Here’s a fun game. Ask an environmentalist about his top plan of action to fight climate change. You’ll likely get a quick answer urging a carbon-neutral or net-zero-emission clean-energy economy, usually by 2050, echoing the Paris climate agreement. OK, now ask if he’s for nuclear power, which has zero carbon emissions, at which point he’ll usually stare at his shoes and mumble something about high costs.
“The biggest problem with nuclear power,” activist Bill McKibben of 350.org told Techonomy, is that “it’s really expensive.” Al Gore, who sounds more and more like a revivalist preacher, told Reuters last month, “They’ve priced themselves out of the market. Electricity from nuclear power plants is by far the most expensive in the world,” while the cost of renewables “is continuing to go down.”
That’s funny, because in 1994 the Clinton-Gore administration canceled research funding for the Integral Fast Reactor, which sure could have helped us down the learning curve to lower-cost carbon-free electricity today. The U.S. has constructed a tiny handful of new nuclear plants in the past four decades. Yes, the same folks who fought nuclear energy tooth and nail are now complaining that it’s too expensive—like saying they’re orphans after killing their parents.
I mention all this now because earlier this month, and almost miraculously, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the design and issued a final safety evaluation report for a Small Modular Reactor, or SMR, by NuScale based in Portland, Ore. NuScale’s design, funded by engineering firm Fluor and the U.S. Energy Department, joins six older federally approved designs. But it’s the first that looks as if it can scale and reduce costs.
In most nuclear fission reactors, uranium pellets are sealed in metal tubes known as fuel rods.
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