The Nuclear Option

The nuclear industry, despite a rough patch in the past few decades, may be poised for a major renaissance. As the prices of conventional fuels such as coal and natural gas skyrocket, nuclear power has become increasingly attractive to utilities looking for stable operating costs, environmentally friendly sources of energy, and insurance against geopolitical threats to energy security. Finally, in an era of rising concern over energy security, the nuclear industry is being promoted as a domestic solution to the nation’s demand for imported energy.

A nearly limitless supply of energy is absolutely essential to the modern information and industrial economy. Because increases in demand have historically swamped incremental increases in efficiency, Americans consume more energy per capita than ever before. The US fleet of 103 commercial nuclear reactors, spread over 66 sites, generates approximately 20% of the nation’s electrical power. Nuclear plants also present one of the more environmentally friendly approaches to large scale power generation. They emit no greenhouse gases, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, or heavy metals—all of which are commonly emitted by conventional fossil fuel (especially coal) plants. More stringent regulations on these emissions represent a potential liability for the operators of power stations that use fossil fuel, making nuclear an even more attractive option.

The US experienced a boom in nuclear power plant construction in the 1950s and 1960s, but plant completions began to slow in the 1970s because of rising capital costs, construction delays, and concerns about overcapacity. The 1979 Loss of Coolant Accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in central Pennsylvania and the 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine cast a long shadow, and general skepticism, over the US nuclear industry for many years.

The shadow lingers even as practical concerns over safety have dissipated. The industry has achieved an exemplary safety and capacity utilization record of late. Through turbine upgrades, greater capacity utilization, and uprating, annual electricity generation from US nuclear plants reached an all-time high in 2004, according to the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration. Yet, it has been a decade since the last new reactor came on-stream—Watts Bar 1, owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, entered service in 1996, though construction had begun in 1973.

But many analysts now believe the nuclear industry is poised to embark on a new wave of reactor construction. The rising costs of traditional fuels, along with newer, less expensive reactor designs and up-to-date spent-fuel storage options, ensure that nuclear power will be more cost-competitive than ever before, according to studies by the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Energy Institute. Standard & Poor’s, the ratings agency, also anticipates continued favorable market conditions for the nuclear industry: increasing base-load demand, natural gas supply constraints, stringent clean air requirements, and global warming concerns ensure that nuclear power will remain a crucial component in meeting future energy needs.

The next reactor scheduled to come online domestically is not entirely new; it is the completely rebuilt Brown’s Ferry Unit One in Alabama, operated by the TVA. This General Electric 1,065 megawatt boiling water reactor originally came onstream in 1973, but had been mothballed since 1985; it is scheduled to return to service in 2007, up-rated to 1,280 MW. The first generation of brand-new reactors remains at least a decade away in even the most optimistic industry forecasts.

In partnership with the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Power 2010 program, the NuStart Energy Development LLC consortium is developing Construction and Operating License applications for new plants, based on the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor design from GE and the Advanced Passive 1000 reactor design from Westinghouse. So far, COLs have been submitted for the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Mississippi and the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Alabama. Since the formation of the NuStart consortium in 2004, six additional utilities have announced that they also plan to apply for up to ten COLs. Furthermore, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 funds the construction of a “Next Generation Nuclear Plant” at the Idaho National Laboratory as a technology demonstration project.

These new projects all represent significant advances in nuclear technologies. For example, new designs require 25-30 percent fewer pumps and valves and incorporate passive emergency cooling systems, as well as other advanced safety features. Once permitted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the projects shepherded by NuStart and the Department of Energy are anticipated to pioneer new construction techniques (such as a substantial increase in modular fabrication) that will initiate economies-of-scale beneficial to all subsequently constructed units.

Challenges Ahead

In order to win public and investor support for an extensive deployment of new nuclear reactors, these institutions must address concerns about safety, security, and nuclear waste management. One cannot overstate the importance of safety when discussing nuclear power, particularly after 9/11. Because American nuclear reactor vessels have always been protected by reinforced concrete containment structures (unlike Chernobyl), much of the debate about nuclear plant safety and security has focused on plant access and the safe storage of spent fuel assemblies. Waste management is both the current success and the future challenge. At present, most spent fuel is stored on the site at which it was generated because the government has defaulted on its obligation under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, which ordered the Department of Energy to begin accepting utilities’ spent fuel by January 31, 1998. The DOE has spent tens of billions of dollars studying the suitability of Yucca Mountain, Nevada, for development into a “long-term geologic repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.” However, the Yucca Mountain repository is at least twelve years behind schedule, and many nuclear operators are growing concerned about their own ability to continue storing growing volumes of spent fuel while awaiting indefinitely this DOE facility to accept the material for final disposal or recycling. Consequently, in the early 1990s eight utilities with nuclear power plants founded Private Fuel Storage LLC to develop their own temporary spent fuel storage facility. PFS has leased land from the Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians in Utah on which to establish an above ground facility capable of storing 44,000 tons of spent fuel for up to forty years. On February 21, 2006, the NRC issued a license to PFS for the project, making it the first nuclear facility to receive a license in more than 20 years. Yet roadblocks remain as the state government, dissident tribe members, and the Utah Congressional delegation attempt to stymie the project.

The Federal government is also reconsidering its approach to the nuclear fuel cycle for the first time in almost three decades. The US disavowed reprocessing spent fuel rods from commercial power plants in 1977 to set an example of separate military and commercial nuclear enterprises—when spent fuel is reprocessed, the extracted uranium and plutonium can theoretically be purified for use in nuclear weapons. In February 2006, the Department of Energy announced the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a collaboration with other nations that currently reprocess nuclear fuel such as France, Japan, and Russia to develop new advanced reprocessing technologies.

According to the DOE, “the partner nations will develop a fuel services program to provide nuclear fuel to developing nations,” but the partnership will take the spent fuel back for reprocessing in order to alleviate proliferation concerns. The Partnership is pursuing reprocessing technologies that recycle the transuranic elements together without purifying plutonium. Citizens’ groups, economic development partnerships, and local governments in South Carolina are already organizing a campaign to promote the DOE’s Savannah River Site as a potential GNEP reprocessing facility.

The Nuclear Option

While the waste issue remains unsolved, viable storage options are available in the form of dry cask storage, either onsite, or perhaps at a central facility like the one PFS proposes building in Utah. The political winds have shifted significantly since the 1970s and the debate over dependence on foreign energy supplies favors the nuclear industry. Changing economics in the energy industry favor an expansion of nuclear power, while new technologies allow nuclear energy to be cheaper, safer, and more secure than ever before. The rising demand for electricity—continued growth of 1.8 percent per year—coupled with concerns about climate change and America’s energy security require that we begin exercising the new nuclear option.