Pete Lyons

Pete Lyones

Global energy infrastructure faces great challenges. As we work to reduce carbon emissions and respond to demands for new clean energy sources, research from the International Energy Agency shows nuclear power needs to be a significant contributor to our clean energy future.

Our nation’s ability to implement new technologies remains unparalleled and gives me hope that this will be a positive transition — first in the U.S. and then, with our leadership, abroad. We have shown we can meet steep goals through innovation and the deployment of well-reasoned, well-tested methods. We should build our clean energy future using the best available sound science, overcoming irrational biases and with the inclusion of the largest source of carbon-free power currently available: nuclear energy.

The science is clear — if we’re serious about combating climate change, nuclear power must be a part of the solution. Nuclear power provides over 55% of America’s carbon-free energy and nearly 20% of its total electricity. Advanced nuclear technologies represent the next natural step in the evolution of this clean, reliable energy source.

We need look no further than Idaho National Laboratory to see the future of nuclear technology. The Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems formally launched the Carbon Free Power Project in 2015 as part of its long-term strategy to reduce carbon emissions. The CFPP calls for constructing a Small Modular Reactor power plant at INL using technology being developed by NuScale Power.

NuScale has made advanced nuclear technology a reality with SMRs, which exemplify the evolution of nuclear energy towards smaller and far more technologically advanced versions of current reactors. Moreover, SMRs are anything but unproven innovation. Every innovation in a NuScale plant is being proven to the satisfaction of the NRC — and they represent the global gold standard for nuclear regulation excellence.

For instance, these SMRs are self-protecting, meaning they can shut down and self-cool with no operator action. Furthermore, they do this with no reliance on pumps — so there simply are no pumps that could fail. The whole system is cooled by natural convection, i.e., gravity drives the cooling. What’s more, these SMRs produce the same kind of used fuel that is already safely powering our current nuclear fleet and safely stored under strict NRC regulation.

But SMRs aren’t just safe — they’re flexible. They have a small footprint and can be built and shipped to any location, remote or urban, with relative speed due to their factory-built construction. They also complement intermittent sources of electricity like wind and solar, because when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, SMRs can provide reliable baseload clean power. Partnership between INL and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory is showing how nuclear and renewable sources work together to enable future energy systems that are completely clean.

As a former NRC Commissioner, I am pleased to see the evolution of both nuclear technology and the regulatory landscape to spur innovation and encourage wider adoption of nuclear energy. Constructing SMRs is the next logical step in the process, but this isn’t just the opinion of nuclear professionals.

Thirty-three UAMPS members, including Idaho Falls Power, are supporting SMRs. These members are represented by elected officials and boards and serve hundreds of thousands of constituents. Following extensive vetting, detailed cost analysis and robust public discussion, these groups have invested in SMRs, demonstrating there is a widespread level of support within the UAMPS consortium, which provides electricity to municipalities in six western states. This is a clear example of how nuclear innovation — and SMRs in particular — provide an impetus to build coalitions for a clean energy future.

The future of nuclear energy is bright. Currently, more than 50 advanced nuclear companies across North America are examining different concepts, including SMRs. There also is growing interest from industry, government and the military in even smaller reactors — from two to 20 megawatts — to power remote communities, military bases and to help those left without electricity following a natural disaster, such as Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

SMRs are a major piece of the puzzle for modernizing the energy grid, but to ignore them — or worse, disparage them — as anything but vital American innovation, works to deny America and the world the clean energy future we need.

Pete Lyons is a former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and former assistant secretary for Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. He is also a member of the Nuclear Matters Advocacy Council.