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Amid nuclear energy advances in the Mountain West, support is growing nationally

Two men wearing masks and black jackets stand next two men in blue labcoats operating on a machine in a warehouse.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Nuclear Regulatory Commission managers observe as TerraPower engineers experiment with salt in its liquid form as it relates to the company's advanced reactor design on Nov. 12, 2021. TerraPower's working to build a nuclear power plant at a retiring coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyo.

As ambitious plans to deploy new nuclear technologies take shape around the Mountain West, a new poll shows Americans' support for nuclear energy is growing.

An annual Gallup poll shows that 55% of U.S. adults “strongly” or “somewhat” favor the use of nuclear energy. That’s an increase of four percentage points compared to last year – and the highest showing of support since 2012.

“It doesn't surprise me for a host of reasons,” said Dr. Lori Bennear, a professor of energy economics and policy at Duke University. “You do see that if there's a nuclear accident somewhere in the world, that tends to change people's perceptions of nuclear energy for the worse. And then and as time goes by, they start to forget about that a little bit.”

However, the 44% still opposed to nuclear energy shows that its use remains controversial, in part due to concerns around where to store nuclear waste.

Those debates continue to play out in the Southwest. Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed a temporary nuclear waste storage site in southern New Mexico despite a new state law that effectively bans them. In Nevada, the Yucca Mountain repository had for decades been considered a permanent nuclear waste storage site but staunch opposition in the state led the Obama administration to mothball the proposal.

“If you live in Nevada, you're not like, 'Yay! Sign us up for the nuclear waste dump. That sounds great.’ It's very difficult to figure out what to do about the waste.”
Dr. Lori Bennear, a professor of energy economics and policy at Duke University

While Bennear doesn't think the country will fully embrace nuclear energy any time soon, she expects overall support to increase due to the climate crisis.

“It's carbon free, it produces a lot more energy for its footprint, for the amount of land it takes up than solar or wind,” she said. “It can be plugged into facilities that used to burn coal, that's going on in a plant in Wyoming right now. There's a whole host of reasons why a lot of people think that nuclear needs to be part of that clean energy solution.”

One of the most high-profile projects is TerraPower's proposed nuclear power plant slated to be built at a retiring coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyo. The company, co-founded by Bill Gates, plans to construct salt tanks to not only cool the reactor but store heat for later use.

Meanwhile, at the Idaho National Laboratory, Oregon-based NuScale Power is working to build six small modular reactors, or SMRs, in partnership with a public power consortium in Utah.

Both projects are benefitting from the billions of dollars the federal government is spending to help advance nuclear technologies.

Like it or not, Bennear said, nuclear energy will certainly play a role as the U.S. transitions away from fossil fuels.

“If people continue to stay focused on climate change, nuclear is going to have to be a big part of that story,” she said. “We're not going to be able to get there with just solar and wind and batteries.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the Mountain West Reporter for KUNC, here to inform you of all the latest news affecting the Mountain West region. From new legislation to climate patterns to invasive species, I'll research what is happening in your backyard—as well as the backyards of neighboring states—and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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