Tech Guru's Plan—Fight Climate Change with Nuclear Power

There’s widespread debate over whether nuclear power should be a player in the path toward addressing climate change. Industry analysts say nuclear is key to zero-emission power generation; even some environmentalists agree, though others point to the issue of disposal of nuclear waste, and concerns about the safety of reactors.

Those concerns have led some countries to call for shutting their nuclear units, and abandoning plans to build new ones. Some countries and companies are working on new reactor technology, and building smaller reactors, in an effort to keep nuclear viable.

Bret Kugelmass, managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based Energy Impact Center (EIC), and a robotics engineer at Stanford University, on Feb. 25 introduced his group’s plan for nuclear power, with an eye toward solving what he told POWER on Tuesday is the major issue impacting the sector: “economics, economics, economics.” Kugelmass founded the EIC as a group that seeks what it calls “accelerated pathways” to decarbonize the global economy by 2040, and he thinks nuclear power is a solution.

The Energy Impact Center’s OPEN100 plan, what the EIC calls “the world’s first open-source blueprint for nuclear power plant deployment,” is about showing that nuclear can provide both clean, and cost-effective, energy, with more streamlined construction. Kugelmass said the global trend of building larger and more complex reactors has contributed to the “uncompetitive” nature of nuclear power.

Bret Kugelmass, founder of the Energy Impact Center, is promoting nuclear power as a way to combat climate change. Courtesy: Energy Impact Center

“When we first got started we were under the assumption public perception might be an issue but as we continued to interview experts around the world we realized there were dozens of countries desperate for nuclear and the only thing holding them back was cost—cost driven by unnecessary complexity, borrowing risk of high capital outlay, and lengthy construction periods,” Kugelmass said. EIC conducted more than 1,500 interviews at more than 100 nuclear sites in 15 countries, talking to experts in industry, technology, economics, and policy.

The group in its report says it’s committed to “decarbonizing the global economy using nuclear energy at a revolutionary pace and price point … The project takes the engineering behind the most successful nuclear energy deployments in history to create the foundation for a new generation of power plants that are easier and more cost-effective to build. The OPEN100 public model aligns technology startups, engineering firms, utilities, and capital around a common framework.”

Past Should Guide Future

Kugelmass said the nuclear power industry should look to the past to help guide its future. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned in over 1,500 interviews with the nuclear industry, it’s that technology is not the problem. The problem is our approach to development, construction management, and financing,” he said. “The first wave of nuclear plants this country built starting in 1968 were the fastest to build, lowest cost, and cleanest energy the planet has ever seen. If they could solve the deployment equation with 1960s [technology], we can do it today.”

The OPEN100 plan highlights a small, pressurized water reactor, that could be used as part of a district heating system, providing 300 MWth/100 MWe with a greater than 90% capacity factor. His group says such a project would take no more than two years to build, at a cost of $300 million. The project could be developed by a utility, or privately. X-energy, a U.S.-based advanced nuclear reactor design company, already is working with Jordan on a small reactor project; X-energy recently received $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to further development of that technology.

“Nuclear energy would be a perfect one-for-one replacement of retiring coal assets in the U.S.,” Kugelmass said. “In order for this to happen they must be fast and inexpensive to build, otherwise natural gas is the realistic substitute. The best way the federal government can support new projects is by streamlining regulations, moving past the defunct notion that a nuclear accident poses a disproportionate hazard. If there’s one lesson we should have learned from the zero injuries caused by the Fukushima meltdown, it is that a nuclear power plant is just like any other industrial facility—both low likelihood of accident and low consequence when it happens.”

Complex Systems Cause Problems

Kugelmass said his group acknowledges advancements in reactor technology, but said the industry’s problems have come from “construction and deployment problems that are getting worse and worse.” He said technical advancements have served to make systems more complicated, and less standard in their design.

“We’re sympathetic to the current projects that are so large that they require government support,” he said, in part a reference to the Vogtle expansion project in Georgia. Two new reactors at Vogtle are set to begin commercial operation over the next two years, but the project is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule. “[Those projects] will pay back in the long run, but it’s no way to drive the 100x (100 times) growth that we need in just the next 20 years. This is why we’re spinning off a for-profit entity, Last Energy, to connect sub-billion-dollar, international development opportunities with private capital sources.”

EIC expects to find support for its plan overseas, if not in the U.S. “There’s growing energy demand across the world from several factors including consumption growth”—he cited Africa, India, and Southeast Asia—”as well as the retiring of coal assets driven by clean energy requirements” in Europe, Kugelmass said. He said those areas want to transition from coal-fired power, but still need the reliability of baseload power sources.

Kugelmass sees Last Energy, whose funding was led by First Round Capital, as the way to spur development of international nuclear power opportunities created by the OPEN100 platform. He told VentureBeat his group’s economic studies show “it is possible to build and operate one of these new smaller nuclear plants [for less] than it would [cost] to continue to operate some of the dirty coal-fired plants, and certainly [less] than it would be to build a new one.”

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).

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