After a blistering summer that stretched the struggling Texas power grid to its limit, we face another winter of crossing our fingers that the heat stays on. The deadly 2021 freeze exposed the ugly reality that the stability of our state’s electricity supply too often rests on hope. We desperately need new sources of power, but Republican leaders continue to hold back the state’s booming wind and solar industries. Instead they’re embracing nuclear power.
Governor Greg Abbott in August directed the Public Utility Commission to explore “how Texas will become the national leader in using advanced nuclear energy.” In its 2022 platform, the state GOP mentions “encouraging providers to build and operate traditional and next-generation nuclear power plants.” In Washington, congressional Republicans are pushing a number of bills that would speed up the permitting and development of nuclear plants. In a written statement, Abbott told Texas Monthly, “This critical technology will bolster our state grid with dispatchable power while lowering prices for Texans.”
Conservatives are championing nuclear power because it generates no carbon emissions and its reactors require less land than solar and wind do. In Texas, it also poses little threat to the dominance of natural gas, whose backers are big campaign donors. Even if nuclear takes off, it will be years before it catches up to the contributions of natural gas, or even wind power, to the state’s energy mix.
“Nukes and gas will lose in competition to renewables and battery storage,” said David Schlissel, director of resource planning analysis for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “The game plan here is to beat back the threat of renewables and battery storage and keep oil, gas, and nuclear viable. [Conservatives] saw what happened to coal. They know the economics.”
Texas draws just 10 percent of its power from nuclear plants, compared to 42 percent from the top source, natural gas; 24 percent from wind turbines; 19 percent from coal; and 4 percent from solar. The state’s nukes can produce about five thousand megawatts, enough to power about one million homes, roughly the number in the city of Houston, during peak demand. On an annual basis, that generation is less than half that of Illinois, which draws more than half of its electricity from splitting atoms.
“I’m hoping the next boom is nuclear,” Pablo Vegas, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s primary grid operator, told Texas Monthly. “This is a good place to operate a nuclear plant.” Texas already has two plants with room for expansion, and its rapidly growing population and economy could make nuclear power a good investment. Yet the state hasn’t brought a new nuclear reactor online since 1993: the second unit of Comanche Peak, in Glen Rose, about an hour’s drive southwest of Fort Worth.
The South Texas Project, near Bay City, about eighty miles southwest of Houston, proposed two new reactors at that site in 2006, and got federal approval in 2016, but by then, its majority owner, NRG, had soured on nuclear power because of the high costs and the length of time required to build a reactor. (NRG sold its remaining interest in the project on November 1 of this year.)
That setback hasn’t kept state officials from bursting with optimism for an atomic future. PUC commissioner Jimmy Glotfelty leads a group, established at Abbott’s request, that is creating incentives for nuclear projects. He has gushed about the potential benefits of nuclear’s reliability and lack of CO2 emissions, which could help companies to meet “net zero” carbon goals. “While nuclear reactors in the state are great for the power business, they’re also good, or better, for the industrial business, for the supply chain, for the long-term economic growth of this state,” Glotfelty said. Still, he acknowledges that Texas’s unusual electricity market poses “a challenge” for anyone looking to get a nuclear plant up and running.
That’s putting it mildly. When Texas lawmakers deregulated the generation and sale of electricity in 2002, they believed that greater reliance on market forces would foster less-expensive, more-reliable power than government regulations could. Republican leaders continue to cling to that belief, even after the considerable failures leading to the statewide blackout of February 2021, when the grid nearly collapsed in ways that would have taken months to repair.
The problem is that the Texas electricity market is designed to balance supply and demand in real time through variable pricing, but it doesn’t create an incentive for reliability—a backup supply of power available when demand peaks. Those peaks drive up wholesale electricity prices, but not consistently enough to justify the cost of building new power plants. Generators simply can’t earn enough of a return from facilities that only run occasionally. Factor in higher interest rates, which have increased corporate borrowing costs, and transmission bottlenecks that already make it difficult to move power where it’s most needed, and few are interested in taking the plunge on building new nuclear plants.
Meanwhile, Texas has continued to add wind and solar power like crazy—last year, the state onboarded more megawatts from those sources than the five next-biggest renewable-producing states combined. But Texas’s top leaders deride the intermittent nature of those sources—solar isn’t much good at night, and the wind isn’t always blowing—even if it’s demonstrably true that it was renewables that kept our ACs running last summer. Abbott and other opponents of renewable energy argue the grid needs much more “dispatchable” generation, meaning plants standing by for the hottest and coldest days.
