(DIRECT CURRENT THEME PLAYS, LAYERED VOICES AND MUSIC)
(SOFT MARIMBA AND PERCUSSION MUSIC PLAYS)
MATT DOZIER: Hello and welcome to Direct Current, I’m Matt Dozier.
CORT KREER: And I’m Cort Kreer.
DOZIER: Have a seat. We need to talk about something uncomfortable.
KREER: Now, I know, you may not want to hear it, but this is important.
DOZIER: It’s time we had a conversation … about nuclear power.
KREER: OK, we're kidding. But jokes aside, just the word “nuclear,” on its own comes with a lot of baggage to unpack. On the one hand, you’ve got the big, scary stuff like nuclear weapons, radiation, meltdowns, waste, fallout shelters…
DOZIER: And then on the other hand, there’s good stuff, too, like radiation treatment for cancer. Nuclear physics helps us understand the universe. Weirdly enough, lots of superheroes seem to have gotten their powers from being bitten by a radioactive something-or-other. And then there’s the 20% of our electricity we’ve gotten from America’s fleet of nuclear plants for decades.
KREER: At pretty much every level, our cultural relationship with nuclear power is… complicated. In this episode, we’re going to try to separate some of the facts from the fiction of nuclear, and look ahead to the future.
DOZIER: And when it comes to the fiction, you can’t talk about nuclear power in popular culture without talking about...
SUNG, IN UNISON: "The Simpsons." (LAUGHTER)
DOZIER: Now, this is the part where we were going to play some early Simpsons clips poking fun at the nuclear industry... but our lawyer said we couldn't.
KREER: So instead, we brought her on! to recap some of the best Springfield Nuclear Power Plant scenes from the show's nearly three decades on the air.
(BOUNCY, ORCHESTRAL MUSIC SIMILAR TO "THE SIMPSONS" THEME)
JEN MAHALINGAPPA: My name is Jennifer Mahalingappa, I'm a patent attorney in the Office of General Counsel.
KREER: Hi Jen, thanks for being here.
DOZIER: Are you a "Simpsons" fan?
MAHALINGAPPA: I was, probably at the time that these episodes aired. I probably bowed out when they did their barbershop quartet on the rooftop.
DOZIER: Are you a Simpsons fan?
KREER: (LAUGHS) Same. Lisa Simpson was my all-time idol. I adored her.
MAHALINGAPPA: Did you play the saxophone like Lisa?
KREER: God, I wish. When it came time to do musical instruments in grade school, I wanted to do the saxophone, and because the school I went to had limited saxophones...
KREER: So I got the violin and I hated it. (LAUGHS)
MAHALINGAPPA: I almost don't want to tell you that I played the saxophone.
MAHALINGAPPA: In the marching band, no less.
DOZIER: OK, so we gave you some homework.
DOZIER: You watched the clips.
DOZIER: OK. There's one in particular that I wanted to talk about. The one with the nuclear inspectors. Do you remember that one?
MAHALINGAPPA: Sure. So it's nap time at the nuclear power plant. Mr. Burns is asleep in his office.
DOZIER: Smithers is asleep on his desk.
MAHALINGAPPA: At Mr. Burns' feet.
MAHALINGAPPA: And Homer falls asleep at his control station and slumps forward on the plant destruct giant red button that says, "Please do not push."
KREER & DOZIER: "Plant Destruct, Please Do Not Push." (LAUGHTER) It's the biggest button on the panel.
MAHALINGAPPA: It should at least have a plastic cover. So the alarms start going off, and the dog who's sleeping next to Homer wakes up.
MAHALINGAPPA: Mysteriously. This dog that I've never seen before on The Simpsons and don't recall ever having seen again.
KREER: Who's dog is that? I don't know.
MAHALINGAPPA: It's not Homer's dog. Homer's dog looks different than that dog.
MAHALINGAPPA: But he wakes up and pulls a lever, and the computerized voice says, "Meltdown averted. Good boy." (LAUGHTER)
MAHALINGAPPA: And then the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rolls up in their van and Mr. Burns attempts to pretend that they are not actually a nuclear plant but instead make cookies.
KREER: "Mr. Burns' Old-Fashioned, Good-time, Chewy Cookies."
MAHALINGAPPA: There were a lot of words in there .(LAUGHTER)
DOZIER: That's when they break down the door.
