What role could advanced nuclear technology play as part of the solution to climate change? During today's OnPoint, Joshua Freed, director of Third Way's Clean Energy Program, discusses private-sector funding and progress on advanced nuclear and the role the federal government could play in helping to commercialize these technologies. He also discusses the potential for nuclear legislation during the 114th Congress.
Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Josh Freed, director of Third Way's Clean Energy Program. Josh, great to have you back on the show.
Joshua Freed: Thanks for having me.
Monica Trauzzi: Josh, you've been digging into the role of advanced nuclear as part of the solution to climate change, and you recently published a Brookings essay. Give us the background on how that came about.
Joshua Freed: Happy to. So Third Way's long supported nuclear as part of the solution to addressing climate change, and we've heard for years that advanced nuclear was always one of those technologies that was a decade or two away. About a year ago, we started looking into that more, and what we found has been a huge number of private-sector capital that's starting to go into the technology and significant developments in getting the technology to a point where it really can be commercialized within 10 or 15 years and be a significant part of the climate solution in creating nuclear reactors that have different safety than today's reactors and also, in many cases, can consume rather than produce spent fuel. So a really different set of applications to generating electricity and helping address climate change.
Monica Trauzzi: But the U.S.'s leadership on nuclear has declined, and your thinking is the federal government needs to be more involved to sort of renew the focus. What exactly does the federal government need to be doing?
Joshua Freed: U.S. leadership in nuclear has always been significant because we're the creators of the civilian nuclear power sector, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been the gold standard in safety. American companies have developed the reactor designs that much of the world uses today. The challenge has been that the United States, with a few exceptions, has not built new reactors in 30 years, and as a result of that and the way the regulatory process licenses reactors, supports innovation, we've seen a real fall in American companies designing the types of new innovative reactors that the world's going to need. This isn't a question of significant amounts of new money from the federal government going into the development of reactors. The private sector is, to our surprise, when we started looking into it, really taking care of that. It's developing a government process that reflects 21st-century innovation rather than 1950s innovation.
Monica Trauzzi: And there are some international markets that would be very interested in this technology.
Joshua Freed: Absolutely. As we've seen with the U.S.-China climate deal that was addressed several weeks ago, and an increasing realization that the world is going to need to address both increased global energy demand and the need to reduce carbon emissions, the countries are going to start turning towards, and already are starting to turn towards, a source of energy that can produce significant amounts of power without the kinds of emissions that coal-fired power plants are generating today.
Monica Trauzzi: Do you think the economics are in favor of keeping existing plants open?
Joshua Freed: They aren't at the moment. Their real challenge is both with the regulatory system and also with natural gas at the price it is. Now, that's a double-edged sword for the economy because natural gas at $3 or $4 has really driven a lot of economic growth, but there are a lot of other benefits to nuclear energy that the United States needs to internalize. That includes it produces baseload on-demand power, helps maintain the reliability of the grid, and produces the largest amount of zero-carbon-emissions power in the United States, almost 20 percent. We need to find a way to recognize that and price that into our energy policy.
Monica Trauzzi: So as part as it relates to EPA's Clean Power Plan, what role should new nuclear be playing in that regulation as we wait for EPA to come forward with its final rule?
Joshua Freed: Well, I think what EPA needs to do is what they are doing, which is not be prescriptive with what energy sources need to be used, but recognize the benefits of low- or zero-carbon-emissions energy. And they started in the right direction, particularly in recognizing the importance of nuclear. I think there's opportunities now to adjust the prescription of how nuclear is factored in to really recognize both the full benefits of the existing plants that are in operation and also acknowledge that we're going to have to build more nuclear if we're going to continue to reduce emissions.
Monica Trauzzi: Do you think there's going to be an opportunity in the next Congress to address nuclear and, in particular, the spent fuel issue?
Joshua Freed: I think there really is, and one of the things that we've seen has been both the Obama administration supporting nuclear and Republicans supporting nuclear. Now, it may be motivated by different reasons, but both want to see nuclear energy continue to be an important part of the American energy sector, and it could be one of the ways where we start to see some changes in how Congress and the administration act and real bipartisan solutions getting done.
Monica Trauzzi: All right. Very interesting. Thank you for coming on the show.
Joshua Freed: Thank you very much for having me.
Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
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