From Scott Carlberg

Nuclear power has played a big part in Carolina energy. Both Carolinas get significant power from nuclear energy: About a third for NC and about half for SC.

One of the people who has been involved in the industry in the Carolinas is Steve Nesbit, president of LMNT Consulting, which provides expertise and support in the nuclear fuel cycle, advanced nuclear energy systems, and nuclear nonproliferation. Steve is based in Charlotte.

Steve Nesbit

The American Nuclear Society elected Nesbit vice president / president-elect. The ANS advances the development and application of nuclear sciences. Congratulations to Steve, and to the Carolinas for having this kind of energy leader.

Steve’s work includes more than 36 years with Duke Energy. He was on the staff of the chief nuclear officer and was the nuclear policy point of contact for the company.

Steve got a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering before coming to Duke Energy.  He also developed and taught a nuclear engineering course at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.

ECC asked Steve a few questions about the current state of the nuclear power industry. The views he presents are his own.

Q: Nuclear technology for making power has been around a long time. It was expected to have a renaissance, but that did not happen. What is the pragmatic outlook for the technology as a power generation source?

It’s a mixed but encouraging story. The expected renaissance of the 2000’s was focused on large, expensive light water reactors that were not able to compete economically with cheap natural gas and subsidized renewable energy, especially after electricity demand dropped following the 2008 recession.

The need for clean, around-the-clock electricity has not gone away, however. Electric utilities are realizing they cannot meet their aggressive emissions reduction goals with continued large-scale reliance on natural gas, a fossil fuel. At the same time, it is not practical to rely exclusively on intermittent renewable energy sources like solar power and wind power. As a result, many companies plan to extend the lifetimes of their nuclear plants.

Large new power reactors are under construction around the world, including two nearing start-up in Georgia.

Small Modular Reactor

However, new nuclear focus in the United States has shifted to small modular reactors and advanced nuclear energy systems. Small modular reactors (SMRs) can be built in factories rather than constructed in place, so they have the potential to reverse the economies of scale. The NuScale SMR should get its Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) design certification next year. The company is looking to construct its first plant in Idaho later this decade.

Advanced reactors take advantage of coolants other than water that allow them to operate at higher temperatures and with simpler, lower pressure designs that enhance safety and lower capital and operating costs. Advanced reactors are not as far along in development as light water SMRs, and most are looking to deploy in the 2030’s.

New look for a nuclear facility. Image credit: Oklo and Gensler

However, Oklo, a California company, recently submitted a combined license application to the NRC for its Aurora microreactor. The company plans to build the first unit of its powerhouse at the Idaho National Laboratory after the estimated 2-year NRC combined license application review.

In summary, existing nuclear power plants are the country’s workhorse clean energy source and they will be around for decades more, and innovative new designs, while not yet proven in operation, are likely to be key components of our clean energy future.

Q: There has been discussion about using nuclear technology as part of a system to produce hydrogen. Tell our readers why that is being considered.

Schematic of a hydrogen fuel cell. EIA

Decarbonization efforts have been focused largely on the electricity generation sector of the economy, but that is only one step toward the goal of significant greenhouse gas reductions. The transportation sector is another major source of carbon emissions and it relies primarily on hydrocarbons – gasoline and diesel mostly – as an energy source.

If available in bulk, hydrogen can be an alternative source of clean energy for transportation and other applications. Coal and natural gas can be used to produce hydrogen, but they emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, defeating the purpose of making clean fuel for transportation.

Q: Any particular research effort to note?

The Department of Energy, through the Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program at Idaho National Lab, is working with several electric utilities to demonstrate hydrogen production using existing reactors. In the longer term, advanced reactors cooled by molten salt or helium could also play a major role in making hydrogen. Advanced reactors cooled by molten salt or helium operate at much higher temperatures than light water reactors, and those higher temperatures increase the efficiency of the hydrogen production process. It is an interesting advancement in technology.

In Georgia, Plant Vogtle construction, March 2020. Ample, carbon-free power. Source

Q: Nuclear energy could be said to have an image problem in some places. How does that get overcome?

Public opinion polls actually show consistent strong support for nuclear energy in the United States. Typically around 65 percent of respondents favor the use of nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States.

With that being said, there is definitely a group of people vociferously opposed to nuclear power in this country and I don’t think we are going to change their minds. Beyond those hard-core opponents I am encouraged by the growing awareness of the role nuclear power should play in meeting the challenge of climate change.

That awareness has led some environmental groups to support the continued and expanded use of nuclear energy. It has also led to consistent Congressional support for nuclear energy research among both major parties. To grow that support further the nuclear industry must continue its record of safe, efficient nuclear power plant operation. It is also important to show that new reactors can be deployed at a reasonable cost and without undue delays.

Finally, the government’s program to manage and dispose of used nuclear fuel has been stalled politically for a decade, while other countries are making good progress in this area. Spent fuel has been safely stored on plant sites for many years and we can continue to do so indefinitely but demonstrating the political will to implement a permanent solution will help address public concerns about nuclear waste.

Q: What aspect of nuclear energy do you feel deserves more attention by the public?

I believe the conversation about renewable energy should shift to one about clean energy. Nuclear power is the nation’s number one source of clean energy – no carbon – and it has been for decades. Renewable energy sources have made great strides and they will play a key role in addressing environmental challenges like climate change.

However, the intermittency of solar power and wind power inherently limits the extent to which we can rely upon them. Energy sources like nuclear power that are always on – around the clock and throughout the year – are essential.

  ***

Feature image: Duke Energy’s Oconee Nuclear Station in Upstate South Carolina