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What role does nuclear power play in the U.S. effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions?


President Biden arrives in Egypt this morning to deliver remarks at the U.N. Climate Conference. Here at home, the U.S. is taking action to decrease its dependency on fossil fuels in the energy sector. But is it enough to combat the worst effects of climate change? This is the first of several conversations that we're going to feature on the show about America's climate agenda. Here's my co-host, Leila Fadel, with Kathryn Huff of the U.S. Department of Energy, talking about the role of nuclear power.

KATHRYN HUFF: I think nuclear energy is definitely part of the answer, but it's going to take every low-carbon energy source we have available to us to meet the kinds of challenges that climate change has put in front of us. There's no question that it'll require renewables and carbon capture and sequestration, and it will require nuclear, and quite a lot of all of them.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: What about safety? I mean, I think when people who aren't familiar with nuclear energy - everybody will still know Chernobyl and Fukushima.

HUFF: That's right. So nuclear energy has actually saved way more lives than you would think - right? - because it is a carbon-free energy source. And fossil fuels are an incredible contributor to premature death. The World Health Organization identified that 1 in 5 deaths are premature due directly to fossil fuel burning. And by being a huge contributor to reducing carbon emissions, nuclear power has saved a ton of lives. If you normalize by the number of terawatt hours generated, nuclear power is among the safest energy sources available, including wind and solar, which cause more deaths per terawatt hour generated.

FADEL: Really?

HUFF: Yeah, absolutely. Other than geothermal, nuclear power is responsible for many fewer deaths.

FADEL: And that includes, like, long-term implications of accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl?

HUFF: Absolutely.


HUFF: So population-level radiation exposure in those incidents was, like, much lower than I think the public would sort of perceive.

FADEL: OK. So let's get to cost. When you look at, for example, Georgia, which is building the first new reactors in the country in decades now - but the cost, which originally was forecast at $14 billion, is now above $30 billion. I mean, that's incredibly expensive. So can it really stay competitive?

HUFF: The final cost of the two Vogtle units will be interesting to see, but they're coming close to coming online. And when they do, they will be a huge source of reliable power...

FADEL: Yeah.

HUFF: ...Available all day, every day for 18 months at a time, and then off just for refueling for a month, right? This is unparalleled in any other kind of electric source. And so we do pay for it, right?

FADEL: Right.

HUFF: And the things we pay for are safety. Nuclear energy has its own regulator, right? In addition to the EPA, which is the sole regulator for all other energy sources, nuclear energy has the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We also have, you know, stringent requirements for operational limits. And all of that results in a very well operating fleet that can be relied on. And you do pay a little bit of a premium for that kind of advanced scientific support on your electric grid.

FADEL: I mean, it sounds like - I mean, because what I'm basically presenting you are the main criticisms you'll hear when people are concerned about nuclear energy - safety and cost. But it sounds like what you're saying is it's actually more expensive and more deadly not to figure out how to use nuclear energy efficiently for a more green future.

HUFF: I think you've said it perfectly. This is absolutely the case, in my opinion, and in the Department of Energy's opinion, as well as the Biden administration's opinion. Nuclear energy is essential to meeting our climate goals, which are existential. And we cannot do it without nuclear.

FADEL: The other concern that we haven't brought up yet is nuclear waste. Is there a long-term plan for nuclear waste? - because that is what you'll hear from people like the director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, that the Biden administration does not have a long-term plan for this.

HUFF: We just released the first funding opportunity announcement related to consent-based siting of an interim storage facility for our spent nuclear fuel. Now, this will be an interim storage facility between now and when we have a final repository. This is all part of an integrated waste management system. But, yeah, we don't have an alternative to Yucca Mountain identified yet, but we do have a plan to get there using a consent-based process.

FADEL: What about the small modular reactors? How does that change things?

HUFF: I love this question. So what's really interesting about the modularity and size of small modular reactors of all kinds, whether they're water-cooled or gas-cooled or liquid-metal-cooled, small modular reactor, we have an opportunity to take advantage of economies of scale in more factory-built nuclear reactors. So someone, not me, said some time ago that we should start building nuclear power plants less like airports, which are big, complex, capital-intensive engineering projects that are sort of custom made for the location, and start building them more like airplanes, one after the other, exactly the same and perfectly well understood by the regulator. Small modular nuclear reactors are also around the right size to pretty much directly replace coal plants...


HUFF: ...Which I think we must do.

FADEL: You mentioned the small modular reactors are something that would be suitable to replace coal plants. If you could just expand on what that looks like, what that means.

HUFF: OK. So we definitely have to retire as many unabated fossil sources as possible in order to reach our emissions goals. Our office recently released a report that almost 80% of the coal plants in the United States could be replaced by nuclear power plants across a range of sizes, but largely in the range of sizes accommodated by small modular reactors in the couple-of-hundred-megawatts range.

Coal plants have auxiliary systems very similar to nuclear power plants. Coal and nuclear both just are different ways of boiling water. So they have the same kind of workers, too, whether it's steam turbine maintainers or electricians or welders, boilermakers. A lot of these are, well - good-paying union jobs, too. And so we'd love to keep that workforce along with the transition and leverage the resources that we already have at those locations.

FADEL: Assistant secretary for nuclear energy, Kathryn Huff. Thank you so much for your time.

HUFF: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Our series on America's energy transition continues next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER ENO'S "THE TURNING YEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.