AMAC Exclusive – By Luke Allen
In an alarming piece of news that went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media last week, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a U.S. regulatory authority, published a report warning that large sections of the United States are at the highest risk they have faced in decades of “energy emergencies” and blackouts. Now, the Biden administration is in a desperate scramble to keep aging nuclear power plants online to avoid such a scenario – ignoring all the while how liberal energy policies have put the country in such a precarious position to begin with.
In an attempt to avoid blackouts – a situation that would, in addition to upending the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans, devastate Democrats in the midterm elections – the Biden administration announced last month they would make $6 billion in credit available to keep aging and unprofitable nuclear plants open. The move is a bit of a Hail Mary for a nuclear fleet which is made up of reactors with an average age of 40 years.
Notably, the credit line wouldn’t be so urgently needed if coal-fueled power plants – which could have easily remained viable for at least 20 more years – hadn’t been shut down to appease environmental groups. The Obama and Biden administrations’ insistence on so-called “Zero Net Carbon” energy policies has made the grid vulnerable just as President Trump warned on several occasions, and now the White House is in catch-up mode.
As Biden continues Obama’s war on the American coal and gas industry, he has also continued Obama’s failure to set in place any plan to reliably replace the power generation lost by de-commissioning coal plants. While the fringe environmental groups who have the ear of elected Democrats are adamantly opposed to coal, oil, and natural gas, they are also opposed to investment in nuclear, which is the only energy supply that has any hope of replacing the output of fossil fuels.
As a result, the only nuclear plants currently being built, Georgia Power’s Vogtle Units 3 and 4, are 250% over budget and still not online. Meanwhile, other developed countries like France are currently undertaking the construction of seven nuclear reactors.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the hesitancy to invest in nuclear is the potential for catastrophe, as the world has witnessed on a few occasions. But even this fear is often exaggerated, and ignores the important advances that have been made in nuclear safety since the disasters of the 20th century.
Take, for example, the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, which changed everything about nuclear power, especially in the United States. No nuclear disaster before or since received such saturated news coverage. This thermal overload of a nuclear reactor that was part equipment failure, part procedure non-compliance, and part personnel error, opened the nuclear generation industry to massive regulation and the involvement of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission into every aspect of nuclear power plant operations. Many of the new regulations were needed and beneficial, but as with any other federal program, many regulations were also overkill and resulted in making nuclear power massively expensive.
The catastrophic Chernobyl accident in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 also triggered a global backlash against nuclear power. However, the former incident can be attributed to atrocious safety practices in the Soviet Union, and the latter to a freak natural disaster. Both incidents also taught the nuclear community a great deal about how to build safer, more reliable nuclear reactors.
The truth is that the overall nuclear power fleet in the United States has an outstanding safety record across many decades. In fact, the sister unit at Three Mile Island ran safely and reliably for 45 years and wasn’t retired until 2019.
Promising new technology already exists that could make a nuclear power comeback both practicable and safe within a decade. In recent years, the Department of Energy has provided millions of dollars in research grants to help develop Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). These reactors can vary in capacity from 10 to 300 megawatts, enough to power a small town or a large city.
The first and only SMR to receive design approval from the NRC is the NuScale Power Company’s design. By the end of this decade, their first power plant will begin operation in the United States in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and will have a state-of-the-art cooling system that doesn’t require electric pumps that failed in the Three Mile Island incident. It is designed to be the safest reactor ever built and will automatically shut itself down and keep the core cool for weeks if necessary. Additional design features make this plant much more efficient and cheaper to build than the previous generation of nuclear power plants.
Renewable energy is intermittent and cannot possibly satisfy America’s energy needs, especially in light of the coming wave of electric cars. Solar and wind don’t generate electricity when the sun doesn’t shine, or the wind doesn’t blow. The land use required for renewables is enormous. In order the satisfy the nation’s demand for electricity, we would have to cover an area the size of California with unsightly windmills. If the world insists on going carbon free in energy production, nuclear power must make a comeback, and soon.
The Biden administration must recognize this fact should they hope to keep the lights on in the months and years ahead. While Republicans should continue to follow President Trump’s lead by making coal, oil, and natural gas an important part of America’s energy supply again, rebuilding what Democrats have destroyed may take decades. In the meantime, a real investment in nuclear is the only viable option.
Luke Allen is the penname of a freelance writer and former Senior Energy Advisor in the Trump Administration
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