The Reactors That Will Revolutionize Nuclear Energy

By Christine Todd Whitman
The Wall Street Journal
April 29, 2015

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: We’re at a turning point in energy. The U.S. should be a leader in mitigating climate change and meeting a nearly 30% increase in U.S. demand for electricity projected by 2040.

Success in this double-barrel challenge will require energy and environmental policy that recognizes the rapidly evolving variables in both disciplines, as well as technology advances that will be a key driver in our success. One example: Renewable energy has grown dramatically and is a big part of the solution, but because of its intermittent production and lack of energy storage, cannot meet a significant growth in 24/7 electricity demand.

Nonetheless, renewable-energy technologies will continue to advance, as will other carbon-free power sources like nuclear energy. The nuclear industry is developing new technology that will be up and running inside of 10 years—a smaller reactor option built at much lower capital costs.

Now in the testing process, the first small modular reactors (SMRs) could be powering American homes beginning around 2025. SMRs produce up to 300 megawatts of electricity–enough to power 238,000 homes, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. SMRs, like today’s nuclear energy facilities, produce electricity without producing carbon emissions or other pollutants. Unlike today’s facilities, SMRs will be built in factories and shipped to sites for installation. Plus, they can be built in modules to more closely follow increases in the demand for electricity.

One of the biggest advantages of SMRs is the safety benefits. Because their energy production results from natural forces such as gravity, convection and conduction, human error is removed from the equation. Moreover, if natural disasters were to strike an SMR site, no operator action will be needed to shut down the reactor because neither outside electric nor external water supplies is needed for cooling. Even more importantly, SMRs remove all possibility of heat building up in the reactor, which can cause fuel damage, and ultimately, a meltdown.

The next 30 years offers an immense opportunity to bring online SMRs in the global marketplace—creating thousands of American jobs while extending U.S. influence in safe nuclear facility operation around the globe. In that time, expect countries such as Poland, Russia, China, France, Korea and emerging economies to make SMRs a significant part of their electricity mix. This technology will make it possible to generate electricity while significantly cutting carbon emissions and allowing economies to grow, businesses to thrive, and customers to experience reliable and affordable electricity service.

Christine Todd Whitman was governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001 and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003. She is currently president of Whitman Strategy Group, a consulting firm that specializes in helping companies find solutions to environmental challenges.