BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The resurgence of interest in nuclear power as a clean energy source could be boosted by emphasizing how it would help humanity, the chairwoman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Wednesday.
Kristine Svinicki told an Idaho governor’s advisory group that non-traditional nuclear energy backers could be drawn to the idea if it’s made clear how nuclear energy can combat global poverty and help advance opportunities for women.
“If all you offer them is (nuclear) waste, the conversation is over,” Svinicki said. “But if you tell them that girls around the world don't have to be home collecting firewood, and they can be educated, and maybe one of those girls has the cure for cancer 10 years from now, that’s powerful. That's a narrative that inspires and moves people.”
Current nuclear energy research involves small reactors with a range of designs that can be placed in isolated areas to provide power.
Revamping the nation’s nuclear power is part of a strategy to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by generating carbon-free electricity with nuclear power initiated under the Obama administration and continuing under the Trump administration, despite Trump’s downplaying of global warming.
Svinicki spoke to the Leadership in Nuclear Energy Commission, which advises the Idaho governor on policies to support nuclear industries and the Idaho National Laboratory, a federal nuclear research facility in eastern Idaho that is among the state's largest employers.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, who sits on a committee that appropriates money for the lab, addressed the group on budget matters.
“We haven’t moved forward on finding a nuclear repository for nuclear spent fuel,” Simpson said. “It is one of the issues that I think is holding back the progress on nuclear energy.”
He said that even if a proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository opens in Nevada, there's enough waste scattered across the U.S. to immediately fill it. The site northwest of Las Vegas was first proposed in the 1980s to entomb 77,000 tons (70,000 metric tons) of the nation’s most highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel.
“If you’re really going to address climate change, you better start making sure that we have nuclear energy in the future,” Simpson said.
There are just under 100 commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S., supplying about 20% of the nation's energy. Most of the spent nuclear fuel they have generated over the decades remains at the sites where the power plants are located.
The commission also heard a report on a new type of test reactor described as one of the most ambitious U.S. nuclear projects in decades. The Versatile Test Reactor is in an environmental review stage with a draft environmental impact statement expected to be released in November.
“Outside Russia right now this capability does not exist," said Kemal Pasamehmetoglu, executive director of the project. "This will be a unique capability in the Western World.”
The test reactor would be fueled by about 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of plutonium, preferably surplus weapons-grade plutonium, Pasamehmetoglu said.
The reactor would be the first new test reactor built in the U.S. in decades and give the nation a dedicated “fast-neutron-spectrum” testing capability. Such reactors are called fast reactors, and Pasamehmetoglu said they are needed to do testing for a new wave of modern nuclear reactors.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has expressed concern about the reactors, saying the plutonium could be turned into a devastating weapon if it falls into the hands of rogue groups.
The group, whose objectives include reducing the threat of nuclear war, also said those reactors produce waste that is more hazardous and difficult to dispose of than waste from conventional reactors.
The Idaho National Laboratory and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee are the two possible locations for the test reactor and the final location will be selected through the environmental review process. Pasamehmetoglu said the reactor could be in operation at the end of 2026.
The commission also heard a report about progress on a commercial effort to build small modular reactors at the 890-square-mile (2,300-square-kilometer) U.S. Department of Energy site that includes the Idaho National Laboratory.
Doug Hunter, chief executive officer and general manager of an energy cooperative called the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, said plans for building up to a dozen of the small module reactors remain viable as various entities sign up to receive power.
The small reactors can produce about 60 megawatts of energy, or enough to power more than 50,000 homes. The first would be built in 2029, with the rest constructed in 2030, if regulatory agencies approve.