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The Nuclear Option

By Matt Patterson, September 7, 2021

The University of California’s “Case Studies in the Environment” outlines a growing problem as policymakers attempt to meet increasing demand for energy while heeding environmental concerns over greenhouse gas emissions:

Investments in alternative and renewable energy technologies have risen steadily over the last decade, particularly since the ratification of the 2030 Paris Agreement. Although reasonable progress has been made as a result of this, even the most developed renewable energy technologies, for example, solar, wind and hydro, cannot satisfy the rapidly growing energy demand of the world.[i]

So, what if there were an additional option? What if there were a reliable energy source that could fuel an entire town and produce essentially no carbon emissions? Well, that energy source already exists. Several countries around the world have embraced nuclear energy, and re-embracing it could benefit the United States and Texas greatly.

Nuclear energy is clean, currently more reliable than renewable energy sources, and readily available. France, hardly an “anti-Green Energy” bastion, derives about 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy and is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to its low cost of generation. Furthermore, about 17 percent of France’s electricity comes from recycled nuclear fuel.[ii] It is also a cheaper source of fuel for consumers. Compare France to its European counterpart, Germany. According to Environmental Progress, German electricity, which depends on carbon-emitting fuel sources for over half of its energy portfolio, is 1.6 times more expensive than French electricity.[iii] Nuclear energy is also the most reliable source of energy, as the Yale School of the Environment explains:

In the United States in 2016, nuclear power plants, which generated almost 20 percent of U.S. electricity, had an average capacity factor of 92.3 percent, meaning they operated at full power on 336 out of 365 days per year. (The other 29 days they were taken off the grid for maintenance.) In contrast, U.S. hydroelectric systems delivered power 38.2 percent of the time (138 days per year), wind turbines 34.5 percent of the time (127 days per year) and solar electricity arrays only 25.1 percent of the time (92 days per year). Even plants powered with coal or natural gas only generate electricity about half the time for reasons such as fuel costs and seasonal and nocturnal variations in demand. Nuclear is a clear winner on reliability.[iv]

It is likely that increased investment in nuclear generation in the United States has stalled due to public perception and fears of a new “Chernobyl” or “Three-mile Island” disaster. While the threat of a potential nuclear accident does sound scary, it is far from reality. Michael Shellenberger of Forbes writes that “few people know that nuclear energy is one of the safest sources of electricity”[v] and he is correct. According to the World Nuclear Association, there have only been three major reactor accidents in the history of civil nuclear power over the course of 18,500 cumulative reactor-years in 36 countries (and only two of those incidents resulted in loss of life).[vi] In fact, no member of the public has ever been injured or killed in the entire history of commercial nuclear power in the United States.[vii]

For almost 60 years, United States aircraft carriers and submarines have been safely powered by light water nuclear reactors.[viii] But nuclear energy technology, like most energy sources, has also seen great advancements in recent history. New systems have been created that produce less power than large-scale nuclear reactors but are smaller and less costly. Small modular reactors, known as SMRs, are not housed in large, physically imposing cooling towers. These reactors are scaled down and could be submerged in water to prevent overheating. Due to their size, SMRs are versatile and would be beneficial to large cities and rural towns alike.[ix] Liam Darby of the University of California suggests that SMR technology “also creates the opportunity of cogeneration with already existing conventional power generation technology to diversify power generation and increase grid stability.”[x]Additional grid stability would be advantageous for Texas, increasing the reserve capacity to handle extreme weather events or unforeseen shutdowns. The Wall Street Journal notes that many of the components of SMRs can be mass-produced in factories rather than be constructed on site, allowing them to be combined in increments to boost capacity to the electrical grid.[xi] This technological advancement could pave the way to cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable electricity generation.

Texas currently has two operating nuclear power plants: The South Texas Project in Matagorda County and Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in Somervell County. These plants generate 10 percent of the state’s total electric generation and account for 60 percent of Texas’ emission-free power.[xii] These plants constantly operate with a combined 1,300 full-time employees. Furthermore, while no energy-related activity can be completely risk-free, neither plant in Texas has experienced any type of accident that harmed individuals or resulted in radioactive leaks.

While SMR technology is still relatively new, large investments are already being made around the globe and in the United States. A Utah utility hopes to run the first U.S. SMR by the end of the decade, and China and Russia are both invested heavily in SMR development.[xiii] Increasing nuclear generation in the state will surely take significant time and investment as the average construction of a plant takes around five years. However, the two Texas plants could increase the number of reactors at the plants (and have considered doing so in the past), which could decrease both the build time and cost significantly compared to building new plants.[xiv]

This is not your grandfather’s nuclear technology. The safety, efficiency, and reliability of nuclear energy has made great strides since it was first implemented. This is not to say that Texas should stop investment in natural gas, oil, or renewable sources. Including SMR nuclear technology in the energy portfolio should be viewed as both an addition and a way to meet future demand, rather than as a replacement for current generation sources. But ignoring emerging technology and a clean, reliable source of fuel would be ignoring a practical solution to the growing energy demand.

[i] [ii] [iii] [iv] [v] [vi] [vii] [viii] [ix] Ibid. [x] Ibid. [xi] [xii] [xiii] Ibid. [xiv]

[TA1]We should use this sentence/stat for social media etc.


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