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Can the U.S. Keep Its Nuclear Industry Afloat?

Nuclear (Credit: oilprice.com) Click to Enlarge.

When nuclear energy is still widely seen as one of the most promising solutions to climate change, as well as one of the most efficient replacements for the more traditional carbon-packed fossil fuels on which we so heavily depend, why is the nuclear sector in the United States is in steep decline?  As many other countries are working on building up their nuclear industries, in the United States nuclear simply can’t compete with cheap natural gas and other renewables growing more affordable all the time in the nation’s wholesale electricity markets.

In fact, just within the last five years six nuclear plants in the United States have closed and almost 35% of the nuclear plants that remain are being met with the possibility of early closure or are facing retirement.  Even with the application of the most promising technological advancements in development to boost efficiency and reduce cost, it likely wouldn’t be enough to make the plants competitive with other energy sources.

While many of these advanced nuclear technologies remain in the research phase and are largely untested, many of the current research shows great promise.  Technologies under development that would be able to make new reactors both cheaper and safer than the current standard include small modular reactors (SMRs), generation IV reactors, and liquid-sodium cooled reactors.

The SMRs, thanks to their compact size, would require less investment in infrastructure and less on-site construction.  The Generation IV reactors are innovative in that their design does not include complex external cooling systems, which, notably, are the apparatus that failed in 2011’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.  The benefit of the liquid-sodium cooled reactors is that they are able to utilize spent uranium and plutonium, meaning they can produce energy for much more extended periods of time without the need for expensive refueling.

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