Nuclear Innovation to Play Larger Role in Clean Energy
September 13, 2019

By Simon Irish

 

Amid rising concerns about the effects of climate change, discussions are heating up about how we can meet our world’s growing energy demands for reliable and cost-competitive energy while protecting the environment, and, critically, do this is in time frames relevant to the problem. That will be one of the main topics of discussion when leaders from government and industry converge on Washington, D.C. for National Clean Energy Week, September 23-27.
 
Nuclear energy’s central role as part of the clean energy mix will be a key part of the conversation. Already America’s largest source of carbon-free power, nuclear energy is a key tool for meeting climate and clean air objectives. Even the latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we cannot address climate change without a significant role for nuclear energy. To argue otherwise implies a failure to understand the problem in front of us.  
 
Yet, in spite of the key role it must play in a clean future, nuclear power generation is not growing in the United States, nor in other advanced economies, and many existing nuclear plants will close over the next 20 years in a huge retirement wave.  The good news is that the development of next-generation, so-called “Generation IV,” nuclear technologies is inspiring a wave of new-build projects. 
 
These new nuclear power plant technologies will be commercially competitive with fossil fuels and obviously emission-free. They are smaller and quicker to build, and easier to finance and will attract a wider range of customers from many different industrial markets. 
 
While we are making progress in decarbonizing our electricity supply, this represents only about 28 percent of total emissions. Other sectors, such as industry and transportation which depend heavily on fossil fuels, will be much more difficult to decarbonize. 
 
Fortunately, some advanced reactors can address applications beyond generation of emission-free electricity. They can supply high-grade industrial heat, produce “nuclear hydrogen” at great scale and facilitate production of synthetic transport fuels. 
 
In addition, advanced reactors can power remote communities and pair better with wind and solar than conventional reactors. Because advanced reactors are less expensive and meet different applications, they will attract customers other than electric utilities. 
 
Terrestrial Energy’s Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR®) is a Generation IV nuclear power plant that does all these things. The company is currently exploring several potential sites in the United States and Canada. Despite the obstacles facing conventional nuclear, Terrestrial Energy is one of the advanced nuclear companies developing new and promising designs – at competitive costs. We expect that, once in production, an IMSR power plant (rated for 195 MWe) can be built for less than $1 billion.
 
Support from government is important to accelerate innovation, particularly strategic energy innovation of national importance, such as Generation IV nuclear. When you consider how hydraulic fracturing — whose development was long supported by U.S. Department of Energy funding — has transformed U.S. energy supply, the potential of nuclear innovation explains why it is getting more so much policy attention today.  Nuclear innovation is strategically important for economic competitiveness, energy security and environmental goals. 
 
U.S. policymakers on both sides of the aisle recognize the importance to develop and commercialize the next generation of nuclear technologies. Contrast this with Germany, which is moving away from nuclear technologies and has seen its carbon emissions refuse to decline over the past decade even after investing more than 250 billion euros in its transition toward renewables. If Germany had invested in conventional nuclear plants, it would have a nearly carbon-free grid like that of France and Ontario.
 
We appreciate that Congress is working to modernize energy policies that encourage private capital investments in nuclear innovation. It’s exciting to see strong and growing bipartisan support for nuclear power. 
 
National Clean Energy Week highlights the critical importance of innovation in our clean energy future, which in turn garners further support. We look forward to participating and sharing our vision for advanced nuclear technology in the upcoming program.
 
Simon Irish is CEO of Terrestrial Energy USA.