Moniz shares his “keep awake” list of issues on the future of nuclear energy in US

The Secretary of Energy talks about what’s on his mind when his neurons turn to the subject of neutrons.

3am in the morningThe leader of every large organization, whether it is a government agency or a multi-national corporation, has a short list of “keep awake” issues. These are the things that go bump in the night that wake him or her up and have the brain cells spinning into the wee hours of the morning.

In the case of Ernest Moniz, the Secretary of Energy, his neurons are spinning over neutrons, and whether the critical chain of events needed to keep the US nuclear fleet in service can accomplished or whether we might lose the momentum to use nuclear energy as tool to reduce CO2 emissions.

Most times the ‘keep awake” list isn’t posted on the Internet or even in inter-office memos, but in Washington, DC, life is different and people like Moniz talk openly about their concerns at think tank symposiums. The case in point here is one hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies called “Nuclear Energy at the Crossroads.”

Along with nine other subject matter experts, the symposium tackled the question of what future nuclear energy has in America or even if it has one. There’s a complete video of the event on YouTube, but it is five hours long.

Instead, thanks to Power Magazine Associate Editor Sonal Patel, we have a summary of what Moniz said.  According to Patel the issues Moniz outlined in his keynote speech on his views that conditions in markets have spurred the closing or announced retirement of several nuclear reactors. He added that another frustration is that the nation’s spent fuel management program remains in limbo.

Moniz provided his short list of reasons for why nuclear power should be a central focus of the nation’s energy future. Additionally, he advocated for more public engagement, public funding, and public incentives for development of advanced nuclear energy technologies.

Here in summary bullet form is the ‘keep awake list” from a much longer article about Moniz’s speech at CSIS as reported in Power Magazine. The transcript of what Moniz said is not on the DOE public affairs web page.

  • The fate of the existing U.S. nuclear fleet could have implications for carbon emissions.

Over the last five years, low natural gas prices, market dynamics, technical issues, and policies that favor renewables have precipitated the closure or announced closure of 14 nuclear reactors.

  • New reactors will come online over the next five years, but only in the Southeast.

The closure of plants not in the Southeast and the construction of plants centered in the Southeast should “starkly” call attention to how different regulatory structures and cost recovery mechanisms are in the US.

  • The U.S. nuclear fleet is aging. More than 80 commercial reactors have garnered federal licenses to operate for 60 years, but 41 of these are more than 40 years old.

If we want to replace the current nuclear fleet when these units hit the 60 year mark, we need to be planning to do so now. Some pretty big choices [need] to be made over the next five years or so.

  • The need for a reliable, resilient, decarbonized electricity system is clear, but what it would look like is extremely unclear.

Today, natural gas is growing so rapidly because it has low capital costs and low fuel costs. Building a system around a dominant role for natural gas going into the future is not an exercise in proper risk management in terms of the exposure to the unknowns of future fuel costs.

Also, Moniz dismissed claims by renewable energy advocates that large baseload electricity sources, like nuclear, won’t be needed in the future.

  • Spent fuel management needs to get moving.

Getting on with the job of moving spent nuclear fuel away from utilities is central, and he said the US could have a pilot facility within five years. He called on Congress to support these efforts.

See also on this blog Nuclear firms see storage of spent nuclear fuel as a money making proposition

  • On nonproliferation and the Iran deal he said the role of U.S. companies in global nuclear supply chains really is a very important pillar for what we do in the non-proliferation regime.

The US cannot be taken seriously as a beacon of international leadership in the nonproliferation arena if it isn’t also a significant provider of technologies that support peaceful use of the atom.

  • Is there a future for small modular reactors (SMRs)?

DOE expects the first SMR to successfully complete federal licensing by the end of this decade and potentially be deployed within the following five years. More may follow but only if nuclear gets credit by state regulatory agencies for its CO2 emission free status.

See also on this blog UPDATED: NuScale announces roadmap for SMR operation at Idaho site by 2024

  • Advanced nuclear technology needs a vast funding boost.

While advanced nuclear technologies–such as molten salt, fast-neutron, and high-temperature gas reactors—generate a lot of interest, the future of advanced technologies is marred by a lack of federal government support.

Part of the answer in the end is that it would take at least half a billion dollars a year of federal support over an extended period for that to happen. If you want to get there by 2040, you start yesterday Moniz said.

See also on this blog a proposal for a nuclear energy investment bank.

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