Posted July 15, 2008, 9:00am
Calling climate change one of the greatest challenges ever faced by the human race, some former opponents of nuclear power have recently become its advocates, if cautious advocates. Our purpose here is not to debate climate change, but rather "Is nuclear power essential to addressing climate change and energy independence?"
Today nuclear power produces about 20% of the electric power consumed in the United States, but there has been a virtual moratorium on new reactor construction since the late 1970's in the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents. The percentage of electrical power supplied by nuclear is much higher in some other countries, notably France (which gets 90% of its electrical power from nuclear, according to some estimates). But the percentage is also lower in others, and some countries (such as Germany) are committed (at least in theory) to meeting stringent greenhouse gas reduction targets while also reducing (or even eliminating) their existing commitment to nuclear power.
Which path should the U.S. follow–the example of France, or the example of Germany, or some "third way"? And what about the problem of imported foreign oil and the American public's outrage at $4 per gallon gasoline? Is it economically or politically practical to consider phasing out nuclear when to do so would only increase our dependence on foreign oil and raise prices even higher? Or isn't an increased commitment to civilian nuclear power essential in order for the United States to meet its declared public policy goals of combating climate change and reducing dependence on foreign oil and moving toward greater energy independence?
Posted July 15, 2008, 9:34am
The atmosphere's burden of carbon dioxide increases by 3.2 gigatons annually, we urgently need to apply every means of reducing anthropogenic causes: conservation, efficiency, renewables, and nuclear power, which, along with hydroelectric power, is the world's biggest low-carbon electricity source.
Wind and solar power make only 2% of US electricity and are not reliable enough to provide base-load electricity. At present our only large-scale sources of base-load electricity are fossil fuel plants, nuclear plants, and hydroelectric plants. Coal-fired plants supply about 50% of our electricity. Their fine-particulate waste kills 24,000 Americans annually and causes cardiac and pulmonary disease in hundreds of thousands of others. In the 20th century over 1,000 Americans were killed by dam failures. But not one member of the American public has ever died as a result of the operation of commercial nuclear plants.
According to the Financial Times, efforts are being made in Germany to keep nuclear power. Many other countries are planning either to revive nuclear power or start using it.
Posted July 15, 2008, 9:40am
Electrical generation that does not result in the emissions of greenhouse gases has to expand if we are to limit the hazards from climate change. We will need to use everything in our tool kit in order to reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear power today provides about 70% of US electrical generation that does not emit greenhouse gases during operation. It has to be part of the response. The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has indicated that it expects to receive applications for the construction and operation of as many as 34 new plants by 2010. Not all these applications will be filed and no doubt not all the filed applications will result in new plants. But there is the prospect of significant new nuclear construction in the US. From a climate change perspective, this should be seen as very welcome.
However, nuclear power will have only a very indirect impact on oil consumption. Oil is not a significant fuel for electrical generation in the US. There is the possibility of an indirect impact because of the linkage of oil prices with those of natural gas, which is used for electrical generation, and perhaps eventually through plug-in hybrids. But I do not think that the case for nuclear should emphasize the reduction of US dependence on foreign oil.
Posted July 15, 2008, 9:44am
Professor Elliott does a good job laying out some of the challenges facing our energy policymakers. I would add the need to take into account the electricity demands of a growing economy. Simply, we are going to require a lot more electricity than we presently use. We consume about 3.6 trillion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity annually, but the Energy Information Administration predicts our demand will grow and we will consume nearly 5 trillion kWh by 2030. That’s about a 30% increase (and I believe those projections take into account expected efficiency and conservation improvements). That electricity will have to come from somewhere. Nuclear power offers the ability to generate large volumes of baseload power safely and efficiently, while producing no GHG emissions. Meeting our growing demand needs in an environmentally friendly fashion is, to my mind, one of the chief reasons we should encourage the expansion of nuclear power.
Posted July 15, 2008, 9:53am
NASA's James Hansen says that we have a seven year window in which to abate the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. If we actually want to address climate change, rather than merely subsidize nuclear corporations, we need to choose energy sources that are fast and affordable and nuclear is neither.