MAHALINGAPPA: Right. And so then they ask for Homer Simpson, but apparently Smithers has rounded up the less competent employees and put them in the basement and they're on "bee patrol." So there's a bee in a jar, and Homer decides that he is the "head bee guy," but he kicks his feet up, knocks over the jar, bee escapes, Homer goes chasing after it, gets stung. So while Mr. Burns and Smithers are telling the nuclear regulatory commission that Homer's not there, he's in Geneva heading some conference on nuclear fission, Home pops up out of a manhole, sticks his bottom in the air, and there is a large bee sting on it, and says... (LAUGHS) ... "A bee bit my bottom, and now my bottom is big."
MAHALINGAPPA: Definitely the high point of the episode.
DOZIER: Yeah. So they, to test his competence...
MAHALINGAPPA: They put him in the van, which is an exact replica of his control room, and they simulate a power surge. And Homer doesn't know what to do, so he starts blindly pushing buttons — literally covers his eyes with his hands — and starts stabbing at all the buttons and generates a nuclear meltdown. The whole truck starts to glow and sink into the ground, and everybody is surprised because there's no nuclear material in the van, so that shouldn't be a possibility. Mr. Burns runs to an escape pod, which he won't let Smithers in...
DOZIER: Even though it has two seats. (LAUGHTER)
MAHALINGAPPA: Because he likes to put his feet up. And then the escape pod crashes in the parking lot anyway, and Homer crawls out of this hole in the parking lot, glowing, and then his digital watch goes off, and it's lunch time, so he literally shakes off the radiation and goes to lunch.
DOZIER: So, pretty accurate description of how nuclear power plants work.
MAHALINGAPPA: I'm sure that's exactly what happens. In "The Simpsons," that's what happens. In real life, that's nothing. I don't think people in the nuclear industry are really like that, but you know, it's a cartoon and it's supposed to be funny, so of course it's an exaggeration.
DOZIER: Jen, thanks so much for coming by.
MAHALINGAPPA: You're welcome.
ERIC MEYER: The things that really stick with you over the long time are the images, right? So the image of nuclear waste, up until a couple years ago, I had was an oil drum -- 55 gallon oil drum with green goo leaking out of it...
MEYER: In reality, it's solid metal rods inside of a steel and concrete storage cask that's just sitting innocuously in a parking lot somewhere with a big fence around it. There's no chance of anything leaking out, it's not just casually thrown into a pile of other leaking barrels of green stuff coming out.
KREER: Eric Meyer is the founder of Generation Atomic, a grassroots organization that advocates for nuclear energy.
DOZIER: Eric likes The Simpsons… but he’s not a fan of the show’s depiction of nuclear -- especially the people that work in the industry.
MEYER: It's not just the images of the environmental impact that aren't accurate, but you also get the image of nuclear power plant owners like Montgomery Burns, who are just trying to squeeze every nickel they can out of the plant and skirt safety regulations just to make extra money, which is not anywhere close to reality.
MEYER: And then you get the image of the employees, which are lazy, unengaged, alcoholic -- which, also not true. Nuclear workers are some of the most highly trained and passionate workers I've ever met. It's too bad that you get such a popular television show that gives them a bad rap.
DOZIER: Eric has a point. And it seems like the show’s creators realized it pretty early on. Nuclear energy groups, appalled at the way the show turned their industry into a punchline, pleaded with producers to tone it down. They even took some of the Simpsons’ writers and executives on a tour of a real nuclear plant about 40 miles south of Los Angeles.
KREER: About a year after the show premiered, the late Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon offered an apology for taking “cheap shots” at nuclear workers. In an interview with the Associated Press, Simon said:
KREER: “I am sorry that the Simpsons have offended a lot of people in the energy industry. I agree with you that in real life Homer Simpson would not be employed at a nuclear power plant. On the other hand, he probably wouldn’t be employed anywhere. I think the facts are pretty powerful that it’s a clean and safe and important source of energy."
DOZIER: Eric’s someone who thinks about this stuff a lot — the negative perceptions of nuclear power, its role in our energy supply, and how to change people’s minds about our most misunderstood energy source.
MEYER: So, Generation Atomic is a nuclear advocacy nonprofit. We were founded about a year and a half ago to defend today's reactors, because we view them as extremely important to combating climate change, and also lay the groundwork to deploying the next generation of reactors.
KREER: The reason Eric and lots of other folks are trying to rally support for nuclear is that several of the nation’s nearly 100 nuclear reactors are scheduled to close over the next decade.
