Duke Energy has big plans for small nukes
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When it comes to fighting climate change, shifting electricity production away from fossil fuels is a critical part of the battle. The energy sector is the second-largest source of the heat-trapping pollution that causes global warming. As we close coal-fired plants, and eventually get rid of gas-fired power plants, too, the question is what will replace them.
Here in the Carolinas, the race to go carbon-free has a big head start: About half the region's electricity comes from nuclear plants like the McGuire Nuclear Station on Lake Norman, north of Charlotte, and the Catawba Nuclear Station on Lake Wylie, just south of the city. And the region's big utility company, Duke Energy, has plans to build more.
As part of its long-range "carbon plan" for meeting the state's climate goals, Duke is studying the feasibility of building a new generation of small modular nuclear reactors, known as SMRs, that would provide "base load," or always-on electricity, alongside new gas plants, solar and wind farms and battery storage. These would have about one-quarter to one-third the generating capacity and take up far less space than a full-sized plant like McGuire or Catawba.
Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good sees nuclear as a long-term option.
"The small modular reactor is something we're spending time on, and you would expect us to. We are the largest regulated nuclear operator in the U.S., sitting in a part of the world that embraces nuclear as part of the solution," Good told investors in a conference call two weeks ago.
But, she added: "We're not going to invest until they're affordable for our customers, and we can invest at the commercial scale necessary to make a difference."
There's a lively debate emerging over Duke's nuclear plans, one that crosses party lines. Among environmentalists, the idea has both supporters and opponents.
Yes, nuclear power is carbon-free and reliable. But there have long been concerns about nuclear safety and what happens to spent fuel. We have major disasters like the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 to thank for that.
"There are actually very few places in the United States where it's practical. All nuclear power runs the risk of a catastrophic accident," said Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University. She spoke to reporters at a recent webinar hosted by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).
In addition, Oreskes said, "There's a lot of amnesia about the history of this technology, which is really a history of failed promises."
But Jeff Merrifield, chair of the energy association E4 Carolinas and a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member, downplays safety concerns. He said recently on WFAE's Charlotte Talks that new nuclear plants will have "enhanced safety," in part because of their smaller size.
"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the commissioners, have said they will consider the notion of having an emergency evacuation zone two miles or less," Merrifield said.
Because of their smaller size, that could be as close as 1,000 yards from a plant, which would be within the fence line. "So that's a dramatic reduction," he said.
Concerns about costs
Another big concern is cost and scheduling. Nuclear construction projects are notorious for delays and cost overruns.
- In 2017, developers canceled plans for an expansion of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant in South Carolina, after five years of construction and $9 billion spent.
- Not long after that, Duke Energy canceled nuclear projects in Florida and South Carolina.
- And the nation's only nuclear units currently under construction — the $30 billion Vogtle plant expansion near Augusta, Georgia — are years behind schedule. Construction of the two additional reactors began in 2009. Last week operators announced another delay that will cost at least $200 million.
"The real issue that we need to solve is making sure that we bring advanced digital construction technologies to make sure those plants get built on cost and on schedule. Otherwise, we're not going to be able to use them in time," said UNC Charlotte engineering professor Mike Mazzola on the same Charlotte Talks episode.
Mark Jacobson, an engineering professor and director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University, said we need faster solutions.
"Any technology that takes 10 to 15 years between planning and operation is really not useful at all for helping to solve the climate problem, let alone the air pollution problems or energy security problems we face," Jacobson said during the IEEFA webinar.
"Wind and solar, for example, their lead times between planning and operation are between half a year for rooftop solar to usually one to three years for utility-scale solar and onshore wind," he added. "And so these technologies are not only the cheapest technologies by far in the world today — new wind and solar — but also the fastest that can be deployed."
Meanwhile, while we wait for these new nuclear plants to be built, we'll keep relying on polluting fossil-fuel plants. "So those emissions — what we call opportunity cost emissions — are huge," Jacobson said.
The institute has also been tracking rising costs for one of NuScale's first projects in Utah.
First approval for a small nuclear plant design
Despite those concerns, the federal government for decades has supported development of the next generation of nuclear reactors — generally much smaller than current plants. In January, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave final approval to the first design for a small modular reactor, by a company called NuScale Power.
The Department of Energy said it has spent more than $600 million since 2014 to support development of the NuScale reactor and other designs. And the government also offers other incentives.
"SMRs are no longer an abstract concept,” Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Kathryn Huff said in a press release. "They are real and they are ready for deployment thanks to the hard work of NuScale, the university community, our national labs, industry partners, and the NRC."
NuScale's approval has the ball rolling, and that could give a boost to Duke Energy's plans.
"We are confident that SMRs are going to play an important role in decarbonization here in the Carolinas and across the U.S.," spokesman Bill Norton told me. "The Department of Energy’s approval of the NuScale design is yet another positive trend. We are evaluating all available SMR designs and will choose the option most complementary to our system and our goal to reach net zero."
Norton said Duke Energy is a partner in the Natrium advanced reactor project, led by TerraPower and GE Hitachi, which is also funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. It hopes to have an advanced reactor up and running in Wyoming by 2028.