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The Unwarranted Fear of Nuclear Energy

By Griffin Saltron, March 18, 2024


In August of 2023, Governor Greg Abbott directed the Public Utility Commission of Texas to “evaluate advanced nuclear reactors to determine if they can provide safe, reliable, and affordable power to [the Texas] grid.” This call for nuclear energy came amidst record energy consumption as evident by August 10, 2023, when power consumption reached 85,435 megawatts, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). While high summer temperatures contribute to the energy demand, a more prevalent factor fueling Texas’s thirst for energy is the state’s continual population growth. According to the Census Bureau, Texas has seen a 43% increase in population over the last 20 years. That is an additional nine million residents across the state from 2000 to 2022. The state has gained more residents over the last two decades than any other state, outpacing the runner-up in population growth (Florida) by nearly three million. According to an analysisconducted by Reuters, this compound annual population increase of 1.6% has seen a commensurate compound annual increase in power consumption of 1.7%, over the last two decades.

 

Alongside this population increase, Texas has become a hotspot for investment for Fortune 500 Companies. As of 2023, fifty-five Fortune 500 companies have established their headquarters in Texas, more than any other state in the Union. From office space to manufacturing facilities, these business ventures require considerable energy. The Austin area alone is the new home to a multitude of manufacturing facilities, like Tesla’s Gigafactory and Samsung Semiconductor’s new facility. The last 20 years have also seen the widespread adoption of Electric Vehicles (EVs) which has shifted some transportation energy demand from gasoline to the grid. According to ERCOT, “Adoption of EVs is expected to increase significantly in the near future, with 4% of all the vehicles on the road projected to be EV in Texas by 2029 and 6 TWh [terawatt hours] of load from EV charging by that same year.” The combination of these factors shows a clear picture of increased demand over the last two decades, which necessitates increased supply.

 

Throughout this period, there has been a decreased focus on energy production. This comes as public policy—by way of Green New Deal ideals—has been steered toward the production of renewable means of energy production. While wind and solar certainly should play a role in the Texas energy portfolio, at a time when population and energy demand are rising at such a high rate, the focus should be on an “all of the above” strategy, that allows all forms of energy generation to thrive. An obvious source of such energy comes from carbon-based resources like coal and natural gas. These are resources that have high production and have been made cleaner and more efficient with innovation. However, there is another energy source that combines the reliability of carbon-based fuels with the environmentally friendly aspects of wind and solar: Nuclear energy.

 

When operating at full capacity, a standard nuclear reactor is capable of producing 1 gigawatt of electricity per hour and unlike other energy sources, a nuclear reactor isn’t generally affected by mundane weather conditions. This allows a reactor to produce maximum energy 92.5% of the time during a year as compared to 24.9% for solar and 35.4% for wind. Not only is a single nuclear reactor equivalent to 3.125 million solar panelsbut it is able to operate at maximum output four times longer than solar. This efficiency paired with “a minimal carbon footprint of around 15–50 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour (gCO2/KWh)” should lead to a consensus in favor of nuclear energy. That is not the case. Instead, some proponents of other sources of green energy have utilized the few nuclear incidents, such as Fukushima, as a means to sway public opinion away from nuclear energy. This is despite the fact that Fukushima resulted in no radiation death or illness when it was hit by the largest recorded earthquake in history and a subsequent tsunami. The United States has its own example in the Three Mile Island Accident in 1979 when a commercial reactor had a partial meltdown. The result was no deaths or injuries with a temporary increase in background radiation equivalent to 1/6 of a chest X-ray. The event sparked apprehension towards nuclear energy. This apprehension eventually led to increased regulation adding extra safety features that changed nuclear power “from a very, very safe system into a very, very, very safe system.”

 

Indeed, the two most prominent nuclear incidents, outside of the Soviet Era Chernobyl meltdown, have not only resulted in no death or illness, but nuclear facilities have also been made safer as time has passed and innovation has occurred. Whereas Fukushima and Three Mile Island occurred in functioning capitalist societies with appropriate oversight and safety measures, Chernobyl took place amidst an authoritarian communist dictatorship where incentives encouraged cover-ups and dereliction of duty. This is exemplified by the Soviet Union’s decision to leave the public in the dark for 36 hours following the incident, film propaganda related to the clean-up, and swap water samples taken by foreign journalists for fake ones. In short, American capitalist innovation should not be held back by the failures of an incompetent and willfully malicious Communist state of the past.

 

Understanding this background and the energy demand problems facing Texas, it is imperative that the federal representatives of Texas and the Public Utility Commission act. This should be done through actively seeking out private entities that can build and operate facilities in the state and lobbying the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to permit Texas to provide its residents with the energy they need. At this moment, Texas only has four nuclear reactors capable of supplying the energy market with 10% of all energy produced in the state. Increasing the number of facilities would increase the overall energy production capacity of Texas, making the state not only more efficient, but more sustainable.

 

There has been some forward momentum in regard to producing more nuclear energy both in Texas and across the nation. The first Small Modular Reactor (SMR) of its kind in America is set to be built in Texas “at Dow Chemical Corporation’s Seadrift plant southeast of Victoria in Calhoun County.” According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) SMRs are:

 

“Advanced nuclear reactors that have a power capacity of up to 300 MW(e) per unit, which is about one-third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors.”

 

While China and Russia have already built SMRs and have plans for many more, the plans for the Dow chemical SMR and the recently constructed Vogtle Unit 3 traditional reactor in Georgia indicate that the US, or at least private industry in the US, is ready to compete again. This is a positive metric as the new Vogtle Unit is the first new reactor since 2016 and only the second created this century.

 

 

The traction if not held back by bureaucratic entities and unfriendly federal policy could lead to a nuclear revival in the US and Texas alike. Texas has the opportunity to make itself the friendliest state for nuclear energy and has a responsibility to lead by example.

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