Role of Nuclear in the Energy Transition

By Angela Jardina

Is nuclear a path forward on the road toward the energy transition?

Experts set out to answer that question and more as students, professors, and industry professionals gathered in the Conrad N. Hilton Ballroom for the first installment of the UH Division of Energy and Innovation’s “Critical Issues in Energy” Symposium Series for the 2022-23 academic year.

Moderated by Jessica Lovering, co-founder and executive director of Good Energy Collective the panel consisted of: Sue Clark, deputy director of the Savannah River National Laboratory; Carol Lane, vice president of X-energy; and Mark Woodby, director of engineering for the nuclear sector of the Electric Power Research Institute.

Lovering opened discussion with an outline of the global and political attitude to nuclear energy, citing how recent blackouts in California necessitated a pivot. “(California) Governor (Gavin) Newsom is changing course on supporting the lifetime extension of our last remaining nuclear power plant,” Lovering said, adding that the plant was supposed to close in 2023, but the need to maintain grid reliability in the face of the state’s power issues led to an extension.

Lovering went on to list further support for the transition to nuclear energy, including political and public figure Jane Fonda, anti-nuclear senator Diane Feinstein, Germany’s decision to keep their nuclear reactor, and Japan’s decision to slowly reopen their nuclear power plants. This demonstrates that, despite the fears that come along with nuclear solutions, the efficiency of nuclear energy is becoming more and more essential to reaching the goal of zero emissions by the year 2050.

“In many ways, these motivations for nuclear today, feel reminiscent of 1970s energy crisis—when everyone was building nuclear to get off of oil in regard to electricity,” Lovering said.

From there, the panel held in-depth discussion about all the technological advantages and recent developments in the sector of nuclear energy and described the current challenges that transitioning with nuclear faces.

We’ve fallen behind other nations with respect to dealing with the final deposition of the nuclear waste,” Clark said. “All nuclear options are going to require a repository. We have a moral imperative to deal with the deposition of the waste.” Woodby pointed out some advantages of nuclear, namely its hardiness toward various weather events and power capabilities.

“Nuclear energy units have a very high-capacity factor, are not impacted by weather, and [one generator] is the size of a gummy bear,” Woodby said. Future forecasts suggests that the next 10 to 15 years of power will be based around electrification, and the next 15 to 30 years may transition to a different base such as hydrogen. Lane said that there was no better time than now to adopt nuclear energy, pointing toward the unity of political support, technological advancement, and “environmental consciousness” that is unique to the present time.