The Future of Nuclear Power
a briefing for President-Elect Barack Obama
In recent years the public demand for energy independence has led to calls for the renewed expansion of the nuclear power industry. As you are aware, this is an issue that has economic, environmental and national security significance. The United States is well-positioned to become a world leader in the effective, efficient and environmentally-friendly use of nuclear energy.
Establishing a nuclear infrastructure for the twenty-first century is not a simple process however. Technology will be useless without the commitment of leadership to a cogent, comprehensive strategy. Regardless of our course of action, there will be certain inevitabilities and risks that will need to be dealt with in the coming century in regards to our aging infrastructure, terrorist threats and the “nuclearization” of much of the rest of the world.
Nuclear power holds great promise. With promise goes risk. We appreciate the opportunity to provide a brief outline of the current state of nuclear energy in the United States, along with the steps necessary, benefits and risks involved in expanding this energy form.
Current and Future Technology
The United States has 104 operating nuclear reactors. It is estimated that these reactors produce twenty percent of the nation’s electricity needs. Sixty-nine of these reactors use pressurized water. Thirty-five use boiling water. Some facilities have more than one reactor on-site.
The reactor facilities are located in 31 different states. In six of these states nuclear power is the number one producer of electricity. The largest plant in the United States is located in Palo Verde, Arizona. The Palo Verde plant has three reactors capable of producing a combined total of 3, 872 megawatts.
While technology and safety have continued to improve, the installation of new nuclear plants has stagnated. The Watts Bar 1, constructed in 1996 under the egis of the Tennessee Valley Authority, is the most recently built plant. Many of the other plants are aging. The Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, for example, has been in operation since 1969.
Given current technology, a 1 thousand megawatt reactor is capable is capable of producing nearly 8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year. This is enough to supply three quarters of a million households.
For purposes of comparison, the same production of electricity would require:
65.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas, or
3.4 million short tons of coal, or
13.7 million barrels of oil
(Nuclear Energy Institute, 2008)
Nuclear reactors require fuel reloads at varied intervals. An eighteen month refueling of a typical reactor costs about $40 million dollars at today’s price levels.
“Huge advances in computer power are available that allow science to be incorporated in simulations at a scale from smallest to largest much greater than previously conceived” (Martin and Aherne, 2008).
The United States uses both nuclear fission reactors and radioisotope thermoelectric reactors. Fission reactors use a controlled chain reaction. Radioisotope reactors generate electricity through a process of radioactive decay.
There are now several new reactor designs in development. A current focus of both regulators and research and development organizations is “closing the fuel loop”. Reactors capable of producing less waste and/or recycling spent fuel are now in development, but their implementation is slowed by current regulation. A clean and environmentally safe reactor (CAESAR) is being developed as a possible prototype for 21st century reactors. This reactor is among the Generation IV class of reactors not expected to be available for two decades.
Projected 21st Century Impact
Nuclear energy has the potential to become a powerful tool for environmental protection. There is substantial evidence that more usage of nuclear energy could reduce emissions into the environment and, in turn, lessen the effects of global climate change. For example, the French claim that “since the large-scale implementation of their nuclear power program in the 1980s…they have reduced their emissions of sulphur dioxide by 90% and carbon dioxide by 85%” (Shoett, 2003).
One limiting factor on the growth of the industry is the relative lack of necessary elements like uranium and plutonium. Uranium must be mined in a complex process. Only 1% of what is mined is actually refinable.
The growth of the nuclear industry may be slowed by several other factors. The anti-nuclear movement is still active and influential. Any accident, no matter how small, would provide that movement with powerful momentum to stop new construction.
The financial cost of building the industry is tremendous. In a recessionary environment, finding viable companies able to absorb both the costs and the inherent liability of running a plant may be difficult. At least for the time being there is a decreasing number of U.S. companies willing or able to make the huge capital outlay necessary to construct new plants.
In the near term, construction of entirely new plants will be limited. Once a comprehensive energy policy, including a freeing of the regulatory structure that prevents plant construction is developed the situation could change once the economy begins to recover. In the near term the industry continues to upgrade its facilities and develop a fully integrated, sophisticated safety protocol.
