Steven Nesbit, ANS’s immediate past president, is among the nuclear industry leaders quoted in a recent New York Times article about the renewed interest in nuclear power in the United States. The article explains that the challenges of meeting clean energy goals and surging electricity demands are prompting many government officials to take “a fresh look at nuclear power—both extending the life of existing reactors and building new ones.” The article also presents the views of some nuclear critics.
Much of the article focuses on the fate of California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which is currently scheduled for shutdown in 2025. Several of the state’s lawmakers who previously supported the shutdown, including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sen. Diane Feinstein, are now considering supporting the extended life of the plant. A joint study by Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has concluded that a 10-year extension of Diablo Canyon could substantially reduce carbon emissions, lessen reliance on natural gas, cut electricity costs, and minimize the risk of brownouts.
The experts weigh in: Proponents of nuclear energy believe that “Diablo Canyon represents a pivotal moment” and that nuclear power, combined with solar, wind, and hydroelectric, “would make 100 percent clean energy possible,” a statement with which Nesbit agrees. The former ANS president said, ”I can easily see a doubling of nuclear generation in this country. We are solar and wind’s best friend. They can’t do the job themselves.” Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary for nuclear energy in the Department of Energy, also voiced her approval of growing support for nuclear, specifically regarding the Biden administration’s aim to meet net-zero goals: “They’re incredibly aggressive goals, and nuclear is a part of that solution, a very big part potentially,” she said.
Small reactors, big savings: Despite the benefits of nuclear energy, the article notes that “runaway costs” associated with large-scale nuclear plants remain a problem—one being addressed by the development of small modular reactors. Thomas Mundy, chief commercial office for NuScale Power, which develops SMR technology, says that the company’s reactors could be ready for operation in about three years at a levelized cost that is competitive with new natural gas plants. This relatively rapid construction timeframe is the result of uniform manufacturing processes and the simpler design of SMRs, compared with traditional nuclear reactors.
Nuclear critics: Despite increasing support for nuclear, skepticism still remains. Arnie Gundersen of the antinuclear organization Fairewinds Energy Education, voiced his opinion: “We’re falling for the same mistakes that we’ve fallen for over the last 50 years.” “I will shut up and retire if you can show a nuclear plant that was built at cost and on schedule.”
The article also notes ongoing concerns among skeptics about nuclear waste disposal and other safety and technical issues. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted, “The industry knows it does not have a good story to tell. It’s still plagued by the same issues.”
This article may be indicative of the persistent criticisms and the challenges in public perception that the nuclear industry must continue to address, even as we gain some traction. As Mundy said, “We need to continue to educate.”