While ERCOT’s Vegas said he would also welcome more large-scale nuclear plants, much of the current enthusiasm focuses on new technology known as small modular reactors, or SMRs. These have about one third the generating capacity of traditional nukes. They are assembled in a factory and transported to the generating site. SMRs, which are already used in countries such as Canada and South Korea, are designed to be faster and cheaper to build and easier to permit than big reactors such as those at Comanche Peak or the South Texas Project.
SMRs are primarily designed for large industrial users—data centers, petrochemical plants, steel mills—that need lots of power and want to generate that on-site. Glotfelty’s committee, which is scheduled to present its final report to the governor by the end of 2024, will also study placing SMRs at the site of retired coal or natural-gas plants, which means they could be used to generate power for the general public as well, with fewer of the construction delays and cost overruns that have plagued large-scale reactors.
U.S. nuclear regulators in 2020 approved the country’s first SMR, designed by Portland, Oregon–based NuScale Power and scheduled for delivery to the Idaho National Laboratory, in Idaho Falls, in 2027, until NuScale this week announced it has canceled the project because of rising costs. Earlier this year, chemical maker Dow announced it was teaming with X-energy to build a four-reactor SMR cluster at its Seadrift plant near Port Lavaca, about 85 miles northeast of Corpus Christi. Set to be completed by 2030, the SMRs are designed to reduce Dow’s carbon emissions.
Another promising technology, molten salt reactors, is an upgrade of designs that were abandoned in the sixties. They remain in the development phase. Abilene Christian University is taking the first steps toward building a molten salt research reactor, which it hopes to complete in 2025 under a $30.5 million agreement with Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The project is part of a broader ACU initiative to develop new technologies for energy, medicine, and water needs.
Yet these newfangled nukes continue to face many of the same economic, environmental, and regulatory obstacles that have held back nuclear energy for decades. Even with billions in federal subsidies, producing power from the NuScale SMR is expected to cost $89 a megawatt hour, compared with about $21 for natural-gas generation and $26 for wind. “If we continue to have the price curve where it is right now, we’re toast,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the University of Houston’s vice president for energy and innovation. “It’s not going to be a solution.”
Then there’s the issue of waste. Nuclear power generation emits no carbon dioxide, which makes it “green”—if you ignore the radioactive material it produces, which can pose health threats for thousands of years and is unwelcome in areas, including some in Texas, where plant operators have sought to bury it in clay formations deep in the desert. (Most spent fuel remains at the plants where it was used). While one government study found that SMRs generate waste levels comparable to those of larger traditional reactors, Stanford University researchers determined that SMRs may produce between two and thirty times as much radioactive waste. The Stanford study attributed this additional waste to the more significant leakage of neutrons from the core of the smaller reactors.
Another challenge for nuclear plants is water scarcity. Droughts combined with growing water demand statewide pose a risk to nuclear plants, which need between 270 and 670 gallons of water per megawatt hour they generate, both for steam and to cool their radioactive fuel rods.
While the industry insists that today’s advanced nuclear power plants are safe, much of the public remembers accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island. In the late-seventies the movie The China Syndrome immortalized the distrust of nuclear reactors. SMRs may face community opposition, much as large-scale reactors have. “The real challenge is going be whether local communities are going to stand up and say, ‘You claim it’s safe. Show me that it’s safe,’ ” Krishnamoorti said.
Vegas believes regulatory policies and market incentives can be structured to address these concerns and put Texas at the forefront of “a nuclear renaissance.” But Krishnamoorti said the most effective incentive for companies to invest in nukes would be taxing carbon emissions, which Texas, given the influence of fossil-fuel interests, is highly unlikely to do.
Even if nuclear power plays a somewhat larger role in addressing our state’s electricity shortfalls in the coming years, it’s likely to remain on the margins. While it may diversify our sources of generation, it isn’t going to solve the problems of our grid, nor will it provide the politically palatable alternative to renewables that Republican leaders hope for. Wind and solar generation is simply cheaper and faster to build, and takes advantage of resources that are abundant in Texas. “Nuclear power is not going to be the answer to chase renewables,” says J. Jolly Hayden, vice president of power supply and operations for the East Texas Electric Cooperative.
The nuclear renaissance Vegas dreams of is likely at least a decade or two off—roughly the same timeline as other promising technologies, such as large-scale batteries, carbon capture, and offshore wind. In the meantime, we’re likely to rely on the source that already provides most of our power.
Underscoring that point, on Tuesday, voters are weighing in on Proposition 7, a constitutional amendment that would create a $7.2 billion fund to subsidize the construction of natural-gas power plants, with loans from the state at 3 percent interest—well below market rates. Texans are, in effect, being asked to tax themselves so the state can double down on natural gas.
Update, November 9: NuScale announced Wednesday that it has canceled its SMR project. This story has been changed to reflect this development.