In the United States, there are thirty-two corporations licensed by the Federal government to operate nuclear reactors. The leading private manufacturers of nuclear reactors are General Electric, Hitachi and Westinghouse.
Since the building of new plants slowed greatly in the 1980s and 90s, reactor operators have sought other ways to meet consumer demand. Many plants have undergone “power
uprates” in order to create greater capacity. Uprates are costly in terms of capital investment, but not as complex or expensive as establishing new plants. It is likely that the nuclear industry of the 21st century will not be able to meet increased consumer demand without building new facilities fully capable of utilizing the latest technologies.
Construction of a new nuclear plant costs $3 to $5 billion dollars. The size of investment necessary means that public-private coalitions and, in some cases, Federal taxes will be necessary for the industry to grow. Construction is a complicated process, both in technical and political terms. Given that the plant will be transporting and storing hazardous materials on an on-going basis, a site that allows for maximum supply-line efficiency must be located. At the same time, whichever site is chosen is also accountable to local political cosiderations and public research.
For this reason and others expenditures on the planning stages of a plant are high. Construction typically takes a decade of more.
The prohibitive cost of installing new plants with state of the art technology may make it difficult for the industry to grow in the near future. The public currently favors a multi-faceted approach to energy policy.
The nuclear industry has spent a great deal of money to promote the idea that it is a “clean burning” industry. In this case, however, there is a proverbial “elephant in the room”. A nuclear reactor accident has the potential of producing an environmental catastrophe on a scale never before seen. The effects would not be localized, and fighting the contamination could easily cause $ trillions.
The idea of a multi-faceted energy structure that includes increased use of nuclear could improve the national security. The benefits of a reduced reliance on foreign sources of energy could have profound economic and geopolitical benefits. At the same time, it must be recognized that in another context nuclear power could hurt national security. Nuclear plants are security risks. For terrorists they might be seen as “high value targets”. In fact, “it can be argued that nuclear reactors in fact decrease national security because they are vulnerable installations” (Stoett, 2003).
A perception has grown among some scientists and portions of the general public that nuclear energy has received its subsidies at the expense of other potential energy forms. For example, “in the past fifty years, wind, solar, and nuclear power receive approximately $150 billion in cumulative Federal subsidies…but that 95% of this went to nuclear” (Stoett, 2003). The accuracy of this perception is not confirmed but the perception itself could limit public support for additional nuclear funding.
According to Stoett, “The largest problem facing the global nuclear power industry has been not one of technical or even cost difficulties, but of maintaining a veneer of political legitimacy…” (2003). In this sense governmental policy can have an impact beyond just the funding of private industry. Policies that insure safety, national security and communicate realistic expectations about nuclear energy can help to provide the political legitimacy the industry needs. Irregardless, there are costs to taking a pro-nuclear policy track. Some are more hidden than others.
A policy that fosters building of more nuclear facilities will inevitably have to face an increase in long-term costs as older plants go off-line. The cost of decommissioning plants rivals that of starting up new ones. It has been estimated that a single plant decommission could cost from $2 to $4 billion (Nuclear Energy Institute, 2008). This must be taken into account in the overall cost-benefit-impact analysis.
Nuclear energy technology is still a relatively young science. As promising as it is, the industry is not prepared to “take over” for the vastly larger oil or coal industries. To replace coal, for example, the U.S. would need upwards of 400 additional reactors. Given the time and expense necessary, such an expansion does not seem feasible. Nuclear power can nonetheless be a part of a larger energy strategy in the 21st century..
Martin, William F. and Aherne, John. “Nuclear Energy: Policies and Technology for the 21st Century”. Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee (Executive Summary). Nov. 2008.
2 Jan. 2009. < http://www.ne.doe.gov/ >.
Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). 2008. “U.S. Nuclear Power Plants – General Statistical Information”. 2 Jan. 2009
< http://www.nei.org/resourcesandstats/nuclear_statistics/usnuclearpowerplants/ >.
Pool, Robert. Beyond engineering : how society shapes technology. New York : Oxford University Press, 1997.
Stoett, Peter J. “Toward Renewed Legitimacy? Nuclear Power, Global Warming, and Security”. Global Environmental Politics 3,1 (2003); 99-116.