SALT LAKE CITY — The way to get the edge on climate change and bring emissions down is next-generation nuclear technology being pursued by a Utah coalition of public power producers via small modular reactors.
Or at least that's the opinion of the Edge, U2's iconic guitarist, also known as David Evans.
In comments made this month during a panel discussion for Dublin investment firm VentureWave and reported by the Independent.ie in Ireland, Evans said next-generation nuclear technology is key to meeting climate change goals.
"We have to open our minds to third-generation nuclear energy being a possible solution," he said.
That certainly strikes a cord with LaVarr Webb, spokesman for the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems' Carbon Free Power Project planned at the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls.
The project will use small modular reactors designed by Oregon-based NuScale Power.
NuScale's design was the first next-generation nuclear technology certified by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the project is now going through the development of its construction and operating license due for submission in 2023.
The planned modular reactors, slated to start generating power in 2029, could ultimately deliver 720-megawatts of electricity from a 40-acre site and provide stable, baseload power to member cities and districts.
Each module is capable of delivering 77 megawatts, and how many modules are used in the project will depend on the number of utilities that are participating.
Webb said there are utilities throughout the West and Northwest that are interested in coming on board, the project continues to enjoy bipartisan support from Congress and it is a priority for the U.S. Department of Energy.
"UAMPS with NuScale is far ahead of any other SMR technology with the design certification by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission," Webb said. "As concern about climate change grows, the fact is we need to move expeditiously to reduce our carbon emissions."
The project is not without its critics who worry about the nuclear waste disposal issue as well as costs that may prove too exorbitant for cities and future ratepayers. Some cities like Logan and Murray have opted out after initially committing to the project.
But Webb said having someone like the Edge get in on the conversation about next-generation nuclear technology underscores its importance if countries are serious about cutting carbon emissions.
"Certainly people like that who are icons and followed by millions of people, their opinions matter," Webb said.
"It is good to hear someone like him looking at energy needs and the need to reduce carbon emissions in a practical way."
Diane Hughes, NuScale Power's vice president of marketing and communications, said the company was pleased the rock star weighed in.
"NuScale welcomes this exciting support of next-generation nuclear as an efficient, safe means to meet global climate goals," she said.
"As countries worldwide shift their energy consumption away from greenhouse gas-emitting power sources that exacerbate climate change, building diverse support around the economic and environmental benefits of advanced nuclear is an important priority of ours."
George Griffith, INL's lead on small modular technology, said as the country ramps up its deployment of green energy, flexibility will be key in determining what sort of technology fits in a particular area.
Solar, for example, is a good pursuit for Arizona, while small modular reactor technology has the potential to replace coal as a source of electrical generation in states where that has been traditionally used, Griffith said.
"So one size does not fit all," he said, adding that the vision on "nuclear" is changing as the technology for these small reactors becomes more advanced.
Although he described himself as an "eternal optimist," Evans said it is time to reconsider the wholesale, singular pursuit of more solar farms and wind turbines.
"We need to think very deeply about whether our current strategy of renewable energy is going to make it. We've got to be prepared to rethink certain things," the Independent reported him saying.
"The amount of impact on our land in terms of solar photovoltaic cells and windmills, it's such a huge amount of ground that you have to dedicate to these renewable resources, is it really practical?"
According to Wind Energy Ireland, there are just under 400 wind farms on the island of Ireland producing 5,510 megawatts of electricity. Solar development, given its climate, has been much more limited.
Webb said the guitarist and songwriter does have a good point to make when it comes to the land required for renewable energy deployment.
"We are obviously very supportive of renewables," he said, pointing to a variety of renewable energy resources the association owns. "But you have to look realistically at the amount of land required if we were to get 100% wind and solar."
The expansion of renewable energy as directed by the Biden administration has led to calls for smart planning by groups such as The Nature Conservancy. It said biodiversity needs to be protected and the importance of land conservation can't be overlooked, even as it noted the amount of land required for renewables will be "significant."
The organization pointed to the Princeton Net Zero report that said wind and solar expansion will require a 228,000-square-mile footprint — greater than the states of Colorado and Wyoming combined.
As an example, Webb's group has a wind farm near Idaho Fall that sits on 20,000 acres and produces around 60 megawatts of electricity. The Carbon Free Power Project using nuclear power will occupy 40 acres at the Idaho National Laboratory.
"The footprint is just tiny, tiny compared to wind and solar," he said.
Development of nuclear power in Ireland is prohibited, and the country's environment minister, according to the Independent, said there are no plans to revisit the ban.
The country has the third-highest per-capita emissions in the European Union, and a pro-nuclear advocacy group said deployment of small modular reactor plants — like NuScale's — could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 36 million tons over a 20-year period, according to the newspaper.
Evans said political leaders need to be thinking longer term.
"Everybody thinks in terms of their election cycle, and everyone's looking for a result now. We all have the power with our votes to empower politicians to engage in much longer-term thinking. Cathedral thinking is really the way to describe it," he said.
"We've got to encourage existing industries with a bad reputation to change, so we don't make the good the enemy of the perfect."