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U.S. needs open mind to new nuclear power technology, Admiral Ellis tells GCEP symposium

Some 31 designs aim to deal with conventional nuclear power problems of cost, safety, waste fuel and public acceptance.

By Mark Golden

Adm. James Ellis Jr.
Admiral James O. Ellis Jr.

If the United States is committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and to cleaner air and water, it cannot ignore new nuclear power technologies, especially small modular reactors, retired Navy Admiral James O. Ellis Jr. said at the Global Climate & Energy Project's annual symposium.

Greater electricity production is the key to economic growth and modern life in developing countries, said Ellis, distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. China has leveraged coal-fired power to lift 650 million people out of poverty since 1990 and other Asian nations are following the example. Meanwhile, China has led the way in producing increasingly affordable solar power panels for advanced economies.

"New nuclear technologies face economic challenges, but the environmental benefits are unparalleled," Ellis said Oct. 14 at GCEP's annual symposium, noting that neither carbon capture technology to enable clean coal nor energy storage technology to enable renewable electricity have become cost-effective.

"When renewable power is expensive, people want to bring costs down," Ellis said. "When nuclear power is expensive, people say that's a reason to not pursue the technology."

Instead, the United States should research and develop new nuclear technologies, he said. The Hoover Institution's Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy has published a series of essays on reinventing nuclear power, with small modular reactor technology as the primary focus. Modular reactors are manufactured at a factory and can be delivered as single units or in groups capable of generating 300 megawatts to the production site with almost no construction necessary. No company has applied for a U.S. permit to build a small modular reactor, so their costs and benefits are theoretical. Existing designs look to be safer than conventional nuclear power plants, but costs at commercial scale are almost completely unknown, Ellis said.

"Can the United States drive small modular reactor costs down the way China did for solar? Is this our competitive advantage?" asked Ellis.

Some major countries have eliminated nuclear power as an option due to nuclear power disasters, most recently at the Fukushima power plant in Japan in 2011. Japan, which previously had strong, unilateral commitments to fighting climate change, is building out a new fleet of coal-fired power plants to replace its largely shuttered nuclear fleet. Germany is replacing nuclear power with renewable energy and electricity imports, though the program is considered to be very expensive. On the other hand, the United States is building several conventional nuclear reactors with support from the Obama administration after four decades of no new reactors.

Panel on Reinventing Nuclear
(From left to right) Sally Benson, Admiral James Ellis Jr., George Shultz
Photo: Mark Shwartz

Ellis mentioned emerging new technologies beyond small modular reactors, like pebble bed technology and molten salt reactors, which consume their own nuclear waste. "I'm not selling anything," Ellis said. "There are 31 designs around the globe meant to deal with the issues that have confronted nuclear industry for decades: cost, safety, nuclear waste fuel and, finally, public acceptance."

But symposium participant Amory Lovins, chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, challenged Ellis' proposition. "As a matter of physics, reactors don't scale down well," Lovins said. "What will make small modular reactors overcome the several-fold cost disadvantage relative to renewables? If you buy a new reactor, it's several times less effective per dollar in reducing CO2 than renewables and 10 to 40 times less effective than energy efficiency."

Ellis conceded that new nuclear technologies are basically theory until they are built and proven, while regulatory approval looks to be slow. "But it's too early to pick winners and losers," Ellis said. "We don't know how long natural gas-fired electricity will remain cheap. We shouldn't give up on research and development of new nuclear technologies."

Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, who shared the stage with Ellis and leads the Hoover Institution's energy task force, offered a compromise: "Put a price on carbon dioxide and let the marketplace sort it out. Natural gas is cheap, but it's not paying its full cost."


Mark Golden writes about energy policy and economics at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.

October 14, 2015


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