Why am I hearing so much about nuclear energy?

Guest Editorial by John Kotek – Senior Vice President, Policy and Public Affairs for the Nuclear Energy Institute

I get the same question with increasing regularity. “Why am I hearing so much about nuclear energy?” The answer boils down to two key considerations for a decarbonizing grid – reliability and cost. As Maryland and a growing number of states move toward a 100% carbon-free electric system, they see great value in our nation’s nuclear power plants, including the two reactors at Calvert Cliffs in Lusby, MD, which together produce more than 80 percent of Maryland’s carbon-free electricity. Electricity generators and policymakers across the U.S. are also seriously considering construction of new, next-generation nuclear energy systems, which offer tremendous value in both maintaining reliability and holding down costs in a low-carbon energy system.

Of these two considerations, nuclear energy’s role in maintaining reliability is the more intuitive. People readily grasp that we need the 24/7/365 (or “firm”) carbon-free generation from nuclear to compensate for the variability in generation from wind turbines and solar panels. Achieving President Biden’s goal of a carbon-free grid by 2035 will of course require significant increases in wind and solar deployment, but we can get there with greater system reliability if we include a significant share of firm, clean generation like nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy’s role in holding down costs is less obvious. This is particularly true for new nuclear plants, since the prices quoted for new generation are often higher than the prices you’ll see for many new wind and solar installations. The key lies in nuclear energy’s ability to run around at all hours of the day, through all manner of extreme weather, for many months at a time. Remember that electricity providers need to plan for the worst and ensure the grid can meet peak demands on the hottest summer or coldest winter days. As documented in a growing body of academic research and utility resource plans, having nuclear on the system can help meet those peaks in a way that avoids the need to over-build excess capacity of wind turbines, solar panels and batteries that would otherwise operate only a fraction of the time. That’s why utilities that have committed to go carbon-free are increasingly looking to new nuclear as part of their future mix.

Advanced nuclear energy companies like X-energy in Rockville are working with the US Department of Energy’s nuclear energy R&D office (in Germantown) to develop new nuclear energy systems that can meet this growing demand for carbon-free electricity, and are engaged with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (in North Bethesda) to get these designs cleared for commercial construction in the U.S. and around the globe. The future looks bright for nuclear energy, and a lot of the action is taking place right here in Maryland.

The Nuclear Energy Institute is the policy organization of the nuclear technologies industry, based in Washington, D.C.