The Nuclear Option
Mother Jones|March/April 2021
Biden has signaled support for a new generation of smaller nuclear reactors. Are they the path to a carbon-free economy—or just a bid to keep a troubled industry alive?
By Boyce Upholt. Ilustration by Ariel Davis

For six weeks in early 2006, engineers drilled nearly 3,000 holes into the 499-foot-tall cooling tower at the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant outside of Rainier, Oregon, and filled them with 2,800 pounds of dynamite. Early on May 21, a 2.5-second explosion echoed through the surrounding hills. Cheers erupted from the dozens of anti-nuclear activists who had come to watch the demolition from across the Columbia River.

The effort to topple Oregon’s nuclear industry had been years in the making. The Trojan plant, which came online in 1975, featured the largest reactor ever built. Twice in the 1970s, picketers blocked workers from entering the plant. Four years after it opened, the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania spooked the nation, and Oregon, like many states, put a moratorium on new nuclear plants. By the time Trojan was blown up, the industry was over, at least locally. Or so it seemed.

In 2007, an engineer at Oregon State University named José Reyes began to resurrect it by imagining a reactor that would be “very, very different.” By shrinking and simplifying the standard nuclear reactor, Reyes believes he has created a technology that can generate power more safely at a fraction of the price. Last August, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a final safety report for Reyes’ design, recommending its certification. Construction on the first reactor could begin as soon as 2025. That puts NuScale, the company Reyes co-founded, at the front of the race toward “advanced nuclear” power—a technology that advocates say will be essential to the transition away from fossil fuels.

Donald Trump’s Department of Energy was “all in” on advanced nuclear, as a press release put it, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into research and development. President Joe Biden is a fan, too. As part of his plan to shift the United States to 100 percent clean energy by 2050, he has targeted further investment in small modular nuclear reactors like NuScale’s.

But are these investments worth the money—and the risks? New designs or not, nuclear plants face daunting issues of waste disposal, public opposition, and, most of all, staggering costs. We must ramp up our fight against climate change. But whether nuclear is a real part of the solution—or just a long-shot bid to keep a troubled industry alive—is a debate that will come to the fore in the short window we have to overhaul the nation’s energy portfolio.

Few issues divide us as cleanly as nuclear power. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center poll, 49 percent of Americans support opening new plants, while 49 percent are opposed.

The popular argument against nuclear power can be summed up in a few names: Chernobyl. Fukushima. Three Mile Island. Nuclear dread is palpable. Some formerly pro-nuclear countries, like Germany, began phasing out plants in the wake of the 2011 disaster in Japan. The dangers begin well before nuclear fuel arrives at a plant, and persist long afterward; the rods that fuel today’s plants remain radioactive for millennia after their use. How to ethically store this waste remains a Gordian knot nobody has figured out how to cut.

The argument in favor of nuclear power boils down to the urgent need to combat climate change. The United States’ 94 nuclear reactors provide about half of our carbon-free power. Like coal- and natural gas–fired plants, they supply a steady amount of energy, no matter the weather. Advocates also point out that in terms of deaths per unit of energy, nuclear is on par with renewable plants as one of the safest forms of energy available.

But if nuclear power is going to help us mitigate climate change, a lot more reactors need to come online, and soon. Eleven nuclear reactors in the United States have been retired since 2012, and eight more will be closed by 2025. (When nuclear plants are retired, utility companies tend to ramp up production at coal- or natural gas–fired plants, a step in the wrong direction for those concerned about lowering emissions.) Since 1970, the construction of the average US plant has wound up costing nearly three-and-a-half times more than the initial projections. Developers have broken ground on just four new reactor sites since Three Mile Island. Two were abandoned after $9 billion was sunk into construction; two others, in Georgia, are five years behind schedule. The public is focused on risks, but “nuclear power is not doing well around the world right now for one reason—economics,” says Allison Macfarlane, a former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Nuclear was not always so troubled. In the 1950s, some environmentalists advocated “atoms not dams,” preferring nuclear plants to hydropower projects that destroyed wild landscapes. Until Three Mile Island, public support was strong. Dozens of plants came online. In the 1970s, Reyes, seeing an industry full of promise, decided to pursue a degree in nuclear engineering.

After a decade of working at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in 1987 Reyes went to teach at Oregon State University, where he built a model of the Trojan plant’s reactor, scaling down its pipes and chambers to examine what might happen if its cooling pumps failed. After he presented his findings at a conference, Westinghouse—then one of the biggest builders of nuclear reactors—tapped Reyes to analyze its technology. Under his lead, Oregon State eventually became what he calls “the Consumer Products Safety Commission for the nuclear industry.”

Reyes was determined to simplify reactors. The conventional model is a giant tangle of tubes, any of which might fail. In a plant’s control room, operators monitor hundreds of data sources at once; Reyes sees this oversupply of information as a needless source of stress. So he designed a smaller, more streamlined reactor. The university, which still hosts NuScale’s test facilities, helped him commercialize his idea.

When I visited NuScale before the pandemic hit, most of the company’s 400 employees worked out of a stucco building on the outskirts of Corvallis. Reyes’ office looks out toward the Oregon Coast Range. Now in his mid-60s, he is soft-spoken but energetic. On his gray blazer, he wore a pin with the company’s logo: an N composed of atomlike dots.

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