Nuclear power is a false solution to the problems of climate change and expensive gasoline. The opportunity cost of wasting billions on new nuclear power plants would be better spent on energy efficiency and renewable energy such as solar and wind. According to scientists from the Rocky Mountain Institute, every dollar spent on efficiency and renewables displaces 7 to 10 times the amount of CO2 as a dollar spent on nuclear. Not only is nuclear not essential; it’s not even necessary.
Posted July 15, 2008, 10:00am
I've also heard that Germany may be waffling on its prior (political) commitment to phase out nuclear and meet climate goals at the same time. But just last month, Australia's new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd renounced his predecessor's policy commitment to build a new generation of nuclear power plants to address climate change. Rudd said that his country would instead pursue "a huge range of energy options available to Australia beyond nuclear," and this is despite the facts that his country has huge deposits of uranium and currently exports about $600 million of it a year to other countries (see source). But I noted that Rudd was not very specific about the other "energy options" he had in mind, and at the same time, decided to cancel a long-standing ban on new uranium mines, so Australia could mine more uranium and ship it to other countries to use in their reactors! So maybe it is all just political posturing?
Posted July 15, 2008, 10:08am
It’s important to distinguish between the climate change and “energy independence” goals of a nuclear power expansion. Nuclear already plays a significant role in de-carbonizing the electricity sector, but no current role in the transportation sector, where US oil dependence is greatest. A mass deployment of plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles [PHEV] over the next several decades could create a nexus between nuclear power growth and reduced oil dependence, but it does not exist today and will not have a significant impact until there is a major market penetration of PHEV’s and EV’s [electric vehicles], which one would assume is at least 10-15 years away, at the earliest.
Even if this nuclear power-transportation nexus eventually comes to pass, it will not contribute to “energy independence” because the U.S. does not possess significant high-quality uranium resources and thus will not become a significant source of its own uranium consumption. Moreover, given the harmful groundwater impacts of in-situ leach (ISL) mining of uranium–the dominant technology for extracting low-grade uranium in the US–there are sound reasons why increased domestic uranium production is a bad idea. Reactor component production and reactor construction is likewise a thoroughly multinational industry with dominant foreign involvement, so the case for new build nuclear rises or falls on whether it can deliver de-carbonized megawatts safely and cost-effectively.
Posted July 15, 2008, 10:13am
I agree with Richard that nuclear doesn't have much to do with the price of gasoline. However, if we build more natural gas plants to produce electrical power, that does increase our dependence on imports (at least in the short run, because of limitations on our pipeline capacity). But we phased out almost all of our oil-fired power plants in the 1970's and 1980's in the wake of Arab oil embargo.
So the real choice for a utility executive today who is considering building additional capacity is probably coal (with or without carbon sequestration), wind, natural gas and/or nuclear. I'd be interested in Chris Crane of Exelon's perspective on how they and others in their industry see and evaluate their options for building incremental capacity. What are the distinguishing factors and pros and cons of each choice?
Jim’s comment is really interesting. I would certainly agree that nuclear takes a long time and has a high initial capital cost. But are you saying that you think there's enough potential in "energy efficiency and renewable energy such as solar and wind" that we can do what we have to do on climate based on them alone, without building new power plants?
Posted July 15, 2008, 10:27am
Energy independence, in general, is a myth, but especially with respect to nuclear energy's ability to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, for the reasons mentioned by Chris and others. Keep in mind that US utilities in 2007 imported almost 90% of their uranium, 40% of conversion services, and 90% of enrichment. But nuclear energy faces dwindling uranium resources toward the end of the century. It is not a renewable energy source unless you're prepared to go to breeder reactors.
Posted July 15, 2008, 10:41am
Max’s figures are more consistent with the other projections I've seen than the idea that conservation and renewables can do it alone.
Plus it isn't always so easy for policymakers to get individuals to take all the steps that we should to conserve, particularly when the initial costs seems higher and the economic payback comes over a period of years. Most of us (myself included) don't do everything that we could to conserve.
And there's also the issue of international development—developing countries are clearly going to be building more power plants to meet increased demand, so they, as well as we, are going to need non-polluting (or less polluting) ways of producing more electricity.
Let's make sure that we do talk about breeder reactors during the course of this discussion. Because as Sharon points out, one runs out of uranium without them, but nuclear becomes virtually a renewable resource with them. I understand reprocessing our existing nuclear "waste" would supply nuclear fuel for about 2000 years.
