Advanced nuclear key to cost-effective US decarbonisation: study

07 July 2022

Successful commercialisation of advanced nuclear reactors could lower the total cost as the US transitions to a clean energy system - and increasing investment and policy support for advanced nuclear technology will generate far-reaching national benefits, the study by the Breakthrough Institute has found.

How a US net-zero grid could look by 2050 (Image: Breakthrough Institute)

Advancing Nuclear Energy: Evaluating Deployment, Investment, and Impact In America’s Clean Energy Future was written at the suggestion of the US Department of Energy Loan Programs Office, the Berkeley, California-based institute said. The report uses a high-resolution nationwide model of the US electricity sector to demonstrate how advanced nuclear reactors might play a major role in a least-cost plan to transition the power grid entirely to clean energy sources by 2050 - assuming the first advanced reactors are available for deployment by 2030 - across a range of scenarios.

The study examines three technological categories of advanced nuclear reactors: light-water small modular reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, and advanced reactors with thermal energy storage, which reflect many of the design types slated for deployment over the next decade in the USA. According to the Breakthrough Institute Director for Nuclear Energy Innovation Adam Stein - who is a co-author of the report - this provides a more comprehensive, realistic estimate of the potential for advanced nuclear energy in a decarbonised energy system.

"Typically reports don't consider advanced nuclear reactors at all, and if they do they are the operational capabilities are modelled the same as conventional reactors," he said. "We find that when these characteristics of advanced reactors are considered they can provide a large portion of electricity across all bounding scenarios while enabling variable clean energy sources like wind and solar, and reducing overall system costs."

A US clean energy transition incorporating advanced nuclear energy could require cumulative capital investment for advanced nuclear power plant construction of around USD150-220 billion by 2035, growing to a total of USD830 billion-1.1 trillion by 2050, the study finds. Early capital investment and "learning-by-doing" would then lead to substantial reductions in project costs and levelised electricity costs for advanced nuclear technologies, resulting in the large-scale nationwide deployment of new reactors.

The model sees the commercial deployment of advanced reactors beginning in the early-2030 and rapidly accelerating as the electricity sector grows, with advanced nuclear potentially supplying around 20-48% of domestic clean electricity generation - 1,400 to 3,600 TWh per year - in 2050.

Advanced nuclear reactors can play a key role in cost-effective decarbonisation, reliably supporting a high-renewables energy system, the report says. Including advanced nuclear power in the US clean energy transition can help reduce the costs of a future national clean energy system, while low-emissions heat and steam from advanced nuclear plants can supply reliable, clean energy for hard-to-decarbonise sectors such as heavy industry and chemicals, the report finds.

"Even in the case that first-of-a-kind advanced reactors are deployed at the high end of current cost estimates and benefit from very little technological learning as additional units are deployed, advanced nuclear captures a significant share of future electricity generation. This finding indicates that advanced nuclear energy technology provides important and extremely valuable benefits to the electricity system," the report says.

In addition, advanced nuclear reactors can repower fossil-fuel power plants using readily available infrastructure, increasing economic investment, and promoting a just transition for local communities. A successful future nuclear sector would create 74,000-223,000 permanent jobs in operations and maintenance by 2050 alone.

Barriers to deploying advanced nuclear energy can potentially be overcome through immediate capital investment, enhancing the potential for cost reductions and the total domestic market opportunity; avoiding cost overruns on early projects and making cost improvements, which will increase the speed and magnitude of deployment; developing supply chains for fuel and component manufacturing; new federal regulatory frameworks and streamlining of existing rules to ensure ensuring timely licensing and construction; and lifting state-level moratoria and restrictions on nuclear projects, which will expand market opportunities and attract new capital investment to states that reform existing legislation.

"Emerging advanced nuclear technologies will ultimately compete in the marketplace based on cost, operating parameters, and the ability to meet diverse customer needs, shifting the balance among which technologies become dominant," the report says. "Early advanced nuclear deployments may be most competitive or efficient for specific target markets and customers, including existing nuclear power sites, sites with retiring fossil fuel plants, remote or island communities, and military installations. As advanced reactor deployment expands, however, cost improvements over time, and the need for firm energy that provides the required operational characteristics can drive large-scale nationwide adoption in support of a wider affordable clean energy strategy."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News