Is Utah ready for nuclear power?

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A nuclear power plant located in Avila Beach, Calif. sits along the coast. Utah does not generate any electricity from nuclear power. (AP Photo, Michael A. Mariant)

Two BYU professors said that the benefits of utilizing nuclear power to supply clean energy outweigh the risks.

Matthew Memmott, associate professor of chemical engineering at BYU, believes nuclear power has a significant edge over other forms of renewable energy, despite its mixed reputation.

“Nuclear power is unique in that it has the highest power density of any form of electricity that we have developed to date,” Memmott said.

The waste generated by nuclear power is even more manageable than other renewables, according to Memmott.

“If we were to look at all the nuclear waste generated worldwide to date, it would fill a single football field a few stories high. That’s a phenomenally small amount of waste compared to massive piles of solar panels and wind turbine blades,” Memmott said.

Memmott also said nuclear power is a consistent source of energy, not subject to environment change.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, day in and day out, year in and year out, nuclear generates electricity. This dwarfs the 20% to 30% seen commonly in other renewables today,” Memmott said.

According to the Department of Energy, each nuclear power plant generates around one gigawatt, the equivalent of 3.125 million photovoltaic panels or 431 wind turbines. Despite only 54 operational power plants, they generate 19% of U.S. electricity.

Utah does not currently generate any of its electricity from nuclear power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Braden Clayton, a senior in BYU’s Department of Chemical Engineering, weighed in on why nuclear power has not yet caught on in Utah. Clayton believes there is still a lingering fear and misunderstanding among some portions of the public.

“Most people have no way to quantify radiation and understand what is and isn’t safe. The reality is we are bathed in radiation each day,” Clayton said.

Clayton said the radiation dose residents would receive living next to a nuclear plant is the equivalent to eating one banana.

“(It is) roughly one third of the dose you would receive from a coal plant … which has traditionally powered Utah,” Clayton said.

Another factor limiting Utah’s nuclear power use is the lack of water in the state. Nuclear reactors require water to operate, according to the U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy.

However, Clayton said Memmott and other BYU professors have been developing molten salt microreactors, which do not require water and can fit Utah’s geography.

According to a press statement, U.S. President Joe Biden said the goal is to reach a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.

Clayton believes nuclear energy is required to maintain a good standard of living for the general population, while simultaneously producing biodegradable material and carbon-capturing technology.

“Renewables have a place, but they will not be able to effectively supply energy to power future environmental solutions,” Clayton said.

Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, has echoed the sentiment on her X, formerly known as Twitter, stating the U.S. cannot reach its climate goals without nuclear energy.

(@SecGranhold via X)

35% of Americans say the U.S. government should encourage the use of nuclear power, while 26% prefer they discourage it, according to the Pew Research Center. The remaining 37% say the government should neither encourage or discourage it.

Memmott also addressed the hesitancy of some individuals to embrace nuclear energy.

“The concerns for the environment are appropriate, and I share those concerns. I want to preserve the earth and be a wise steward,” Memmott said.

However, Memmott said new versions of reactors almost completely eliminate the chances of a meltdown.

“As one who strongly cares for environmental quality, I see advanced nuclear as a solution and pathway to a cleaner, cheaper and safer electricity generation,” Memmott said.

In 2012, a two-unit nuclear power plant was approved to be built by the Blue Castle Project, but has not yet started construction.

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