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Nuclear power and America's clean energy future

Increasing solar energy production in the United States from last years level of 4% is part of President Bidens effort to combat climate change. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Increasing solar energy production in the United States from last years level of 4% is part of President Bidens effort to combat climate change. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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

“We are very bullish on these advanced nuclear reactors,” energy secretary Jennifer Granholm said at the recent UN Climate Conference. “We have in fact invested a lot of money in the research and development of those.”

There’s even government funding lined up to put shovels in the ground for new test plants.

“We are planning to be moving dirt as early as 2023,” Benjamin Reinke, senior director for a nuclear reactor and fuel design company, said. “We’re going to need a whole lot of labor for this project.”

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

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

Today, On Point: Nuclear power and America’s clean energy future.


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

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

Rita Baranwal, vice president of nuclear energy and chief nuclear officer at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a non-profit organization. Former assistant secretary at the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. (@RitaB66)

Also Featured

Benjamin Reinke, senior director for corporate strategy at X-energy, a nuclear reactor and fuel design company.

Transcript: Highlights from the show’s open

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: The average commercial nuclear power plant in this country is about 40 years old. But nuclear technology has been developing apace. Those advanced reactors Granholm mentioned well. The Infrastructure Act targets several billion dollars towards two companies, specifically TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates and Maryland-based X-energy. Both promise they can have their advanced reactors up and running by 2028, pumping a total of 665 megawatts of carbon-free electricity into the grid.

BENJAMIN REINKE: We have designed a brand new type of reactor that’s called the Xe-100. It’s a high temperature, gas cooled small modular reactor. It produces 200 megawatts of thermal power, that’s heat. That turns into 80 megawatts of electric power. And we’ll deploy those typically in four-packs. So that gives you a net of 320 megawatts electric.

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

REINKE: It’s small and easy to build. So we’re going to be able to manufacture the components and build them much more rapidly. We’ll have less concrete, less steel in the reactor than you would in a traditional light water reactor that’s deployed today. And that means that 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 work site preparation. There’s a lot of environmental work that’s already been done, and it’s going to allow us to deploy this reactor faster than we would be able to deploy it anywhere else in the world.

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

REINKE: The Xe-100 uses a type of fuel called TRISO-X fuel. Without getting into the really nerdy details of why that fuel is cool, today, the Department of Energy calls it the most robust fuel on Earth. As opposed to a traditional uranium rod that’s inside of today’s reactors, this fuel is packed inside of a pebble, a pebble that’s about the size of what fits in your hand. And that pebble is filled with materials that can’t melt until you attain really, really high temperatures. And those temperatures can’t be seen inside of our reactor.

REINKE: So starting with the fuel, the reactor has really a couple of important safety features that make it walk away safe and inherently safe, and cannot melt down. No. 1 that fuel can’t melt itself. And No. 2, the physics of the reactor shuts the reactor off in an accident scenario. So there’s not a need for human intervention to be able to shut the reactor down and make sure that it ends up in a safe standby state.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s quite a list of promises. Safe. He also says it’s on time, or will be constructed on time. And on budget, other issues that have continuously dogged the nuclear power industry. Nevertheless, as you heard through that infrastructure bill, the United States government is taking a chance on them.

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

From The Reading List

The Hill: “On infrastructure and clean energy, America must play to win” — “The Rural Electrification Act was signed into law 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, the West, and across rural America.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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

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