Small Nuclear Reactors Can Power Clean Electric Vehicles

As the number of electric vehicles on U.S. highways increases — and it will not be confined to cars but also trucks and buses — we are obliged to make the best possible use of low-cost electricity sources to recharge the EVs. This can be done through an expansion of solar and wind energy and the introduction of small nuclear reactors that will result in greater economic and environmental gains than if the power were to come only from fossil fuels.

The nuclear industry, for example, is developing small reactors from designs that can serve the needs of the automobile industry both in the United States and abroad without polluting the air and without requiring massive subsidies. This combination of advantages is drawing growing interest because of the role it could play in curbing carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, record numbers of EVs are rolling off the assembly lines. Significant progress has been made to bring the cost of EVs down. Today EVs are nearly competitive in cost with gasoline and diesel cars.

All of the models have a range of at least 100 miles without a charge. But by the end of this year, several models will have double the range. Auto analysts forecast widespread use of all-electric vehicles within a decade. By 2040, EVs will cost less than $22,000 (in today’s dollars) and could capture 50 percent of the global new-car market, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Projections show that the switch to EVs will increase U.S. demand for electricity by 10 percent. Where will the country get the electricity to satisfy the need?  And do it at a price that would be positive for the economy?

Recently, NuScale, an Oregon-based nuclear company, applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval of its design for the world’s first small modular reactor (SMR).  The reactor — one-quarter the size of reactors that power nuclear submarines — would generate 50 megawatts of electricity. Factory-built, each SMR would be shipped by truck or rail to a nuclear site.

As the need for more electricity-generating capacity arises, additional SMRs could be built, with as many as 12 SMRs situated alongside one another to produce 600 megawatts.

What’s more, the entire group of SMRs could be built in just three years at a cost of between $2 to $3 billion — just a small fraction of the construction time and cost of a large conventional nuclear plant.

More than a dozen nuclear companies plan to build SMRs, which are designed to be economically competitive with natural gas and renewables.  And the companies are developing radically different configurations that promise major upgrades in safety.

The NuScale design, for example, uses advanced safety systems that can function under all possible circumstances. It can shut down in the event of a malfunction without the need for more cooling water or electricity or intervention by a reactor operator. Moreover, the SMR can be located underground for additional safety.

But environmental groups maintain that new reactors are unnecessary, claiming that solar and wind can meet most of America’s energy needs. Although the vision of renewable energy has obvious appeal, it simply has fallen short of expectations. Solar and wind combined supply only seven percent of the nation’s power. The notion of the U.S. automobile fleet — not to mention millions of households and businesses and industries having to depend on solar and wind for a large share of their electricity — is absurd.

In contrast, nuclear energy accounts for nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity-generating capacity and more than 60 percent of the nation’s zero-carbon electricity. It’s time to face reality: Our national interest lies in using small reactors. Natural gas and renewables alone can’t do the job. Powering our automobiles, trucks and buses while trying to meet all of our other electricity needs will be impossible without a substantial contribution from nuclear power.


J. Winston Porter is a national energy and environmental consultant based in Savannah , Ga. He was previously an assistant administrator of the EPA in Washington, D.C.

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