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Nuclear power revisited – but is it really US energy supply's white knight?

All Americans love a good comeback story, but there are serious concerns that “Nuclear Energy, Part II” will not effectively address energy supply problems in the US.

As the US begins to take a serious look at how to tackle climate change and its ongoing dependence on foreign oil, nuclear energy is capturing widespread attention for the first time in more than a generation. No new reactors have been ordered in the US since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 that turned the American public sour on the safety of nuclear power and no reactors have come online in the US since 1996. But before 2009, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expects to receive 28 applications to build and operate 19 new reactors.

The Bush push
The Bush administration is pushing development of new nuclear plants and the refurbishment of existing ones. Such is the strong rhetoric and financial incentives, it is clear the White House believes nuclear energy is a viable and critical component of America's energy future. The president says that while “there is no single solution to climate change” there “can be no solution without nuclear power”. Bush's Nuclear Power 2010 initiative to reduce regulatory and other barriers to nuclear development, launched in 2002, provides matching funds for the early stages of new plant development – with a goal of plant deployments beginning in 2010. The administration's proposed 2008 budget would expand the program by doubling funding for the initiative to $114 million.

In addition, the 2005 Energy Policy Act offers $13 billion in loan guarantees and tax credits to companies pursuing the first new nuclear reactors placed in service before 2021. And the race is on to be one of the first at the finish line to qualify for the subsidies. The NRC has already approved “early site” permits for new reactors at an Excelon site in Illinois and an Entergy site in Mississippi, giving the electricity providers the option of building there within the next 20 years. And early site permit applications by electric providers Dominion and Southern are pending. In addition, the NRC says it expects applications to be filed in 2007 by NRG Energy, Duke Energy, Progress Energy, Dominion and South Carolina Electric & Gas and to actually build and operate new reactors.

International cooperation
Bush is also touting his Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, a proposal that includes not only incentives for new reactor and fuel recycling technologies in the US, but also to develop a controlled network of “supplier” nations. These are countries with advanced civilian nuclear energy programs, such as France, Japan and Russia, that could provide fuel fabrication and waste reprocessing services to developing “user” nations worldwide. The plan, which Russia recently agreed to participate as a supplier in, would expand the availability of nuclear power worldwide by providing advanced nuclear technology, financing and development assistance to developing nations that abide by international rules.

User nations would agree to use nuclear power only for civilian purposes and forego uranium enrichment and reprocessing that can lead to the development and possible dissemination of nuclear weapons. US negotiator Robert Joseph says there are more than a dozen countries interested in acquiring nuclear reactors and “now is the time to help shape their decisions in a way that advances our common interests”. GNEP calls for “small scale reactors” to be developed that are better suited to the smaller electricity grids of developing nations than the light water reactors that dominate today's nuclear power industry. The aim is to develop reactors that would offer “long-life” fuel loads that might last the entire life of a reactor so that refueling is not needed. Also incorporated would be monitoring protection against sabotage and other terrorist acts.

Keystone conclusions
With near-zero carbon emissions, nuclear power plants seem to offer a veritable “get out of jail free” card when it comes to global warming. But panelists participating in a recent report from the non-profit Keystone Center say a renewed focus on nuclear energy is not an easy answer to America's difficult, carbon-filled energy woes. The Keystone report acknowledges that current US subsidies and incentives and looming carbon tax schemes will render future nuclear development economically feasible in a carbon constrained world. But to have a real impact on global climate change, development of nuclear power plants would have to expand at a rate equal to the industry's peak development in the 1980s and maintain that rate for half a century, the group says.

Leading climate change scientists who ascribe to the Pacala/Socolow “stabilization wedge” theory estimate that seven to eight (some say as many as ten) “wedges” or one billion tons reductions in carbon emissions by 2050 will be required to curtail worldwide global warming. For nuclear power to contribute one such wedge, according to the Keystone group, would require adding on average 14 new nuclear plants each year for the next 50 years and building 7.4 plants annually to replace those that will be retired. The US currently has 104 nuclear plants that provide 20% of the country's electricity. And according to the Bush administration, the nation will need three additional plants each year beginning in 2015 just to maintain that percentage with the soaring demand for electricity.

Safer than ever
The “fact-finding” group of 27 panelists, that included environmental groups, academics, state regulators, electricity providers and consumer advocates, spent nearly a year assessing the future role of nuclear power in the US. In addition to its projections for capacity required to help reduce global warming, the Keystone group also concluded that nuclear power in the US is safer today than ever. The group stresses that disposal of spent by products from nuclear fuel should ultimately take place in geological repositories like the stalled Yucca Mountain site, a volcanic ridge line in Nye County, Nevada. But, it concludes spent fuel can safely be managed on nuclear plant sites in spent fuel pools or steel and concrete waste containers for extended periods of time. The group does caution, however, that storing the extra waste generated by the likely nuclear generation boom in the US will eventually require ten dumps the size of Yucca Mountain. According to Keystone, the small reactor technology proposed under the GNEP may not be practical or cost competitive. And the economics of its proposed fuel reprocessing technologies are not competitive with current “once through” fuel use and disposal approaches currently used by the industry, the group says.

Dissenting opinions
There is fairly widespread agreement among the Keystone report participants on its key assessments. Despite this, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a respected advocacy group started by faculty and students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969, says the report understates the cost of expanding nuclear capacity and overstates the security and safety of nuclear plants. UCS’s board of directors vice chairman, Peter Bradford, participated on the panel. UCS says it believes that there are faster, safer and cheaper ways of meeting the nation's energy needs and that nuclear power is not a solution for global warming.

Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the US's most powerful environmental advocacy groups, and a participant on the Keystone panel, agrees. He says nuclear power can at best contribute one-half of a “wedge” over the next 50 years and believes the “heavy lifting” of solving global warming will have to come from other industries, such as renewables. Members of the power generating industry, however, believe the US has the capacity to meet the one wedge challenge if it has the will.

Ray Ganther, of the French-based energy conglomerate Areva that focuses heavily on nuclear power, says industrial capacity will rise to the occasion but it will require strong signals from eventual users of nuclear power to demonstrate that the market is real. James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, a large US gas and electric power provider believes the country's climate objectives will “trump how we think about cost structure going forward”. Climate, he says, is more important than the drawbacks of nuclear. Is this really a climate debate or an energy security debate?

Anything but coal
Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, agrees and says anything is better than carbon-spewing coal plants. Banking on less controversial solutions like renewable energy and conservation alone won't be enough to curtail global warming and therefore spells “doom”, he predicts. It is clear that “Nuclear Energy, Part II” is already sparking the same diametrically opposed views that its first push through the US produced. But the specters of global warming and energy security certainly add to the suspense – and the stakes. And now an influential group of moderate to conservative Democrats, including Lincoln Davis of Tennessee, is pushing for increased domestic nuclear energy production as part of its agenda for the House energy bill being debated this summer. With a continuing interest by the Bush administration and key power providers nuclear power seems poised to gain ground as an integral part of the US energy equation. (