DOZIER: We’ll get into why that’s happening, and what it means later on. For now, though, Eric and a small army of grassroots volunteers are working to get their message out: that nuclear energy is something we should embrace, not fear. And that message is actually resonating.
MEYER: We saw this last year in Ohio, when Generation Atomic with our canvassing team knocked on 45,000 doors and talked to roughly 12,000 people about this subject. And we found that 60 percent of the people we talked to, after having a conversation about nuclear signed on in support of it, which was way higher than we were predicting. But once people realized the value both from an economic side and an environmental side, it's a pretty easy sell.
KREER: But otherwise, it's been an uphill battle. According to polls, nuclear’s popularity in the U.S. has been dropping steadily in recent years. A 2016 Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans surveyed opposed nuclear energy for the first time (since 1994).
DOZIER: Now, obviously, the Simpsons aren’t the real reason nuclear has fallen out of favor. A combination of rising construction costs, a handful of high-profile international disasters, and a decade of low gas prices from the country’s fracking boom have made it easier to just…. Not think about it.
DOZIER: So, aside from going door to door, how do you get people thinking about nuclear power at all, let alone thinking about it as an energy source for the future?
KREER: Generation Atomic’s got a secret weapon in this effort. Eric’s mission is to be a voice for nuclear power, both figuratively and… literally.
(CLIP OF ERIC MEYER SINGING OPERA “UNIVERSAL PROSPERITY”)
DOZIER: In case you were wondering what the opera “Toreador” would sound like if it was written about nuclear power, well, there you go. And if you’re scratching your head right now, that’s kind of the point.
MEYER: So yeah, I think the very first reaction is surprise, because it's loud and a lot of times we're in close quarters. Then there's some mild confusion as they try to listen into the lyrics and see what the song is about. And then typically people enjoy it, and it's just the right amount of weirdness to break up your daily life. It's kind of like a one-man flash mob or something like that.
KREER: Eric, if it wasn't obvious, is a classically trained opera singer.
KREER: These days, he uses his talents to spark conversations about nuclear energy in unexpected places — the mall, the bus, even the occasional sports bar.
DOZIER: Before all that, he was headed for a full-time singing career. That all changed once he started learning about clean energy, specifically the subject of nuclear and its uncertain future.
MEYER: I kept digging deeper and deeper, and I thought, "What about today's nuclear? Is it really as bad as the Simpsons taught me?" And I found out it's not. It's actually one of the best sources of clean energy that we have.
MEYER: So I was kinda going down this path, and then I get to my senior year of undergrad, and realize -- you know what? There's enough opera singers out there in the world, but there aren't enough people advocating for this technology.
KREER: So Eric went to grad school and studied advocacy and political leadership, and started laying the foundations of this new nuclear movement.
MEYER: It's pretty exciting and fulfilling work, trying to bring together these coalitions of passionate people who want to do their part to help save the world, and if I can play a little bit of a role in that, in organizing them I think it will be a good life and a worthy effort for the planet.
DOZIER: Coming up after the break, we’ll dig into the real facts of nuclear energy in America, figure out what advances the future could hold, and talk to some moms who are among nuclear’s biggest fans.
KREER: We’ll leave you with one of Eric’s newest pieces, which he just filmed a music video for at Idaho National Laboratory, home of some of the Department of Energy’s most advanced nuclear research. Stick around.
(CLIP OF ERIC MEYER SINGING OPERA "CLEAN POWER FOREVER")
KREER: So, let's talk about some of the facts.
(SOUND OF PROJECTOR ROLLING, CHEERY PIZZICATO STRING MUSIC)
KREER: What do we mean when we talk about nuclear energy? At its core (ahem), conventional nuclear power uses the splitting of uranium atoms to heat water, creating steam. The steam turns a turbine, which generates electricity.
DOZIER: Uranium is radioactive, which means its atoms are unstable. When a uranium atom is hit by a neutron, it splits, releasing a ton of energy — and more neutrons. That's what we call "nuclear fission."
DOZIER: Uranium-235, the isotope used in nuclear energy, is especially prone to fission. Put a bunch of it in one place, and pretty soon neutrons from one atom are colliding with other atoms, and so on, kicking off a nuclear chain reaction.