As my former boss at EPA, then-Administrator Bill Reilly used to say (with apologies to Wordsworth): "A 'waste' is just a 'resource' in the wrong place."
Posted July 15, 2008, 11:31am
Nuclear energy is simply one essential portion of an overall energy portfolio that provides clean, safe, secure, reliable and affordable power to this country. The appropriate choice for our consumers, economy and environment is neither a dangerous overdependence on any one energy source, or an ill-advised prohibition of any one key element. The United States must continue its push toward diversity of a low carbon energy supply. The first and most effective step in energy security is energy conservation and increased energy efficiency. Beyond that, nuclear and renewables must be further developed and utilized, the recent over-reliance on natural gas as a generation fuel must be contained, and development work continued to find economic and reliable ways to use coal cleanly.
To respond to Don's question, the "choice" for a utility executive who is faced with the need for additional capacity is not a single choice of one generation source, but a broad range of less than perfect responses. At this point in our financial and technology contexts: renewables do not provide sufficient quantities of reliable baseload power; natural gas is too expensive and too volatile both in cost and supply; coal is not yet clean enough; and new nuclear (as well as new coal) faces cost issues and an uncertain political path forward. The utility executive looks at costs (operating as well as capital), timing, regulatory and political predictability, local community support, reliability, markets and prices, and shareholder value.
So I reiterate–we need a broad portfolio that takes advantage of every option's strengths, while managing every option's disadvantages. Nuclear is in any event a key part of that response.
Posted July 15, 2008, 11:58am
Last year, Greenpeace published our global energy scenario entitled Energy Revolution that would reduce emissions 50% by 2020 without using nuclear power. We at Greenpeace believe you can abate the impacts of climate with out resorting to new nuclear plants. The report was reviewed by Stephen Pacala from Princeton and the forward was written by Dr. Pachauri, the Chairman of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change].
As Pacala and Socolow posit in their climate wedges, our scenario would replace coal plants with natural gas while phasing out nuclear power. The report can be found here.
The Department of Energy's Five Labs study came to a similar conclusion. In 2000, an exhaustive technology assessment was conducted by five Department of Energy laboratories. They concluded that technologies exist that can reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to below 1997 levels by the year 2020 while reducing oil imports by 2 million barrels per day and enhancing national security. These reductions are achievable without any increase in nuclear power generation from current levels.
Posted July 15, 2008, 12:16pm
Sharon is right that energy independence is a myth. I think our overall goals should be energy, economic, and environmental security, but not independence. I don’t think energy independence can make sense in a world with global markets for fuels like petroleum, coal, natural gas, and uranium (some of these global markets are more developed than others, of course). However, that said, the continued growth of these markets, with a focus on expanding the base of both suppliers as well as customers, helps contribute to global energy security.
Chris Crane made an excellent point that nuclear is just one part of a broad portfolio of energy options. It is not one single "answer" to our energy and environmental challenges, but it must be part of the overall answer as we seek a diversity of supply. Our energy security relies on a diversity of supplies and suppliers.
Posted July 15, 2008, 12:25pm
Chris's comment was very helpful. I understand the importance of a diversified portfolio of generation sources. On the other hand, by coincidence I noted that today Exelon announced that "we are making a commitment to reduce, offset, or displace all of our greenhouse gas emissions by 2020," making it (I believe) the first US utility to commit to becoming "carbon neutral." I wonder if it would have been possible for Exelon to make such a commitment without your substantial proportion of nuclear assets? Perhaps that's what you meant by "essential"—not the solution in and of itself, but an indispensible part of the solution?
Posted July 15, 2008, 12:46pm
Referring to Don’s query to Jim—is there “enough potential in ‘energy efficiency and renewable energy such as solar and wind’ that we can do what we have to do on climate based on them alone, without building new [nuclear] power plants”?—the answer, on a pure resource basis, is clearly yes. The US has enough potentially recoverable efficiency savings and renewable energy resources—direct solar radiation, indirect solar radiation, wind, geothermal, biomass, small hydro, and wave-tidal energy, to eventually power the entire US economy, essentially indefinitely, without nuclear or coal. Thus the essential questions involving these resources are the following:
1) Assuming the political will to adopt stringent carbon cap and trade policies and a sharp rise in the CO2 emissions allowance price, what is the likely evolution of “grid parity” prices for each and how do these compare with the levelized cost of new-build nuclear 10 years hence?
