Canyon employee says that the clean energy produced by the plant is still needed. Part of the reason that the closure of Diablo Canyon was announced so early in 2016 with a nine year lead time, was so that we could prepare and get more clean energy online so that when we shut Diablo Canyon, we could replace it with clean energy and we just haven't made much progress. Heather Hoff has worked at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant for over 18 years. In 2016, she co-founded Mothers for Nuclear, an activist group that supports the protection of existing nuclear power plants, as well as the construction of new ones.
Still, Hoff says she understands the reluctance to embrace nuclear power. And it's something that she herself struggled with when she started working at Diablo Canyon. My family was pretty nervous about me working there, and I was a little nervous as well. I'd heard a lot of stories, you know, of scary things and just didn't really know how I felt about nuclear. I spent the first probably six years of my career there asking tons and tons of questions and eventually kind of changed my mind about nuclear and realized that it was in really good alignment with my environmental and humanitarian values.
Californians seem to be changing their views, too. A recent poll found that 44% of voters are in support of building new nuclear plants, compared to 37% who oppose such a measure. But that's not to say Hoff never questioned her newfound respect for nuclear power. In March 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake
struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami. Suddenly, the world had a nuclear disaster on its hands. Brian, for the first time, Japan declared an atomic emergency at two nuclear power plants and Japanese officials say they have lost control of two reactors. For any existing reactor. What you need is to be able to continue to pump the coolant around the fuel so that it doesn't get too hot and then melt down. And what happens is in
Fukushima, the electricity went out. And then in every reactor, there's backup generation, which is mostly diesel fuel. But the diesel generators in Fukushima were on the ground and were swamped by the tsunami. And so they weren't able to keep the coolant pumping. And so the fuel melted down. It's sitting at the bottom of the reactor.
And then the explosions that you saw was the build up of hydrogen inside of the reactor containment that then blew. I was actually in the control room at Diablo Canyon during the few days when the Fukushima events were unfolding. And it was super scary. And it's like my worst nightmare as an operator, you know, to be there and think about these other operators just across the ocean from us and they don't know what's going on with their plant.
They have no power. They don't know if people are hurt. Some of what I was hearing on TV and the media was pretty scary.
But then, you know, like when we actually learned what was going on, it wasn't as bad as I thought. No one was actually hurt by events that happened at the plant, and that was really surprising to me. So I kind of went from like, Oh my gosh, I'm going to have to quit to like, Oh, now I feel even more strongly that nuclear is the right thing to do.
Although there have been no direct deaths attributed to the Fukushima disaster itself, over 160,000 people were evacuated from their homes as a result of the tsunami and nuclear incident. About 41,000 have not yet been able to return home. Some experts predict that it will take another 30 years to clean up the Fukushima plant. But there is some good news. A 2021 report
concluded that the doses of radiation that Fukushima residents were exposed to are such that future radiation associated health effects are unlikely to be discernible. After every major nuclear accident, there has been a regulatory response and the industry in the United States and around the world has been required to make changes, often substantial changes, to their facilities. We learned that in the case of the Fukushima accident, for instance, that we've never planned for more than one reactor to meltdown at a site at a time. Sites had insufficient backup capabilities in case more than one reactor went down at a time. And so all reactors were required to build up their capabilities against natural hazards and reevaluate natural hazards. Experts say the 1986 Chernobyl accident was the result of flawed reactor design and inadequately trained personnel. Chernobyl is, to this day
considered the world's worst nuclear disaster. In many ways, it forever altered the way nuclear reactors are built and run. What you see when you look at it, any nuclear reactor that's of the current generation, is this big curved concrete covering over the reactor, what is called the reactor vessel. And so that didn't exist in Chernobyl.
So when it melted down and it spread a lot of radiation, it was a disaster. Today, the industry is working on another crop of nuclear power reactors known as advanced reactors. Advanced reactors will have very few refueling cycles.
It's going to have extremely improved economics. And the safety pedigree has to be extremely high to the point where there are accident scenarios that are not even possible. Compared to conventional light water reactors. Advanced nuclear reactors are designed to be simpler and may use different fuel types and coolants in order to improve operational performance and safety. Among these advanced nuclear reactors are molten salt reactors, high temperature gas reactors and sodium cooled fast reactors.
