Electric cars needs nuclear

Editor of the Reformer:

The U.S. automobile industry is undergoing a rapid transformation. Just a few years ago the idea of electric vehicles dominating car sales would have seemed preposterous. Today the cost of EVs is competitive with gasoline cars, and auto analysts expect widespread use of all-electric vehicles within a decade.

In the next few years, Tesla, Chevy and Nissan plan to start selling long-range EVs in the $30,000 range. Other carmakers are investing billions on new models. By 2020, auto experts say, some of these will cost less and perform better than their gasoline counterparts. EVs are expected to displace oil demand of 2 million barrels a day in less than a decade. By 2040, long-range EVs will cost less than $22,000 (in today's dollars), according to projections by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Thirty-five percent of new cars worldwide will be plug-in.

The mass-market liftoff of EVs isn't something that electricity companies are planning for. Projections show that the switch to EVs will increase electricity demand by 10 percent. But with a current range of 200 miles on an EV, there aren't nearly enough recharging stations for long-distance trips. Nor is there enough spare electricity capacity to meet the anticipated demand for power, let alone provide electricity for EVs as production of the all-electric cars increases. This is shortsighted.

EV adoption is an effective way to improve air quality, reduce emissions and fight climate change. And the transfer to EVs would be positive for the economy, since steady growth in the number of EVs on the road could enable the United States to reduce its dependence on imported oil and involvement in the Middle East.


If nuclear power is used to supply the electricity needed for EVs, substantial environmental gains could be realized. Nuclear power doesn't pollute the air and it's carbon-free. Nuclear power is reliable. Its growth, moreover, would strengthen America's standing as the world's leading supplier of nuclear technology and know-how.

However, few utilities can afford the high cost of building a large nuclear plant. Just five nuclear plants are under construction in the United States, and, due to competition from cheap natural gas and subsidized wind power, several existing reactors such as Vermont Yankee and the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts are being shut down.

It's time to consider an alternative: the small modular reactor (SMR), a microreactor that could be factory-built in three years for a fraction of the cost of a large power plant. The Department of Energy is sharing the cost of developing a 50-megawatt SMR with NuScale, a nuclear start-up company in Oregon that has designed a radically different reactor that promises major upgrades in safety. DOE recently approved a building site permit for the NuScale SMR, to be located in Idaho. It will be the first SMR in the world.

Designed by nuclear engineers at Oregon State University, the NuScale SMR can be sited underground, and scaled up with as many as 12 modules grouped in a cluster to provide 600 megawatts of electricity. New modules are added as the need for more electricity arises, reducing the upfront capital cost of nuclear power and making it more affordable.

Passively safe, the NuScale SMR is designed to shut down safely with no operator action, no electric power, and no external water. NuScale expects the SMR to be licensed by 2020 and producing electricity by 2023.

With the nation's need for electricity increasing, it's time to stimulate the development of other types of SMRs. Some 50 nuclear companies have SMR designs on the drawing board. Many like the NuScale model use conventional light-water technology, but others would be cooled by liquid metal or gas instead of water and use different nuclear fuels.

With standardized designs and built in factories, SMRs could generate carbon-free power for EVs within a decade. This is the kind of mobilization needed to make nuclear power less expensive, easier and faster to build, and help provide a roadmap for powering a new generation of electric vehicles.

Bob Leach, Brattleboro, March 7