Clean Energy and Advanced Manufacturing: A Market Opportunity for Nuclear Energy

In an era when “clean energy” is the political mantra, nuclear energy is not usually in the discussion, as a viable option for worlds’ future energy needs. However, this situation could change in the next decade due to a confluence of three factors; the increasing dependence on solar and wind-sourced renewable “clean”, i.e., low carbon footprint, energy; the energy and localized demands of advanced small and medium-sized manufacturing facilities; and the availability of advanced small modular (nuclear) reactor technology as a local source of dependable “clean” energy.

There are three key dynamics and technological advances: 1) photovoltaic (PV) module prices continuing to drop, keeping pace with learning rates and capacity increases; 2) the continued development of larger and more efficient wind turbines; and 3) decreasing costs for battery packs, in part due to rising electric vehicle sales that have applications for stationary energy storage.

In The Vanishing American Corporation: Navigating the Hazards of a New Economy (2016), author Gerald F. Davis, Professor of Management, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, heralds the promise of new technologies favoring distributed manufacturing in small facilities with low cost computer numerical control (CNC) equipment or 3-D printing technology operating at the city or neighborhood level.

Mark P. Mills, Manhattan Institute senior fellow, notes in his report, The Coming Revolution of American Manufacturing (2016) that 3-D printers will further blur the distinction between “manufacturing” and “service”. Mills sees this technology enabling many more people to design and directly manufacture products, as 3-D printing technology can be located in warehouses, and even customer premises, with raw materials shipped directly onsite, with scalable “mini-clusters” of manufacturing and supply/distribution chains located in mixed residential and commercial communities.

With greater use of clean, renewable energy (primarily solar and wind), coupled with the emergence of distributed manufacturing and industrial mini clusters, the market opportunity for small modular reactor (SMR) technology may be upon us.

An SMR can increase power generating opportunities for sustainable energy development.

What makes the SMR, an economically viable, safe, and carbon-free option for commercial and residential use as a complement to renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power? In addition to its small size, operational efficiency, and modular nature, SMR has a passive safety feature, as its small size prevents any kind of “meltdown” of the core (as it simply shuts down and cools off), and the entire power plant covers less than a tenth of a square mile. Moreover, no one can computer “hack” the reactor and reactor refueling does not require the plant to shut down.

From a cost perspective, the projected cost of building and installing a reactor facility is approximately $4,200 on a kilowatt basis, implying that SMR’s levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) may be cost competitive with power generation from renewables, coal, and natural gas, depending on the location.

The expansion of solar and wind generating capacity, however, is dependent on several factors. These key adoption factors include the continued maintenance of federal tax credits subsidizing wind power development, sales of electric vehicles, continuation of reductions in large-scale, battery storage costs, and state government requirements for wind-generated power as a mandated component in their electrical energy grids. While natural gas, the major competitor for SMR adoption, does produce less greenhouse gas emissions than other fossil fuels, it produces a “less negative” impact on the natural environment.

The inherent operational cost advantage of an SMR includes long-term stability in fuel costs, as natural gas markets are confronted with potential cost fluctuations. SMR has the potential to be both an important component of both a “zero emissions” energy solution and source of cost-competitive, consistent power for an era of distributed manufacturing.

This energy technology is ideally suited to support economic development, because of its compatibility with smaller and more dispersed electric grids and its potential to pair with solar and wind renewables, thus reducing the overall “carbon footprint” on the environment.