Some good news at last on the nuclear front: The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) last week fired up a second reactor at its Watts Bar plant, making it the first new reactor to go live in this century. The advanced 1,150-megawatt reactor will supply carbon-free energy for 650,000 homes and businesses.
This follows a spate of announced closings of existing civilian nuclear reactors, including California’s Diablo Canyon. Since nuclear power is America’s largest source of zero-carbon energy, the shrinking of the nation’s nuclear fleet is both an environmental and an economic problem. It will compound the already difficult task of meeting U.S. commitments at the Paris climate summit to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also weakens the U.S. civilian nuclear power industry as other nations race ahead to add more nuclear generation and develop “next-generation” reactor technologies.
The industry arguably was born in Tennessee. The world’s first nuclear fuel enrichment plant was built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as part of the World War II Manhattan project. Even before Unit 2 was activated, nuclear power accounted for 33% of the state’s energy production from Watts Bar and two reactors located at the Sequoyah facility.
Thanks to TVA, Tennessee also is one of the top 3 largest producers of hydroelectricity east of the Rocky Mountains. But hydro accounts for only 6% of the state’s electricity production, while solar contributes another one percent. Renewable energy may hold great potential, but as these numbers show Tennessee and most other states are a long way from being able to generate most of their electricity from such sources.
While America’s much ballyhooed “nuclear renaissance” has yet to materialize – one reason is the shale boom-enabled influx of relatively cheap natural gas — four other reactors are under construction around the country and are expected to be completed over the next four years. That’s encouraging, but it’s not enough to offset the rate of plant closures, including the five reactors shuttered in 2013 and 2014. Diablo Canyon will be mothballed in 2025, 20 years before its useful life is scheduled to end.
In addition to cheap natural gas, the U.S. nuclear energy industry continues to be hobbled by hostility from “green” activists who want to put all of America’s energy policy eggs in one basket. That’s a huge mistake. Advanced nuclear technologies hold enormous potential for generating clean power in safer and cheaper ways than today’s nuclear reactors. Yet regulatory inertia and lingering prejudices against nuclear power stand in the way.
Fortunately, there is some hope for regulatory improvement. Last month, the House passed the Advanced Nuclear Technology Development Act which would require the Department of Energy (DOE) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to develop a regulatory framework for the testing and licensing of advanced reactors. It would also ensure the two agencies have sufficient technical expertise to regulate advanced designs, and move beyond their current focus on light-water reactors. Regulatory commitments such as this and more will be necessary if the U.S. wants to be a global leader in the clean energy market place.
In the meantime, TVA’s investment in new nuclear generating capacity will ensure that Tennessee remains a clean energy innovation leader.