2) Will we make the necessary investments in new transmission and distribution infrastructure that will allow us to take full advantage of renewable and low-carbon distributed generation resources, or will the grid maintain its present bias toward centralized “baseload” thermal power plants?
3) Will we have the good economic sense to prioritize, via sensible federal, state, and PUC requirements, investments in efficiency and other prompt, lower cost resources ahead of higher-cost investments like new-build nuclear and coal with carbon capture?
How large a role new build nuclear is likely to play depends a lot on how one answers these questions.
Posted July 15, 2008, 1:10pm
Our recent publication, Energy Technology Perspectives 2008, shows how to halve global energy-related CO2 emissions by 2050. Promoting energy efficiency is the most important area for controlling GHG emissions. Then come in almost equal shares renewables and carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) on large fossil-fuelled combustion facilities. Then comes nuclear power.
Without nuclear power (or without CCS, or without renewables…) it would not be absolutely impossible to achieve the same climate mitigation objectives–but that would be costlier. More likely, for the money our societies are ready to spend to alleviate the threat of climate change, we would do more in using all possible options.
Some countries still have a long way to go on energy conservation. Others have large renewable potential. For example, countries having areas with strong direct normal insulation can produce large amounts of guaranteed and dispatchable solar electricity through concentrated solar. Others have fewer of the same resources, and will need nuclear, or a combination of nuclear and coal with CCS.
Of course nuclear power cannot be developed everywhere, in particular due to proliferation concerns. But I’m often struck by the claims that nuclear cannot bring a significant contribution for it now provides only 6 or 7% of the world’s total primary energy supply. By the same token, solar PV [photovolatics] and CSP [concentrated solar power] provide much less, and we all hope they will be a very important part of the solution.
Posted July 15, 2008, 1:20pm
A few points: Nuclear plants can also run on thorium, which is more abundant than uranium. And uranium is a common element in the earth's crust. The fuel supply for nuclear plants is assured for thousands of years, as has been pointed out. Reactors have been devised that can consume nuclear waste or transmute part of it into much-needed medical isotopes.
Rocky Mountain Institute's claim about greater efficiency trumping new nuclear plants has been analyzed by statistician David Bradish and found misleading.
New reactor designs can be built and brought online more quickly than was once the case. Japan and Canada have managed to do that. During WWII the US mobilized its resources to rapidly turn out ships and planes.
Nuclear plants avoid the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as would occur if about 65 million cars were taken off the road.
Posted July 15, 2008, 1:49pm
Exelon feels strongly about the need for immediate action to address climate change. The formal rollout of the Exelon 2020 Low Carbon Road Map represents several years of thoughtful deliberation on this critical issue combined with consistent, disciplined efforts to improve our supply of electricity in a safe, reliable and cost effective manner. Regardless of the mix that constitutes Exelon's energy portfolio, Exelon sees the potential of climate change as so dramatic that we cannot wait for others to act.
With the help of our valuable energy portfolio mix, the Exelon 2020 Low Carbon Roadmap will reduce, offset or displace more than 15 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year by 2020 through: reducing or offsetting Exelon's carbon footprint by greening operations; helping customers and communities we serve to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions; and offering more low-carbon electricity in the marketplace.
These commitments, along with a strong effort to advocate public policies in support of climate change improvement, are necessary to reverse climate change impact. Obviously, our nuclear fleet is a major component in achieving our goal in this effort. We will need all of our proposed solutions to be "indispensable" for this initiative to succeed. So Don has it right - nuclear is necessary, but not entirely sufficient, to resolve the climate change challenge in a workable way.
Posted July 15, 2008, 2:19pm
I have to disagree with Christopher Paine’s argument. While I love efficiency, I don’t believe it does much to lower aggregate energy consumption. There aren’t really any “savings” to be had in efficiency. If you think about it, efficiency merely lowers the cost of using energy. Our economy has become wonderfully more efficient over the last several decades … yet as a result we consume far more energy. If we want to curb demand, we should promote inefficiency. We would all drive a lot less if CAFE standards mandated cars that only got three miles to the gallon.