All of these technologies are based on technological concepts which were developed in the early phase of nuclear power. But there's now a desire by governments to try and perfect them in a way that we haven't been able to do in the past. For the past two years, Yasir Arafat and his team at Idaho National Laboratory have been working on a prototype of an advanced nuclear reactor known as Marvel. While the current fleet of large nuclear power reactors can each produce upwards of 1,000 megawatts of electricity, Marvel is what is known as a microreactor. As their name suggests, microreactors are
much smaller in size and operate at a much smaller scale, producing less than 20 megawatts of electricity. Though being a prototype, Marvel will only produce about 100 kilowatts of electricity. Instead of powering an entire city. A single microreactor can be used to power a hospital, military base or disaster zone. The advantage, Arafat says, is that microreactors can be manufactured at scale in factories, significantly cutting costs and construction time.
Plus microreactors would increase electric grid resilience because if one reactor goes down, it can easily be swapped for another. But use cases for microreactors go beyond electricity production. A lot of the end customers, they're not necessarily looking for electricity, but they're looking for high-grade heat for different applications, running a chemical process or industrial process, or even using low-grade heat for district heating. This machine can actually deliver both. As for safety, Arafat points to several features. First, automation.
These systems are designed to be self regulated, so you don't require hundreds of operators to run these. You essentially would need one or two just for oversight, but they wouldn't necessarily need to control the system manually. Eventually, Arafat envisions a system that won't require any operators. Instead, the reactor would be able to self-regulate, automatically adjusting to the energy needs of the power grid. In case something does go wrong, the systems would also be equipped with shielding.
There's going to be extensive amount of shielding around these systems that actually not only provides radiation protection, but also provides protection from external weather conditions or manmade hazards. As opposed to water, the Marvel reactor will use a sodium potassium eutectic mixture coolant designed to more efficiently remove heat from the reactor core. The fuel will also be different.
We're using a fuel called uranium zirconium hydride. Why do we use this fuel? Because it actually has a very strong safety pedigree that is inherent to the physics of the material. So when the reactivity goes up, the reactor automatically powers down almost instantaneously. That allows us to design a reactor that is extremely, extremely safe. Another characteristic of Marvel's fuel is that it's more highly enriched than the fuel used in conventional light water reactors, meaning you need less of it and it does not need to be swapped out for new fuel as often. But there is a catch.
The standard enrichment level in a light water reactor is about 4% and 4.5% uranium. In an advanced reactor, it needs to be closer to 19%-20%. And the challenge you have is the International Atomic Energy Agency has a standard that says any enrichment above 20% is weapons usable. And so everyone is aiming for as close to 20% as they can get without going over that limit, because nobody wants to be accused of trying to proliferate nuclear weapons. And so the development and creation of
this high enrichment fuel doesn't exist in the United States at the moment. We're pouring money into these advanced reactor development programs, and the fuel doesn't exist. But the U.S. government is working on establishing a domestic supply chain for advanced reactor fuel.
As a prototype, Marvel is not designed to be a commercial nuclear reactor. The whole purpose of this machine is not to come up with a commercial system. It's to come up with a system that can test new technologies to enable commercial designs out there. Marvel is expected to be up and running by the end of 2023.
We have not really built a new nuclear system, not just in the national lab here, but as a nation for a few decades. So we are trying to use the Marvel reactor not to go through the design, development and demonstration, but also invent, reinvent the process that lets us go there. Also on Idaho National Laboratory's campus sits a large dome known as EBR-II. Originally the site of an experimental sodium fast reactor, the dome is now in the process of being refurbished to test the new crop of microreactors.
This dome is going to allow us to work with private sector innovators to bring their reactor technologies up to operation for the first time. So we can remove fuel and materials and test its performance and verify that the performance of the materials and the fuels and the reactors is going according to what we expect, based on modeling and simulation and a lot of testing that we do prior to starting up the reactor. The Defense Department and companies like X-energy, NuScale and Bill Gates-backed TerraPower are all slated to test reactors at Idaho National Laboratory in the next decade. Our schedule on developing and deploying these reactors makes us competitive globally and offer solutions that China and Russia won't be able to.
To in addition to advanced reactors, governments and private companies are working on machines to scale and commercialize nuclear fusion. Such a reaction produces energy by fusing atoms together, instead of breaking them apart. In theory, these devices would produce more energy than they would consume without expelling long-lasting radioactive waste. A prototype of such a fusion device. Called a Tokamak, is being constructed in France as part of an international effort called ITER. The project has so far cost around $22 billion and is expected to be turned on in 2025.
There are a lot of folks who are skeptical of our ability to move forward and to demonstrate in a manner that's timely relative to climate change. But history counsels us to be more hopeful because we have done this before and we now have an enormous commitment from the federal government, as well as the private sector, to go ahead and do this again. To do it differently and to do it better, but to do it with urgency that that our situation demands.