This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on December 8, 2017.
In today’s politically polarized environment, compromise is a rare commodity, especially in the energy debate. While progressives push for the use of zero-carbon energy, conservatives counter by advocating for a reliable electricity grid.
Yet, nuclear energy could bridge the divide. Innovative technologies like molten salt reactors safely create power that is both carbon free and highly reliable. By removing onerous energy-related regulations and subsidies, federal and state governments can provide an economic environment that allows such a game-changing innovation to benefit Americans.
Countries around the world — particularly China and developing nations — see the benefits and are poised to increase their nuclear production. Even France has backed off its plan to reduce their 75 percent share of electricity from nuclear power as it finds alternatives scarce.
Unfortunately, new projections by the Energy Information Agency show a diminishing U.S. nuclear presence as closures of reactors mount. To improve the human condition — ensuring clean air, clean water, and a robust economy — nuclear energy must be a part of America’s future.
Nuclear energy is simply more reliable than all other sources of energy except geothermal. It has the ability to operate at full capacity 90 percent of the time. By contrast, solar energy can only sustain maximum output less than one-third of the time and wind generation just about half of the time because the sun isn’t always shining and the wind isn’t always blowing. Another source of energy must always be ready to back up unreliable renewables, which is often coal and natural gas.
Nuclear power has even proved its reliability in the face of devastating conditions. A two-reactor nuclear power plant located near Houston, known as the South Texas Project, took a direct hit from the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey. While Texas’ wind farms quickly cut off generation due to high winds, the nuclear power plant continued providing power at capacity for struggling communities during the disaster.
In other words, nuclear provided electricity when Texans needed it most.
The Trump administration has shown some support for nuclear energy’s unmatched resiliency. This new direction of energy policy along with rolling back crippling regulations and quickly ending wasteful energy subsidies to allow for a level playing field could reinvigorate implementation of molten salt reactors technology.
Most of today’s nuclear plants operate on systems that rely on water to cool and facilitate nuclear fission while exchanging heat to make steam that drives turbine generators. While these processes are highly effective and have become safer over time, both operate under intense pressure, which can build and eventually rupture containment cells when the system fails. This happened in the Fukushima accident in 2011.
Because molten salt reactors run not on solid uranium rods, but rather on a liquid fuel in their heat exchange, molten salt reactor vessels are able to operate at normal, atmospheric pressures making reactor blowouts nearly impossible.
Additionally, the liquid fuel provides the added benefit of acting as both the reaction catalyst and the coolant. In the event of a molten salt reactor system failure where pumps are not able to move the liquid fuel through the reactor, the reaction safely slows as the fuel cools and self-regulates the fission process. The ability to self-regulate makes molten salt reactors incredibly resilient in addressing the containment fears from not only system malfunctions but also modern-day concerns of targeted terrorist threats on the American grid.
Molten salt reactors also provide the country with an extraordinary opportunity to reduce its massive holdings of nuclear waste by reusing it as liquid fuel. While conventional reactors utilize between only two and five percent of the energy available in their fuel rods before requiring replacement, molten salt reactors can consume upwards of 98 percent of the energy. This uses less resources and reduces the amount of time waste remains radioactive from more than 100,000 years to 300 years.
As Americans balance a clean environment and reliable energy, one solution advances toward both. Add in safety enhancements and efficient waste recycling, nuclear energy offers a sustainable way forward.
Governments should remove barriers for development of nuclear energy and other energy sources so that markets provide the best mix of energy production. This will provide Americans with an energy future that is not only clean, affordable, and reliable, but also powers their lives and their potential for flourishing.
Ph.D. Economist at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Blog posts are publications by the author.