Moreover, I don’t have Christopher’s confidence that renewables can take the lead in our energy economy. The heavy lifters traditionally have been fossil fuels like coal, petroleum, and natural gas, as well as uranium to make nuclear power. They provide over 90 percent of our energy today, because they are far, far better than renewable technologies at efficiently and economically delivering large supplies of reliable energy. Wind and solar deliver less than one percent of our nation’s electricity, and intermittently at that. With no serious storage capabilities for electricity on the horizon, the intermittency of these technologies is a big knock against them.
Posted July 15, 2008, 2:44pm
We at Greenpeace applaud Exelon's desire to address climate change. And we agree that the world can’t wait. But that is precisely why new nuclear plants are a false solution to global warming. Nuclear power can not be brought on line in time to abate the catastrophic impacts of climate change.
John Rowe, Exelon's CEO, said he wouldn't build a new nuclear plant until the waste issue is solved. So it doesn't sound like Exelon will be building any reactors anytime soon. Despite having received government dollars to site a new reactor at Clinton in Illinois, Exelon's drive for a new reactor seems to have stalled and they haven't even applied for a license from NRC. So is Exelon interested in building new nuclear plants or merely getting the carbon credits for the reactors they already own?
Posted July 15, 2008, 3:19pm
If I read it correctly, there’s a consensus emerging that at least theoretically, we COULD meet climate change goals without nuclear. (That's also a clear implication of the Sokolov "wedges" idea–there are several different combinations that all get to meeting climate goals.) But at what cost?
Plus everyone seems to agree that conservation and renewables also have an important role to play–and some even think they could do it alone. Although again, at what cost? (economic or otherwise)?
So perhaps we can bore down on (1) why not have some new and/or existing nuclear as part of the mix? and (2) what are the costs, timing and other issues that would counsel some people against increasing nuclear, or even to reduce or eliminate our existing commitment to nuclear?
Also, just for clarity, is there anyone out there who thinks that we should significantly increase our commitment to nuclear in the U.S. between now and 2050 (while we and the rest of the G-8 are pledged to cut GHC emissions by 50%)? Or are we really just talking about maintaining more or less what we have (roughly 20%) as part of a diversity of energy sources?
Posted July 15, 2008, 3:56pm
People in the environmental movement are starting to realize that without significantly increasing nuclear power we can't sufficiently reduce GHG emissions. If a carbon tax is instituted, nuclear power will become relatively cheap. If new reactors (including the more flexible, inherently safe modular micro-reactors now in development) are not added to meet the rising demand for electricity, then instead many more fossil fuel plants will be built to provide base-load. Carbon capture technology is in its infancy and is likely to be energy intensive. New coal-fired and gas-fired plants would not qualify as low-carbon sources. And coal plants would still emit deadly fine particulates.
Jesse Ausubel, Head of the Department of the Human Environment at Rockefeller University and a long-time expert on the impact of human activity on the environment, states that "renewables are not green" because of their vast environmental impact. He writes, "Considered in watts per square metre, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors." [see pdf]
Posted July 15, 2008, 4:12pm
Sorry to get into the conversation late. I am out of the country and six hours ahead of you. I am not a member of a consensus that we could theoretically meet climate goals without nuclear for two reasons. First this is not a theoretical problem but a real one; so we need real, practical, in the sense of technically feasible and robust solutions. Second, my opinion is we cannot do it without nuclear. I am not persuaded that just because nuclear cannot solve the whole problem in seven years that we should not pursue it. There is no magic timeline and none of the solutions can solve the problem in a short time; the scale and complexity of the problem are just not amenable to short-term solutions. The discussion earlier about the need for a robust portfolio choices, each applied as best for various conditions, seems to me to be the best way to proceed. If there is a consensus evolving, it seems to be there.
Posted July 15, 2008, 4:23pm
We perhaps could meet our climate change goals without nuclear. The issue is one of cost and hardship in the transition to a different world. The aim should be for a trajectory to a sustainable energy world that is minimally disruptive–economically and socially.
In this connection, it is my view that nuclear has to play a starring role. It is a major source of carbon-free energy that is available 24/7. Wind and solar technologies have the potential for deployment growth, but they are intermittent resources that are distant from users, thus requiring substantial expansion of transmission resources. Some of these technologies are costly and moving them to a percentage contribution in the double digits will require large increases over current levels in manufacturing, employment, investment, and installation. Not all are environmentally friendly.
