U.S. Department of Energy Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm visited Idaho National Laboratory on Wednesday to see how the lab is supporting the Biden administration’s clean energy goals.
Granholm toured several facilities at INL’s Materials and Fuels Complex, including those involved in nuclear fuel research such as the EBR-II Dome, which is hosting a U.S. Department of Defense nuclear reactor demonstration project. She also visited the Cybercore Integration Center to see how INL is working with Idaho’s university students and faculty to help educate and train the future cybersecurity workforce.
“What INL is doing is critical not just for the Biden administration, it is for the nation for decades to come, it is for the world because the world is embracing nuclear power more and more,” Granholm told the Post Register on Wednesday.
The U.S. is the top nuclear power producer in the world, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. However, the U.S. falls behind other countries with its nuclear share of electricity generation in its total energy output and its plans to build new reactors.
Six countries get more than 40 percent of their energy from nuclear power, with France leading at 73.3 percent. Energy production in the U.S. is dominated by fossil fuels — coal, natural gas and petroleum — as more than 60 percent of electricity generated in 2021 came from those resources, according to the Energy Information Administration. Nuclear energy accounted for 19 percent of the country’s share in electricity.
The U.S. also has the most nuclear reactors in the world, but the approval process to build new reactors has slowed. The Department of Energy plans to help build two nuclear reactors following a 30-year period where few reactors were built.
Granholm said organizations such as INL have a large influence in showing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission how safe and effective small modular reactors can be. As the commission grows more comfortable with these designs, Granholm said she expects to see approvals to build other reactors coming in more quickly.
“Once they’re built, they are a reliable, clean (source) of baseload power and that’s why there’s so much renewed interest in nuclear power,” Granholm said.
But producing the energy is just part of the issue for the nation’s electric system.
A 2021 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers found that “The majority of the nation’s grid is aging, with some components over a century old — far past their 50-year life expectancy — and others, including 70 percent of T&D (transmission and distribution) lines, are well into the second half of their lifespans.”
The Department of Energy in January 2022 launched the Building a Better Grid to modernize the country’s energy transmission infrastructure and improve access to reliable, clean and affordable electricity for consumers. Granholm said Americans can start to see the results of those changes within a year as the department rolls out funding for initiative projects coming from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which Congress passed in November 2021.
Improving and integrating energy systems into the grid is an area of focus for INL’s Energy Systems Laboratory.
But worldwide, the lab is best known for its nuclear energy research, which is even more important as the nation looks to clean energy to reduce its use of fossil fuels and reduce air pollutants.
INL plans to showcase three advanced reactor demonstration projects being operational at the site within the next three years, according to a Thursday INL news release. A lab initiative seeks to reduce carbon emissions generated by the lab to net-zero by 2031.
“It was a genuine pleasure to host Secretary Granholm,” said INL Director John Wagner in the release. “Her leadership and passion for INL’s clean energy and national security missions are truly inspiring.”
Wednesday’s visit was Granholm’s first trip to INL, the release said. Granholm is a former governor of Michigan and is the nation’s 16th energy secretary.