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A sleeping giant in the energy debate

Alaska looks to nuclear innovation as a near-future solution to energy needs

Anchorage at night in winter iStock.com/RobsonAbbott

A sleeping giant in the energy debate

In the northernmost part of the United States, having the lights on and a heating unit running keeps sub-zero conditions just outside the door. Without them, the black night of the Alaskan winter can quickly become a matter of life and death for the state’s residents, many of whom still depend on diesel generators to keep the power on in rural communities. If Alaskans can more confidently throw the switches in their homes by implementing cutting-edge nuclear power, State Rep. James Kaufman says he’s open to the idea.

“If we don’t have energy, our houses freeze and the pipes freeze. It’s not just a simple, ‘I’m going to be uncomfortable.’ It’s a much bigger issue,” Kaufman told WORLD. “The promise of the micronuclear package is that you can have reliable output from it that isn’t dependent on external conditions, especially in areas that don’t have other options.”

Kaufman, who sits on the state’s energy committee, is referring to the development of “small modular reactors” (SMR) which aim to condense the source behind nuclear plants, their iconic steam cooling towers, and their sprawling campuses into portable devices about the size of a pair of refrigerators. In theory, these devices could power a small town—or, as the military hopes to do by 2027, part of the Alaskan Eielson Air Force Base. That’s a development Kaufman says could offer rural communities in Alaska life-changing technology. The state’s legislature has considered measures to make its implementation easier.

But it’s not a solution you’re likely to hear about in politics.

Alaska’s neck-and-neck Senate race between Kelly Tshibaka and Republican incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a contest that has largely focused on energy policy, has left nuclear power clean out of the picture. Its absence prompts a question about nuclear power’s place in the energy conversation in Alaska and more broadly in the United States as a whole: In a year with soaring gas prices and inflation, why aren’t more politicians drawing attention to innovation in nuclear power?

“What they’re afraid of is that, if there’s an accident, that radiation from a nuclear plant will harm them or their kids. But if you ask nuclear scientists if they are happy to live near a plant, overwhelmingly they all say ‘yeah sure,’” said Calvin Beisner, president of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

Still, local communities might see the allure of power but aren’t keen on getting too close. Such is the case with fierce opposition from Nevada’s Attorney General Aaron D. Ford to a longstanding proposal for a nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The site would provide permanent storage for the concrete cylindrical containers that house depleted radioactive fuel rods.

Ford contends that the size, geography, volatility, and accessibility of the mountain are all reasons not to keep spent nuclear fuel there.

The only nuclear power plant currently under construction in the United States has faced stringent regulatory and legal challenges that have stalled its development for a decade. Two reactors at the Vogtle power plant near Waynesboro, Ga., were approved for construction in 2012. It has cost the Georgia Power Company more than $30 billion to build and is expected to start generating power in March 2023.

While environmental safety has historically provided most of the opposition to nuclear development, Beisner says it might also be what brings it back into the picture.

“A growing number of people in the environmental movement are beginning to embrace nuclear energy reluctantly because they see it as the best way to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. Nuclear power does not contribute at all to carbon dioxide emissions,” Beisner said.

Using nuclear power to produce electricity to power electric vehicles would produce a real net savings in carbon emissions unlike the shell game of using fossil fuel plants to produce electricity for electric vehicles.

Even so, popular opinion on nuclear power remains very mixed. The Pew Research Center released polling results in March of this year that found that 35 percent of adults say the federal government should encourage nuclear growth while about 26 percent believe the government should discourage its production. The lack of enthusiasm makes nuclear energy an unlikely topic for political candidates.

But back in Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy is going against the tide. In February, he called on the state legislature to pass three new bills which focus on energy diversification. According to Dunleavy, one of those bills, “will allow interested communities in Alaska to explore exciting new opportunities related to microreactors—a new and extraordinarily safe form of energy that could provide relief from high diesel and heating oil costs.”

Instead of outright funding or implementing nuclear power at the state level, the bill aims to cut down on the red tape that has ensnared productions like the one at Vogtle, making Alaska more fertile ground for microreactor technology. Dunleavy has also set up Alaska’s first-ever Sustainable Energy Conference, which is set to take place in October of 2023 and carries the financial support of Ultra Safe Nuclear—a U.S.-based developer and provider of nuclear fuel.

Congress’ 2022 Infrastructure Bill names micronuclear reactors under Title III, Subsection C, “Nuclear Energy Infrastructure.” The text calls for the evaluation of how microreactors may be used for the purposes of national defense. It also calls for their implementation in isolated communities and in the event of a power grid failure.

Although Kaufman hopes nuclear power can become a part of the energy makeup in Alaska, he says he hopes Alaska won’t overextend itself. Part of the danger of being at the forefront, he warned, is being the first to try an untested solution that might need replacing in the near future. In addition to nuclear energy, he hopes to spread the weight of Alaska’s energy needs on the state’s rich resources of natural gas and oil. He doesn’t see those options as mutually exclusive.

“With some of these renewable technologies like wind or solar, if you’re not careful you could buy into something that’s not quite up to snuff with the latest technology,” Kaufman said. “[With nuclear] I think we need to tread carefully. I’m a big fan of using what we know works and what’s economically viable and lean on that while also being open to new technologies.”

Despite voting 25 pieces of legislation into law during its five-month session, the Alaska legislature in 2022 did not pass a bill supporting micronuclear power. Kaufman says he expects a similar bill to be introduced when the legislature reconvenes next year.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


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