CETEP and Baker School Host a Panel of Experts to Discuss the Future of Nuclear Energy
The Center for Energy, Transportation, & Environmental Policy (CETEP) and the Baker School brought together experts in the field of nuclear energy from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and the University of Tennessee for their first Distinguished Energy & Environment Lecture of the year. The panel included Scott Hunnewell, Vice President of the Nuclear Program at TVA, Andrew Nelson, Section Head for Nuclear Fuel Development at ORNL, and Jamie Coble, associate professor of nuclear engineering at UTK.
The panel wasn’t there to advocate for or against nuclear but to educate the audience on new advanced nuclear technologies. Nuclear is a carbon-free alternative to other sources of steady baseload power, such as natural gas. The generation capacity of nuclear electricity peaked in 2012, and today, 19% of electricity generated in the U.S. is nuclear.
Public Perception of Nuclear Energy
Over the last decade, nuclear has become more favorable in the conversation of generating electricity from renewable sources. Nuclear reactors can stay on and provide the baseload generation that is needed. They can also be much smaller than wind and solar farms. Both are why we have started to see actions taken by the government in support of nuclear energy.
However, a hurdle needs to be addressed – the public’s perception. One that is often on the negative side because of incidents and accidents at reactors that have caused significant safety concerns.
Hunnell turned those incidents into a positive note, saying that we learned a lot from some of those significant accidents, like those at Three Mile Island and Fukushima. People in the field of nuclear energy have taken numerous actions by deploying equipment at all nuclear sites and regional response centers. New technologies are being built with features that harden the plants against some of the causes of past incidents.
In her class, Coble addresses the problem that is the perception of the public perception. “There is a belief that there is a public perception that nuclear is bad,” stated Coble. “But if you look at public opinion surveys, that’s shifting.” Data from polls show that more than half of the U.S. public favors nuclear plants, keeping the ones we have on the grid and even building more. It comes down to how much people know about nuclear. Those who feel well-informed are more likely to favor nuclear, and those who are less informed will be more opposed to it.
There have been more conversations as of late about nuclear energy, and that is something that can only help the public perception of nuclear.
Nuclear Energy at Home and Abroad
Nelson spoke on what history has shown when we build the conventional models of light water reactors that are large and expensive base-loading generating devices. Those end up going over budget and taking too long to generate electricity, causing uncertainty for those buying that electricity. The new technologies that can be made available would take away those uncertainties. Hunnewell pointed out that when they talk about new technologies related to smaller modular reactors, they mean a simplified design for those reactors. These would be easier to operate, easier to maintain, and very safe.
From a policy standpoint in the U.S., Nelson says that discussing how to address carbon dioxide production with new technologies must include exporting that technology to other countries, such as Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. That leads to regulatory questions. There needs to be more research on these technologies and infrastructures. That isn’t the only problem. Hunnewell calls nuclear power “special and unique,” leading to a workforce issue when developing these new technologies and providing them to other countries. They can have the technology and infrastructure but not the expertise to manage them.
Nuclear Energy in 2050
With most goals related to renewable energy, the year 2050 is the deadline. As experts in the field of nuclear energy, each panelist was asked what role nuclear will play in 2050. Hunnewell spoke about how we will need more baseload energy generation by then, and utilities will rely on nuclear and gas plants. We will see new technologies with those nuclear plants, some of which might already be in development. Coble agreed with Hunnewell by stating that we will see nuclear in the energy mix, but in a different way than we do right now. Having nuclear fill the gap that is both baseload and reliable electricity. Nuclear powering the local hospital so that no matter what, they have electricity. Nelson closed off the discussion by going back to the regulatory issue, stating that he can see military and space exploration applications playing a huge role because they aren’t underneath the same regulatory and licensing framework.
To watch the full panel discussion, click here.