KREER: The "fuel rods" are actually long metal tubes filled with little pellets of uranium that have been processed into ceramic form. So, not green, not glowing, and certainly not lying haphazardly around the plant. We bundle them together in the reactor core to generate heat. Regulating the reactor is a matter of inserting or removing "control rods" that fit between the fuel rods and slow down the chain reaction.
DOZIER: So, there you go. Same basic idea as burning coal or natural gas, or concentrating solar energy, all of which follow that same sequence of heat-water-steam-turbine-electricity. But that's pretty much where the similarities stop.
DOZIER: The United States gets roughly 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, around 800 billion kilowatt-hours in 2017, enough for 73 million homes and businesses. That's more than any other nation on earth by a wide margin. And get this — all that power comes from fewer than 100 nuclear reactors across the country.
KREER: One reason that's possible is that uranium is what we call a really, really *dense* source of energy — in a good way.
JON CARMACK: A fuel pellet has a huge amount of power contained within it compared to burning of carbon-based material — a million times more on a per-gram basis.
KREER: That's Jon Carmack with our Office of Nuclear Energy.
CARMACK: The size of a small, one-half-inch tall fuel pellet for a nuclear reactor can generate the same amount of energy as multiple rail cars of coal being burned. Or solar panels spread over hundreds of thousands of acres.
KREER: Jon's in D.C. working as senior technical advisor to the Nuclear Energy office, but he's actually here on loan from Idaho National Laboratory.
DOZIER: Jon's background is in the nitty-gritty technical details of developing advanced nuclear fuels and reactor concepts, but his current role has him looking at the bigger picture of nuclear's role in our country — and how it has changed over the years.
KREER: Which brings us to the other reason just 100 reactors are able to supply 1/5 of the nation's power needs: unlike many energy sources, those plants are producing electricity almost constantly. And they've only gotten more and more reliable over time.
(BLUESY ACOUSTIC GUITAR MUSIC)
CARMACK: I think it's changed in a major way over the last three decades. In the 1970s, 1980s the industry was producing energy about 70 percent of the time, and over the last 2-3 decades there have been major steps forward in improving efficiencies and operation and maintenance of our nuclear power plants. Now they're all operating at better than 90 percent availability. It's one of the most available energy sources we have available to us as a selection in the United States.
DOZIER: Advocates of nuclear power talk about how nuclear is "always on," and point to its ability to deliver a reliable source of electricity, day or night.
DOZIER: For big nuclear plants, the most cost-effective way to operate is to just turn the reactor on and let it run, generating electricity 24/7. They're designed to require less frequent maintenance than coal or natural gas plants. And because the uranium fuel is so dense, they can run for long stretches without refueling — up to 2 years at a time.
KREER: So if nuclear's such an important, reliable energy source, why are we so conflicted about it?
KREER: Well, ask anyone about their concerns over nuclear power, and nuclear waste is practically guaranteed to be near the top of the list. And this country does have a nuclear waste problem — just, probably not in the way you might assume if "The Simpsons" were your main point of reference.
CARMACK: So I think most of the misconception that nuclear energy is dirty comes from the historical weapons complex, that our public hears a lot about the dangers of this material that's in the environment, that's been released to the environment and needs to be cleaned up now. You know, this has gone wrong with that, or that has gone wrong.
DOZIER: Jon is referring to the legacy of our nation's production of nuclear weapons during World War II and the Cold War. For decades, more than 100 top-secret sites across the country handled large quantities of nuclear material.
KREER: Those efforts ran from around 1940 to 1990, but in their wake they left some areas with crumbling facilities, contaminated soil and groundwater, and radioactive waste. Some of it was actually in the form of of toxic sludge, which is probably where The Simpsons got the idea from!
DOZIER: There's an entire office at the Energy Department dedicated to cleaning up these sites. So far, they've completed cleanup at 91 out of the 107 locations. It's the largest environmental cleanup program in the world.
DOZIER: But what's NOT included in those 107 sites is a single commercial nuclear power plant. There's a real question over what to do with so-called "spent fuel" from nuclear power plants in the long term — but not because this stuff poses any imminent danger. It’s a totally different scenario for spent fuel from nuclear power plants.
KREER: Currently, each plant stores its used fuel rods on site, first in pools of water to cool it down, then in cement casks. It doesn't go anywhere, doesn't hurt anyone, and could even be reused in the future, once fuel recycling technology becomes more common. Plus, since it's so compact, all the waste from all the nuclear plants in the country could be stacked 10 yards high on a single high school football field.
