Nuclear power production continues to contribute to the United States electricity supply, with nearly 19 percent of the nation’s electricity provided by 99 nuclear reactors operating in 30 states. Over the past two decades, the operational performance of these reactors has improved, as demonstrated by an increase in operational capacity factor from approximately 53 percent in 1980 to over 90 percent today. The US nuclear industry has also achieved gains in power plant utilization through improved maintenance, refueling and safety systems at existing plants. There is increasing private sector interest in expanding nuclear power in the United States. This has been spurred primarily by financial incentives in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, streamlined licensing that maintains safety while reducing risk of construction delay and, generally positive public sentiment about nuclear power. A March 2015 national poll found that 69 percent of Americans favor the use of nuclear energy.
Since 2007, there have been 16 license applications filed to build new nuclear reactors in the United States. However, reduced natural gas prices over the past few years have put most of these projects on hold. At present, only five new reactors (two each in Georgia and South Carolina and one in Tennessee) are under construction.
Although Idaho has no commercial nuclear power plant, Idaho National Laboratory (INL), as the U.S. Department of Energy’s lead laboratory for nuclear energy, has had a significant influence on every reactor designed in the United States. Laboratory researchers are working on several initiatives that will help shape the future of nuclear energy worldwide.
Nuclear power production is an established and growing global industry. Over 435 power reactors operate in 31 countries producing almost 11 percent of the world’s electricity. There are several different types of nuclear power reactors, including light-water reactors, gas-cooled reactors, heavy-water reactors (reactors which use a “heavy” form of water – deuterium oxide – instead of typical “light” water) and breeder reactors. Each different type of reactor has certain s attributes and characteristics. The power reactors in the United States utilize light water technology, either pressurized water reactors (PWR), or boiling water reactors (BWR). These reactors generate heat primarily from the splitting of atoms of Uranium-235 (an isotope of uranium making up about 0.72 percent of natural uranium) in a process known as nuclear fission. This heat is used to heat water and create steam, which turns a turbine connected to a generator to produce electricity.
The energy released from a pound of uranium through nuclear fission is much greater than the energy produced from burning a pound of coal (2.5 million times more), making it possible to generate vast amounts of energy from a very small amount of material. For example, a uranium fuel pellet roughly the size of a pencil eraser contains the same amount of energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil. The heat produced in a nuclear reactor can also be used for industrial process heat.
NuScale Power, LLC, is developing a new kind of nuclear plant; a safer, smaller, scalable version of widely-used pressurized water reactor technology, designed with natural safety features and building on technology developed at the INL. Fluor Corporation, a global engineering, procurement and construction company with a 60-year history in commercial nuclear power, is the majority investor in NuScale.
In May 2014, NuScale Power finalized a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy through which NuScale will receive up to $217M in matching federal funds over a five-year period. The company will use the funds to perform the engineering and testing needed to proceed through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Design Certification Process. NuScale expects to submit the application for design certification in the second half of 2016. This will allow NuScale to meet a commercial operation date of 2023 for its first planned project, in Idaho. Known as the UAMPS Carbon-Free Power Project, it will be owned by the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and potentially operated by Energy Northwest.