There is vigorous debate about the role of nuclear power plants in a clean energy future. They produce electricity without any greenhouse gas emissions and run 24/7 at 90% of capacity. While electricity from solar farms and wind turbines is much cheaper, they need sun and wind to work. There is now a glimmer of hope for a partial nuclear solution: Advanced Small Modular Reactors.
There are 94 nuclear reactors in the United States, mostly built in the 1970s and 1980s, that still produce about 20% of the nation’s 1,000 gigawatts of electricity supply. These massive plants with their iconic cooling towers are slowly being retired. There are only two reactors currently being built in the US, both in Georgia, and they are massively over budget and years behind schedule. The electricity they will eventually produce will be the most expensive in the world. While other countries like Germany and Japan are shutting down their reactors, there are over 50 new plants being built in China, Russia and other countries.
The US Department of Energy recently announced that Advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are key to developing clean nuclear energy for the nation’s grid. Private companies are spending billions of dollars on new designs that include sizes up to hundreds of megawatts. The lead firm, backed by the DOE, is NuScale Power an Oregon based company that has developed a US approved SMR 77-Megawatt design to be launched in Idaho around 2030. It can be combined into a 12-module system for 924 Megawatts (about the same as a large coal fired plant). Its technology is smaller and can be installed underground immersed in water. The modules can be economically manufactured at scale offsite.
The US Navy is already a global leader in SMR technology, yet surprisingly, there has been no mention of the Navy’s role in its development for civilian use. Since its inception in 1948, the Navy Nuclear program has developed 27 different reactor designs, installed them in 210 nuclear-powered ships and taken 500 reactor cores into operation. It has never experienced a reactor accident. Today, the Navy’s ten aircraft carriers and all 100+ attack and ballistic submarines (which carry nuclear weapons) are run on nuclear reactors.
There are a few private companies in addition to NuScale developing SMRs in the US including TerraPower (backed by Bill Gates) and General Electric. But it’s not enough to trust the private sector with our nation’s vital interest in developing safe, affordable and sustainable nuclear energy. Let’s put the US Navy’s expertise to work on a mission that is equally, or more important than protecting us from Russian and Chinese aggression.