CARMACK: The fact is, with nuclear power and the production of energy, it's a very contained process that doesn't spread radioactivity and material to the environment. We've had 2, 3 major accidents involving nuclear power plants that also have given the public the view that there's a lot of radioactive material that's released to the environment. But those are very damaging, unexpected events that took place at some of those plants, and even with that there was a very minimal amount of material that was actually released -- except for the Chernobyl accident, which I wouldn't necessarily consider a "power" activity.
KREER: That's another big argument against nuclear power plants — this idea that they could melt down at any moment and spew radiation, hurting people and the environment.
DOZIER: But even out of the handful of high-profile accidents over the years, Chernobyl really stands out as the only case with actual, serious health impacts — a result of the site's near-total disregard for safety precautions. Jon said that's a far cry from how today's nuclear industry works.
CARMACK: Over the years, our industry had a huge focus on safety, especially in the United States. I think our industry learned a lot from the Three Mile Island accident — not only from the safety aspects of it, but the operations & maintenance, to how you treat your people & what do you expect from your people?
CARMACK: There's been a philosophy developed in the nuclear industry that is fundamentally you approach everything from the safest position. You question everything and ask, "Is this the right thing to be doing?" And we talk about that. I've had people from outside the industry looking in tell me that, maybe you shouldn't talk about how safe you are, or how you're trying to be so safe, because that just implies that your technology is not safe.
KREER: That conundrum is one that has plagued nuclear power for decades — and despite the industry's safety record, many people remain unconvinced.
(SLOW, PENSIVE MUSIC WITH STRINGS AND MARIMBA)
KRISTIN ZAITZ: I was really nervous, personally, starting the job at the plant. All my friends had jokes to make about how scary it was, and what was I doing, and when I got the position they made me a cake and put real firecrackers on top of it -- the insinuation being that we were celebrating me going to this place that was going to blow up.
DOZIER: That's Kristin Zaitz. The plant she's talking about is the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near San Luis Obispo, California, which is where she went to college.
ZAITZ: When I came to school at Cal Poly, I identified with the environmentalist groups, and those were my friends, and I just thought nuclear power was something that we as a group should all be against. And that was really about all I knew about nuclear power.
KREER: So, not the kind of person you'd expect find working at a nuclear plant. But when Kristin graduated, her life took an unexpected twist.
ZAITZ: I got an engineering degree -- I'm a civil engineer -- and I stayed in town for sort of a silly reason. I had a boyfriend who was still in college, and I knew I needed to do something until he graduated, so I reluctantly took a job at Diablo Canyon, thinking, as soon as he graduates, I'll quit my job and we'll go do something else.
ZAITZ: So, long story short, I ended up losing the boyfriend and keeping the job.
DOZIER: Heather Matteson has a similar story.
HEATHER MATTESON: I never planned to go into nuclear energy or any sort of energy. I went to college for engineering, and when I graduated, lo and behold, there were no engineering jobs anywhere nearby. So I spent a couple years working lots of odd jobs, like manufacturing rectal thermometers for cows, and working harvests at a winery in a tank room, shoveling grapes and pumping juice back and forth, and then I worked in a clothing store downtown making $7.50/hour.
MATTESON: Finally I was like, OK, I need a real job -- this is ridiculous (laughs).
KREER: I'll give you one guess where she ended up.
MATTESON: So I decided, OK, I guess I'll try Diablo Canyon, I'll try the power plant, but I was pretty nervous about it. My family was pretty nervous about it. They didn't really want me to work out there.
KREER: Heather went to work at the plant as a reactor operator and procedure writer. And, like Kristin, she approached the job with suspicion.
MATTESON: When I was offered a job at Diablo Canyon, I went in with the attitude like, "I will ask lots of questions and figure out what the real deal is. They're probably doing something shady, so I'll just figure it out." So I went in thinking, OK, I'm going to be a spy, and I'm going to expose the company.
DOZIER: Spoiler alert: she didn't find the dirt she was looking for.
MATTESON: I asked lots of questions, I asked about everything that I possibly could for years and years. I did that for a long time, and I still do that. I have a natural sense of curiosity, but after a few years of that I started realizing that nuclear was good for the environment, and was good for people. The more questions I had, the more doubts I had, as soon as I asked enough questions to really understand, it made me even more sure that nuclear was a good thing.
KREER: Kristin remembers coming to a similar realization.