The harsh reality is that coal provides 50% of our electricity. Somehow we need to move quickly to sequestration–a very uncertain and costly bet–or we need to replace coal with something that is carbon free. If we hope to reduce carbon emissions over the period to 2050, the share of energy that comes from nuclear will have to grow above the present 20%.
Posted July 15, 2008, 4:31pm
Greenpeace is opposed to new nuclear plants due to the unresolved issues of cost, safety, security and waste. We oppose nuclear power in the climate context due to the opportunity cost. Despite government subsidies, new nuclear power is still prohibitively expensive. The latest figures provided by nuclear corporations to Florida regulators place the cost for a new reactor in a range between $12 and $ 18 billion. But the industry's track record would suggest that any new reactor will be well over budget and behind schedule. In December, MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway was the first corporation to postpone plans for a new reactor. When MidAmerican performed their due diligence review they determined that a new reactor did not make economic sense. When the world’s greatest investor won’t invest in nuclear power due to its poor economics, I would think that would cause others to reconsider.
Posted July 15, 2008, 5:30pm
The cost numbers cited by Jim Riccio are the full costs, including financing and site costs and transmission upgrades, for two reactors. The current best estimate for the overnight cost (in 2007 dollars) of a new reactor ranges from about $3100/kWe [kilowatt - electric] to about $5000/kWe. Other generating companies do not see this as prohibitively expensive, as shown by the fact that the NRC has been told to expect 34 applications for combined licenses for new reactors by the end of 2010. New nuclear is viewed as economically acceptable because of the fast-rising costs for coal and natural gas, the inability of renewable energy and efficiency to satisfy growing baseload power needs even if deployed aggressively, and the inevitability of government controls on greenhouse gases.
Posted July 15, 2008, 5:33pm
Let me respond to Max’s comment. First, my comments were directed at prioritizing investment in available low-carbon energy resources, based on their comparative cost per ton of CO2 avoided, not on excluding any resource, including nuclear. Second, the statement that efficiency “doesn’t do much to lower aggregate energy consumption” contains insufficient information to be meaningful. Certainly, at the level of any economic unit you care to measure–an individual household, town, city, state or country–concerted efforts to accelerate the capture of end-use efficiency gains produces large measurable consumption savings over what would otherwise occur under a business as usual scenario over the same time period. To argue otherwise is to suggest that every kilowatt saved by a more efficient bulb, appliance, or entertainment system will somehow induce a consumer to buy more of these goods in exact proportion to his energy savings, until he returns to his/her previous consumer indifference curve for electricity. I don’t think there is any empirical support for this kind of argument.
Even if there are “perverse” efficiency price effects–some people buying and USING more of a good because it requires less energy and seems more affordable, not all consumers will do this, and not all will do so at a rate that overwhelms the gains from broadly applicable efficiency gains. No one is arguing that efficiency can fully or permanently offset the increased electricity consumption that comes from population growth, a general rise in living standards, or the increased market penetration of a wide range of new electronic devices. Thus efficiency is but one valuable, promptly available, and clean energy resource to be pursued among many, and its low cost relative to new-build nuclear suggests that on a rational ROI basis, it should be prioritized ahead of new build nuclear. So should other low-carbon energy investments with a lower cost per ton of CO2 avoided. When we are exploiting all these resources to the fullest, to the point that a marginal kilowatt of these clean resources is projected to cost as much as a marginal kilowatt of new build nuclear in the same timeframe–that is the time to bring on the nukes, not before.
Posted July 15, 2008, 6:33pm
In response to Dick and Jim's exchange on costs, one of the criticisms of nuclear energy is that Wall Street won't finance it because of the high risks. So I think it is necessary to look at the all-in costs, which Moody's estimated last year at about $6000/MW. Jeff Immelt of General Electric told the Financial Times that new nuclear plants would not be built in the US without carbon pricing, from which we can infer that the subsidies in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 have not been enough. The question is what price per ton of carbon emitted?
