An Uncertain Future for Nuclear Generation 

May, 2023 - Steven W. Lee

As countries and companies around the world set goals for renewable energy targets, there is constant uncertainty as to the best path for reaching these goals. While wind and solar development are often top of mind, nuclear generation recently has entered the discussion to achieve a carbon-free energy future. 

The linked articles discuss renewable energy goals and opinions regarding nuclear energy's role in such a transition. Per the first article, governments from around the world met in early May 2023 to discuss targets for renewable energy to prevent global warming. Representatives stated that the world needs to sharply cut greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). According to the article, much of the discussion focused on wind and solar as the most cost-effective means of generating renewable energy, while some countries sought to focus on technology that can capture or trap carbon existing in the atmosphere. 

Despite the focus on wind, solar, and potentially carbon capture technology at the climate conference, the second article from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory contends that current nuclear power reactors must be sustained to help the United States meet net zero by 2050. The article states that nuclear power is the single largest source of carbon-free energy in the United States and currently provides 20 percent of the country's electricity demand. Based on the current approved lifespans of much of the nuclear generation in the United States, a large percentage of those reactors may be retired before 2050. The article notes the irony that just as the United States sets a net zero goal by 2050, the country's single largest source of carbon-free electricity is at risk of retirement before that target date. The article thus proposes regulators need to strongly consider exploring scenarios for lifetime extensions of the nation's existing nuclear power reactors. If retirements go as planned, the current largest carbon-free energy source will be removed just as the country attempts to transition to net zero.

Extending existing nuclear generation alone may not be enough to help the United States continue on a path toward net zero. The third article addresses a utility’s nuclear development plans to meet its increasing demand. Specifically, Dominion Energy ("Dominion") in Virginia stated that it will likely need to continue building new nuclear generation (in addition to new fossil fuel generation) over the next 15 years to meet its customers' needs. In its 2023 Integrated Resource Plan ("IRP"), Dominion details several possible plans to meet increasing demand, some of which include the construction of up to eight small modular nuclear reactors starting in 2034. While the 2023 IRP is a non-binding roadmap document, it makes clear that Dominion believes new nuclear generation development may be a necessary component to both meet customer demand and the Virginia Clean Economy Act, the Commonwealth's renewable energy statute that sets a goal of decarbonization of the Commonwealth's electric grid by mid-century. 

While these three articles suggest that the future of nuclear remains uncertain, they also suggest that nuclear will play a role in decarbonization even as the paths to net zero remain unclear and countries wrestle with competing resource investments to try to meet their net zero targets. How little or how much nuclear remains unknown. The second article certainly sets forth a compelling question regarding the wisdom of retiring the country's largest carbon-free energy source just as the nation attempts to pivot toward net zero in the coming decades. New technology, however, including small modular nuclear reactors, may compel utilities, states, and other entities to invest resources in new nuclear reactors, potentially at the expense of existing nuclear resources. While nuclear's future appears uncertain, it will play a key role as the world attempts to transition to carbon-free generation. 


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