ZAITZ: I reluctantly learned more and more and more about it, and I realized during that time at Diablo Canyon, slowly, that this place that I thought was so bad was actually doing one of the most important things that we should be doing, which is keeping our air clean and saving land and saving nature for our kids and our kids' kids to enjoy in the future. Because it produces so much energy on such a small footprint.
KREER: The pair met while working at Diablo Canyon, and connected over their shared experiences — not just as women working in a nuclear plant, but as environmental advocates — and as mothers.
DOZIER: Over time, their friendship took on another aspect — a shared concern for the future of nuclear energy. Together, they formed the nonprofit advocacy group Mothers for Nuclear, which works to rally support for what they see as an industry in danger of disappearing.
ZAITZ: Yeah. Heather and I bonded because we had stories that are somewhat similar, I mean with our upbringings, although I never manufactured rectal thermometers for cows. (LAUGHTER)
ZAITZ: We both have strong environmental backgrounds and care for the environment and people, and when we found out about the effects of closing nuclear plants we knew it was bad for both the environment and humanity around the globe.
MATTESON: We also realized that we had a bit of a unique voice in that there weren't a whole lot of women in general standing up and talking about nuclear power. And then to be a mother on top of that, and an environmentalist, it felt like there weren't a whole lot of other people like us, and it was our duty to start sharing the reasons why people like us should support nuclear.
KREER: Calling themselves "Mothers for Nuclear" isn't just a ploy to garner sympathy. Heather and Kristin see it as a core piece of their motivation for doing what they do.
ZAITZ: When you have a child, your care and your love is spread a little bit more, and you can't help for it to spill over on others more than it ever used to. I say becoming a mother helped me to care even more to take the next step to take action for our environment in a way that I hadn't done before.
MATTESON: Yeah, mothers, it's our whole job to raise the next generation and to think about the future and to make sure that they're set up for success. We have to always be thinking about the best for our children.
(DRAMATIC, UP-TEMPO PIANO MUSIC)
DOZIER: That hope for the future ties into one of the other big reasons Heather, Kristin, Eric and many others support nuclear power, one that we haven't really touched on yet.
KREER: With nuclear, nothing is burned, so there's no emissions other than water vapor. No smog, none of the nitrogen oxides or sulfur dioxides that cause acid rain — and no carbon dioxide.
DOZIER: We already talked about how nuclear provides 20 percent of the U.S.'s electricity. Well, it generates roughly 60 percent of the nation's clean, emissions-free energy. More than hydropower, wind, and solar combined — by a country mile. And that's something the Mothers for Nuclear say resonates with many of the groups and individuals they reach out to.
MATTESON: That's a huge selling point for nuclear and one of the most important things that we think can reach those kind of audiences that do care about climate change.
ZAITZ: Yeah, I think Heather's right with emissions being the biggest selling point. There's a number of issues that people care about first, and then they come to nuclear and find out how amazing nuclear is in that area, and they become the strongest supporters of all.
KREER: There's an urgency to their message, as the effects of climate change intensify around the globe and our fleet of nuclear plants dwindles.
MATTESON: Not everyone can spend six years working at a nuclear plant asking tons of skeptical questions before they can come to accept the technology -- we need them to do that a lot sooner because nuclear is under threat now.
DOZIER: You may remember from earlier, when we said there are around 100 nuclear reactors in the U.S. Since 2013, 6 reactors have shut down, and 13 are slated to close ahead of schedule over the next decade. That’s more than 10% of U.S. nuclear capacity, and more closures are likely to follow.
KREER: Just days after this episode airs, one of America's oldest plants will be decommissioned, bringing the nation's total to 98 reactors as of September 2018.
DOZIER: Diablo Canyon, where Heather and Kristin met, is California's last nuclear power plant. Its reactors are scheduled to shut down for good in 2024 and 2025.
KREER: What's behind this decline? Well, the short answer — as it often is when we talk about energy markets — is it's complicated. Cost, of course, is a major factor.
CARMACK: Well, I think it's really at a critical point for some of our reactors. We're watching many of the reactors operating in the competitive markets, and they're having a very tough time competing against the low-cost electricity generated by the renewable energy, as well as the very, very cheap gas energy.
CARMACK: Nuclear energy has traditionally been a very cheap electricity. And so some of those plants, the utilities that operate them are making the financial choice to close them early. So with some of the prospective announcements of early closures, we could see the loss of 25 percent of our plants by 2030.