Whether or not the United States builds new nuclear power plants, the strong advocacy for nuclear power by the US, France, and Russia on the merits of climate change and energy security are clearly encouraging many other states to consider nuclear power. Almost 30 states have expressed interest since 2005. Many are developing nations, but some are oil-rich and won't need private financing for their nuclear power plants. Will they have the requisite safety, security, and regulatory infrastructure in place to ensure safe operation of reactors? It's not clear.
Posted July 15, 2008, 6:36pm
“Overnight costs” are an industry convention to compare the material, labor, and project management costs of building a new plant if it could be built “overnight.” The relevant costs are the full-up cost estimates, one of which Jim Riccio cited, which include allowances for real escalation during construction, financing and site costs, grid integration costs, and other owners costs (training, startup, permitting, and amortized reactor engineering costs).
Prior to a federal program established in late 2005 to provide a federal tax credit worth 1.9 cents/kWh and federal loan guarantee authority (currently $18.5 billion) covering up to 80% of a project’s cost, there were zero applications pending before the NRC for the construction and operation of new nuclear power plants. Absent this degree of federal support, which also includes 50% DOE cost-sharing for licensing costs and “regulatory risk” insurance (against possibly legitimate regulator induced delays in construction) totaling several hundred million for each of the first six units, there would be zero COL applications pending before the NRC.
So it is a bit hasty to conclude from such applications, either pending or expected, that there is a widespread utility consensus regarding the “economic acceptability” of new build nuclear power. That perception will only approximate reality following imposition of a stringent cap on carbon emissions and a resulting CO2 price of at least $50-$100 per ton.
Posted July 15, 2008, 6:38pm
I agree with Doug Chapin and am not part of any potential consensus that climate change COULD be challenged effectively without nuclear. My company's distribution companies have an obligation to serve their customers' electricity needs. Therefore, cost and reliability must be an integral part of this conversation. Why focus on addressing climate change at very high cost without nuclear, when more broadly based response at lower cost is within reach?
Posted July 16, 2008, 1:06am
I agree that a cost basis per carbon avoidance for utilizing new sources is one of many useful yard-sticks. How do renewables look today on such a basis if I need large amounts of power now or in the next seven years? We need to make sure that costs are done on a level playing field with transparency so one can see all the numbers and make valid comparisons. The costs for new nuclear are becoming public and they are higher than they were before, but we have not seen or heard the comparable numbers produced in a comparable way for the other “cheaper” paths. I don’t think anecdotal info does it; the utilities do not use anecdotes or books written by advocates to make those calls. So a big need in this area is authoritative, relatively unbiased numbers the public and the decision makers can use to set policy. There are also premiums that one is willing to pay for special circumstances and this must also apply to carbon avoidance as well–cheapest is not always best. The light beside my computer is so dim here that it is hard to see the keyboard, but it is energy efficient from the look of it.
Second, I am not the expert, but I think there is real evidence for the “rebound” effect on increased use resulting from increased efficiency. Isn’t that why people buy more cost efficient cars or air conditioners in many cases? They could just use the same old device less, but many buy the new one so they can drive as far or farther and set the thermostat at the same place or lower and not as much more as they might; in effect, they have a budget for energy. We should still conserve, but efficiency changes don’t relentlessly translate into reduced consumption matching the efficiency change. It is always less expensive and saves more GHG to turn the lights off than it is to buy new energy efficiency light bulbs, but a lot of folks don’t do that.
Posted July 16, 2008, 9:00am
As I reflected on our discussion yesterday, I was particular impressed by the point made by Cédric Philibert, Richard Meserve (and others) that we probably want to achieve global climate change goals with the minimum of social disruption and pain, and as a practical matter, that probably indicates a balanced, diversified approach with some additional emphasis on nuclear, as well as conservation, energy efficiency, renewables, and advanced coal with sequestration. However, I understand that some of us disagree and are still opposed to nuclear. I am wondering if it would be productive today to drill down to explore the underlying basis of that opposition? Is it really all about economics, or doesn’t the opposition also reflect deeper concerns as well? Assume hypothetically that it could be shown that a least-cost, greenhouse gas compliance strategy includes nuclear (without government subsides); wouldn’t Greenpeace, NRDC, and others still be opposed? If so, why?
