On Friday, the U.S Department of Energy said it is seeking private industry partners to develop small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs).
Small modular reactors are just what their name implies. According to the DOE, SMRs are “approximately one-third the size of current nuclear plants, have compact designs that are expected to offer a host of safety, siting, construction and economic benefits.”
In order to spur design and development, the Department said it would support engineering, design certification and licensing through a cost-shared partnership for up to two SMR designs.
In conjunction with the DOE’s Funding Opportunity Announcement for SMRs, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said, “America’s choice is clear — we can either develop the next generation of clean energy technologies, which will help create thousands of new jobs and export opportunities here in America, or we can wait for other countries to take the lead.”
However, a surface look at nuclear energy in the United States reveals a country that is unclear and unsure.
Conventional wisdom agrees that relative to fossil fuel generation nuclear generation is clean and more efficient. However, nuclear energy is hardly renewable, there is still no consensus or plan on how to deal with nuclear waste and questions are still mounting around how safe and reliable nuclear energy generation really is.
In July 2011, the Blue Ribbon Commission, which was charged by President Obama with making recommendations on how to address the issue of what to do with used nuclear fuel, submitted a 192 page report [pdf]. The Commission painted a pretty dismal picture of the nation’s nuclear waste. One long sentence summed up its finding:
Put simply, this nation’s failure to come to grips with the nuclear waste issue has already proved damaging and costly and it will be more damaging and more costly the longer it continues: damaging to prospects for maintaining a potentially important energy supply option for the future, damaging to state–federal relations and public confidence in the federal government’s competence, and damaging to America’s standing in the world—not only as a source of nuclear technology and policy expertise but as a leader on global issues of nuclear safety, non-proliferation, and security.
The report was released just months after Japan suffered the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. A major issue the Fukushima Daiichi facility ran into following the tsunami was its inability to keep spent fuel rods from overheating; this caused explosions and the release of radioactive material.
Following the disaster the world reeled. Nuclear power generation was called into question globally. In May 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the country would move to phase out all nuclear power by 2022. In the U.S., the nuclear energy industry contracted. New Jersey-based energy giant NRG Energy froze new funding for the development of two new reactors at its South Texas Project nuclear power plant.
In Vermont, the legislature voted against recommending the Public Service Board act on Entergy Corporation-owned Vermont Yankee’s request for a extension of its license to operate the nuclear plant.
Yet, the Obama Administration has maintained its early promise to support a next generation of nuclear power plants. And, despite divided public opinion on the safety of nuclear power the industry is seeing positive results.
Yesterday, a district court overturned Vermont legislature’s actions against Vermont Yankee. Presiding Judge John Garvan Murtha ruled [pdf] that Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant can continue to operate under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) approved operating license extension.
The biggest step forward for the President’s vision of a new nuclear generation fleet came in late December when the NRC approved a new reactor design developed by Toshiba Corporation subsidiary Westinghouse Electric Company. Both Southern Company and SCANA Corporation have plans to employ the freshly designed reactor for new units under development in Georgia and South Carolina.
Westinghouse quickly responded to the DOE’s announcement saying it “will apply for the Department’s small modular reactor investment funds with a consortium of utilities.”
For Secretary Chu this latest round of DOE support for nuclear energy is an important move in the clean energy race. He said, “The funding opportunity announced today is a significant step forward in designing, manufacturing, and exporting U.S. small modular reactors, advancing our competitive edge in the global clean energy race.”
Image Credit: Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden via Flickr.