DOZIER: Also, conventional nuclear plants are massive pieces of infrastructure with multibillion-dollar capital investment costs. If you're gonna build one, you want to be pretty certain that it's going to be profitable to operate for decades to come.
KREER: And right now, that certainty just isn't there, so there aren't many new plants under construction to replace the ones that close.
CARMACK: That's a very dire -- for us, nuclear technologists and advocates -- a very dire thing because we see those plants, they're generating clean energy, low-emission energy. So we see them as having great value. They're just not able to compete against some of the other sources in these markets.
(GRADUALLY BUILDING STRING ORCHESTRA MUSIC WITH ELECTRONIC BEAT)
CARMACK: You know, some things we value are not just monetary. We value the cleanliness of our air. I'm from Idaho. Idaho has very clean air, and I can't imagine having less clean air than I have right now. For some communities, with nuclear power plants closing, they will have less clean air than they have right now.
KREER: We've only really touched on the energy role of nuclear power so far, but it's worth mentioning that it offers lots of other benefits that have nothing to do with electricity.
DOZIER: Nuclear technologies are widely used in medicine, including in 80% of the research to find cures for diseases. And the radioisotopes produced by nuclear reactors are critical to a wide array of diagnostic tests and cancer treatments that help tens of millions of patients a year.
DOZIER: Many naval vessels like submarines and aircraft carries, as well as Arctic icebreakers, are powered by nuclear reactors, allowing them to stay at sea for months and even years at a time before refueling.
KREER: It's not just ships at sea — NASA spacecraft from Voyager to New Horizons to the Mars Curiosity Rover use special nuclear batteries to keep them warm and functioning as they explore our Solar System and beyond.
DOZIER: And then there's the national security implications of nuclear research. This work enables the National Nuclear Security Administration to keep our nuclear arsenal safe and effective, as well as detecting and responding to nuclear threats around the globe.
KREER: So, nuclear has all these benefits, and yet it's facing this dire prognosis. The question is, then, is there some way forward for America's nuclear industry? And what could it look like in the future?
DOZIER: Well, for starters, there are lots of ways new technologies could extend the life of our current nuclear fleet, from digitizing control rooms to developing new advanced fuels. Realistically, with the right technological advancements, many of these existing plants could continue to run for another 80 years or more.
KREER: But the future of the electric grid is increasingly variable. Newer energy sources like wind and solar come on- and offline as the wind blows and the sun shines, so the supply of electricity on the grid goes up and down.
DOZIER: Remember how we said nuclear plants are "always on"? Say you add a ton of solar to the grid. At night, when the sun is down, the energy from nuclear is super important. But it becomes way less valuable during the day, when solar is producing lots of electricity.
CARMACK: I think for nuclear energy one of the next steps is to be more flexible, so that it can support and work with many of these other energy sources. So for instance, have a smaller nuclear power plant that is more flexible in its operating schedule so that maybe it can take up the generating capacity when wind and solar are off. So it gives more options for a grid operator to manage their grid and supply the energy to their customers as needed.
KREER: And it just so happens that the Energy Department has been supporting exactly that kind of solution.
KOLLAR: Yes. So we are designing a system that will be flexible and be able to not just work with the energy system today in which we're finding more and more variable renewables online, but also work with the energy system of tomorrow and the future.
DOZIER: Lenka Kollar works for NuScale Power, an Oregon-based company that's leading the charge on a next-generation nuclear technology called "Small Modular Reactors" or SMRs. And, as the name implies, it's essentially a smaller version of today's nuclear plants.
KOLLAR: It's based on the same type of technology, but we've simplified the design to make it a much simpler system that can be more efficiently run and more flexibly operated.
KREER: Most conventional nuclear reactors produce huge amounts of electricity, around 1,000 megawatts or more. NuScale's system produces a lot less than that — but the "Modular" in "Small Modular Reactor" means NuScale can take a bunch of these reactors and stick them together for additional juice.
KOLLAR: What we've designed is a modular system so it's only a 50-megawatt electric design, and this is a module that is then fully produced in a factory.
KOLLAR: Our U.S. design what we're getting licensed right now would have up to 12 modules in a single plant for about 600 megawatts. So, slightly less than what you see operating today, but the key aspect to it is that it's flexible.
DOZIER: Along with this flexibility, NuScale touts the improved safety of SMRs, as well as their ability to withstand and rebound quickly from natural disasters.
