John McClaughry: Nuclear power revival is well under way

This commentary is by John McClaughry, vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute. In 1960-61, he was a reactor physicist in GE’s Atomic Power Equipment Division.

The growing reawakening of enthusiasm for nuclear-powered electricity has been a remarkable development over the past 10 years.

For decades, environs of various stripes have raged against nuclear power. Nuclear was bad, bad, bad because a plant might explode, fission products would contaminate the continent, careless security might allow proliferation of bomb material, nuclear plants were big and owned by big corporations, mining uranium was environmentally destructive, and so on.

Despite their protests, starting in 1957, 104 civilian nuclear stations went on line, ultimately generating about a quarter of the nation’s electricity that dependably supplied the grid as needed 24/7. And the nuclear stations did so without causing air pollution, a single nuclear-related death, and the emission of greenhouse gases that environs believe gases are producing a coming global climate catastrophe.

This record was largely accomplished by what are called Generation II and III reactors, mostly built by General Electric and Westinghouse. Among them was Vermont Yankee (GE, 1972). In its 42 years, Yankee never had a core failure or release of dangerous radiation to the public. The now six-decade-old design well served its purpose, but no one would build one of that early design today.

The future of nuclear energy today was first defined 10 years ago by a 10-nation conference called the Generation IV International Forum. In 2002, it announced the six most promising new technologies — clean, safe, likely cost-effective, and resistant to diversion of fissile materials.

In January 2014, GIF’s Technology Roadmap Update projected that the Gen IV technologies most likely to be deployed first are the sodium-cooled fast reactor, the lead-cooled fast reactor, and the two very high-temperature reactor technologies. The molten salt reactor and the gas-cooled fast reactor were judged to be further down the road.

Since then there has been a flood of new approaches to meet Gen IV criteria. In a 2016 article in Reason. Ron Bailey listed the then most prominent: Terrapower (Bill Gates, depleted uranium, Wyoming); Transatomic and Terrestrial Energy (molten salt coolant); Oklo (truck-portable 2Mw micro reactors); ARC (100Mw, sodium cooled); and Thorcon (LFTR — liquid fluoride thorium reactor).

The biggest roadblock to innovation, Bailey wrote, “is that under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s enabling legislation, the agency is only able to consider approving a new power plant when its application is complete. … Filing a complete application requires doing all of the engineering and legal work in advance. That generally takes a decade for conventional designs financed by giant utility companies. Entrepreneurs pursuing innovative designs don’t have the capital to endure this.”

President Obama cautiously supported some nuclear advances. In 2018, President Trump signed the bipartisan (passed the Senate 87-4) Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act to further reduce those roadblocks.

President Biden has aggressively swung behind Gen IV nuclear. In November 2021, his Department of Energy put $1.5 billion behind Bill Gates’ sodium reactor (formerly Terrapower) and a Maryland startup called X-Energy. His energy secretary, Jennifer Granholm, is an enthusiastic promoter of “the next wave of nuclear technologies.”

On April 15 news release from the New York Energy and Climate Advocates urged the endorsement of “a bold and inclusive climate strategy, embracing both renewables and zero-carbon nuclear” by a coalition including the former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, Dr. James E Hansen. Hansen is the revered guru of climate catastrophe prediction stemming from his 1988 testimony before Sen. Al Gore’s committee. Unlike most of today’s climate change activists, Hansen has been steadfastly outspoken in his belief that nuclear is an indispensable component of America’s electric future.

Even Middlebury College climate activist Bill McKibben, who attracted a wide anti-nuclear following by demanding that Vermont Yankee be shut down, is cautiously moving toward nuclear. He still thinks that back then Yankee needed to be closed, but now he says for emission reduction reasons, he does not believe that other operating nuclear plants should be shuttered.

What does this growing acceptance of Gen IV nuclear energy — smaller in scale, safe, reliable, distributed, cost-effective and carbon-free — mean for Vermonters?

First, we need to steer clear of emotional, irrational and ignorant political movements and, as the climate activists repeatedly say, “listen to the science.”

On the policy level, by the end of this decade there will be market-ready small nuclear reactors that can reliably and safely support the dramatically increased electrification that the climate activists are now urging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Our present and future governors should tell their public service commissioners to begin to identify suitable sites for new small nuclear stations, starting with a field in Vernon that ratepayers have now spent $248 million to prepare.

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Tags: Generation IV International Forum, John McClaughry, nuclear power

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