Environmentalists might howl at the thought, but the conversation about the future of CPS Energy and San Antonio’s long-term plan to reduce carbon emissions should include consideration of next-generation nuclear plants.
Others in the United States, some European countries and Asia already are exploring the possibilities. CPS Energy did so, too, but permits authorized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were canceled in 2018, two years after preliminary studies by CPS were set aside after the nuclear plant disaster in Japan and the growing supply of cheap natural gas in Texas.
As retired nuclear naval submarine commander and San Antonio resident Mike Chapline wrote in an Aug. 10, 2021 commentary here, “The safety record of nuclear power in our region is without parallel. The South Texas Project has operated very safely and reliably throughout its lifetime, with only three reactor trips in the past several years.”
CPS Energy derives 14% of the power it supplies from the South Texas Project, located along the Texas Gulf Coast in Matagorda County. The local energy utility owns a 40% stake in STP while NRG Energy owns 44% and the city of Austin owns 14%. For more than three decades, the plant has operated without major incident and helped CPS Energy keep electricity affordable and reliable.
Even during the winter storm and statewide power outage, STP returned to full power on Feb. 18 after Unit One shut down in the freeze on Feb. 15. San Antonio would have endured far worse in February without that power.
Those who oppose nuclear energy here continue to benefit from it every day.
Nuclear expansion anywhere in the U.S. came to a halt in the wake of the 2016 disaster at Fukushima in Japan, the second-worst nuclear disaster in history after Chernobyl 40 years earlier in 1986. The U.S. safety record has been unblemished since the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania in 1979, a reactor core meltdown that resulted in a release of radioactive gases but no injuries or fatalities.
Nuclear opponents also cite the issue of spent nuclear fuel and question the reliability of its safe storage and possible conversion into future fuel sources for next-generation plants. Both sides of that debate are explored in this Scientific American article from 2009. I lean toward those who believe future technologies and innovation eventually will solve the problem.
What most CPS Energy ratepayers might not know is that work already is underway to design and build next-generation nuclear power plants known as small modular reactors, which advocates say will be far less expensive to design and build than conventional reactors now in operation.
A Houston-Austin-San Antonio partnership would help spread development costs.
Here in the U.S., for example, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is chairman of TerraPower, based in Bellevue, Washington, and Warren Buffett is chairman of PacifiCorp, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, which together are designing a small advanced reactor with salt storage in Wyoming, the country’s leading coal producer.
In England, Rolls Royce SMR is leading the way on planned nuclear expansion design and construction. French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech last month announcing France’s plans to expand its nuclear plant footprint as a way of meeting its carbon-neutral goals by 2050 — this in a country that already generates three-quarters of its power from nuclear.
Other European countries, led by Germany, oppose nuclear expansion in Europe. Politics rather than science, in Europe and the U.S., will ultimately influence whether nuclear expansion accelerates in the coming decade or fails to gain traction.
China, the world’s largest consumer of coal for energy generation, is going forward with its plans to expand nuclear-generated power by 40% by 2025, which would mean nuclear, solar and wind would account for 20% of that country’s energy use.
Dallas-based Texas 2036 founder Tom Luce and colleagues recently published a commentary urging the Texas energy sector to compete with other states for billions in energy diversification funds included in the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Nuclear expansion, unfortunately, is not mentioned.
San Antonio tech leader Lew Moorman publishes a periodic blog, Movements Start Small, that recently addressed climate change and called for a renewal of nuclear energy expansion.
Readers who want to access more information about the state of nuclear research and development in the U.S. can check out the Nuclear Regulatory Commission website. Closer to home, doesn’t it make sense to add nuclear energy expansion to the conversation as CPS Energy searches for its next leader and a more sustainable energy portfolio?
This column has been updated to correct information about STP’s operating capacity during the winter storm.