KOLLAR: We've eliminated a lot of the large components that you would normally see in a large nuclear power plant. The primary system doesn't have any pumps, for example. The water is circulated completely by natural circulation.
KOLLAR: And because of this natural circulation, the modules can shut down by themselves without the need for any operator action, any power to run pumps or other systems, or any extra water to cool down the actual reactor.
KREER: NuScale got its start at Oregon State University back in 2000, when cofounder Dr. Jose Reyes received a grant from the Energy Department to start developing the technology. The Department has provided the company with additional support over the years, including a $40 million cost-sharing grant in early 2018.
DOZIER: That investment could soon pay off.
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DOZIER: Lenka said the company has applied for a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is responsible for approving all new reactor technologies before they hit the market (not doing safety inspections out of vans!). NuScale's design is the first of its kind to make it this far in the process.
KOLLAR: What excites me most about NuScale is that we're taking a technology that already exists and making it better and more efficient, and because of that I think that our ath to getting this to be a viable product to have on the grid soon is really exciting, because this is not something on paper. We're actually doing this, we've done the testing, we're going through the licensing process now, so it's very real.
KOLLAR: We're a little over a year into that process now and have just completed the first phase, which is a huge milestone for us. So we are on track and on schedule to have this design approved around 2020.
KREER: If all goes well, the company plans to build its first plant within the next few years, at a place near and dear to Jon Carmack.
KOLLAR: We are currently working with the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, UAMPS, which is a collection of municipal utilities in Utah and other western states, and they're really interested in deploying our first plant in the mid-2020s. This would be built in Idaho at the Idaho National Laboratory.
DOZIER: It would become the latest in a grand tradition of pioneering nuclear reactor research at Idaho National Lab.
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CARMACK: Idaho's a wonderful place, and for most people very remote. And that's one of the benefits -- you have this place that has a large land space where you can have multiple demonstration reactor technologies that you can test for a period of time and determine how they perform.
CARMACK: It's been in existence since the late '40s, early '50s, and it's hosted 52 different demonstration or test reactors over those years.
DOZIER: NuScale is a really exciting, promising technology, that could help craft a new vision of nuclear's role in America and elsewhere around the world — smaller, safer, cheaper, and more flexible.
KREER: Of course, it's not the only advanced nuclear technology in the works — there are countless other reactor designs, fuel concepts, and much more in development at INL and other sites across the nation, many of them with support from the Energy Department and our National Labs.
DOZIER: Some of these ideas could prolong the life of our current nuclear fleet. Others, like NuScale, could lend new life to proven technologies. And still others, further down the line, could reshape the way we generate and use nuclear energy entirely.
CARMACK: I have a long history and love of the current fleet of nuclear reactors, and what they've been able to do over the past few years is phenomenal.
CARMACK: But to think about having a small microreactor in the future that could power my little town or my microgrid that I live in — it's very exciting to think about the advanced technologies and the opportunities that we have in the future.
DOZIER: So like we said earlier in the podcast... it's complicated. But, despite all the misconceptions, nuclear has been with us for years — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And with new technologies heading toward the finish line, the question is....
KREER: If nuclear is becoming more flexible, can we?
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DOZIER: That's it for this episode. If this has inspired you to take a tour inside a radioactive materials research facility or see a cross-section of the NuScale small modular reactor we talked about, head over to energy.gov/podcast. We'll post a bunch of videos, diagrams, and infographics there.
KREER: Don't forget, we really like hearing from you. If you've got a question, want to leave feedback, or just want to say hello, email us at email@example.com, or tweet @energy. And if you're enjoying the show, share it with a friend and leave us a review on iTunes. It really makes a difference.
DOZIER: Many thanks to our guests, Eric Meyer, Jon Carmack, Kristin Zaitz, Heather Matteson and Lenka Kollar.
KREER: Thank you to Mike Mueller and the rest of the folks in our Office of Nuclear Energy for all your help on this episode.
DOZIER: And special thanks to Jen Mahalingappa for being such a good sport.
KREER: Direct Current is produced by Matt Dozier, Paul Lester, and me, Cort Kreer. I also create original artwork for every episode, which you can find on our website.
DOZIER: Additional support from Ernie Ambrose, Gigi Frias, and Atiq Warraich. We’re a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capitol in Washington, D.C.
KREER: Thanks for listening!