Posted July 16, 2008, 9:15am
Richard was right. I was citing "all in" costs vs. overnight. But shouldn't these corporations be more honest about the true costs with those being asked to foot the bill? So the consumers were being told that the cost would be in the $3000 to $5000/kWe range and the actual cost was as much as than double that....sounds like the same old nuclear industry to me.
Not even the industry believes that all those expressing "interest" will actually build. Unistar said they wouldn't build a new nuclear reactor unless the government guaranteed that they wouldn't lose money, i.e. loan guarantees. Nuclear is so expensive that many of these CEO's are being asked to bet their corporation. The cost of a new nuke represents the entire value of their corporations.
Posted July 16, 2008, 9:28am
I think we're really on the same page on this one and arguing about semantics. Yesterday I said "even if we could do it theoretically without nuclear, at what cost?" Then Chris and Doug came back and said: "it's not a theoretical issue; consider the costs." That's exactly what I was trying to do: Steer us away from the unproductive theoretical debate about whether we could get there without nuclear and back toward the practical one. Sorry if I wasn't clear, but we are in vigorous (if not aggressive) agreement on this! The substantive issue is whether nuclear would, in fact, decrease (or as some apparently maintain, increase?) the economic and social costs of meeting GHC targets–not the unproductive "theoretical" one of "could" we comply without nuclear if we ignored the economic and other costs of doing so.
Posted July 16, 2008, 9:38am
Before moving on, as Don suggested, to the underlying views about nuclear energy, I would just like to point out that Doug's question—how do the costs of renewables look today or in the next seven years?—needs a longer timeframe. As a Westinghouse official recently pointed out, no new nuclear plants are going to come on-line in the US by 2015. Even if we could assume that the utilities applying now for COLs are going to build those plants, it's almost a decade from application to connection to the grid. So we have to look at how renewables are developing now. And the experience of installing wind power in, among other places, Texas, is pretty encouraging.
One other note on the ability of the nuclear industry to ramp up its production. As the Keystone Report pointed out last year, the required rate of build to add 700 GWe of additional capacity by 2050 (assuming most of current operating reactors will have to be retired by then) is about 25 per year, which was achieved only in the highest construction years in the 1970’s/80’s. For the past two decades, fewer than 10 reactors per year have come on-line globally. The industry currently can't do more than about 10/year, particularly in the critical area of reactor pressure vessels. Undoubtedly, the industry will respond to increased demand with more capacity, but is this going to happen soon enough? The IEA's Energy Technology Perspectives Blue Scenario requires a rate of build that is, on average, 32 reactors/year. Allowing for slower rates in the earlier years, it would require upwards of 40 reactors built per year in later years.
Posted July 16, 2008, 9:44am
No offense Don, but your hypothetical reminds me of an old T-shirt: Pigs can fly, the earth is flat and nuclear power is safe!
I would be happy to discuss why I and other environmentalists oppose nuclear power. However, the issues of waste, safety, security, and proliferation are not the issues upon which the CEO's will decide to build new reactors.
Posted July 16, 2008, 10:02am
The nuclear industry, the Department of Energy, and the nuclear regulatory process have made major strides in addressing the lessons learned in the last generation of nuclear construction, in preparation for the next generation of new build. The regulatory process is substantially improved, providing significant opportunity for public participation as well as strengthened predictability for investors. Consortia of utilities and vendors have worked together to drive standardization of design, under the auspices of DOE's Nuclear 2010. Plant designs are improved, capitalizing on passive safety features and simplification of mechanical systems. That focus on improvement has resulted in the announcement of more than 30 COL (combined construction and operating license) applications.
Exelon plans to file its own COL application this year for a site in Victoria, Texas. This progress domestically follows significant progress internationally, particularly in Asia. Japanese companies are successfully building new plants on schedule, on budget, using innovative construction techniques. Those techniques are available to us. The U.S. industry still confronts challenges in new build: the investment required is substantial and daunting - a fact recognized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Nuclear new build also faces the same commodity cost escalation and financing issues faced by any other mega-construction project. But the continuing growth of the U.S. economy demands the energy supply to support it. Increased nuclear generation, both to keep pace with demand growth and to begin to replace high-emissions sources, is an excellent option.
Posted July 16, 2008, 10:13am
Doug, you wrote: “I agree that a cost basis per carbon avoidance for utilizing new sources is one of many useful yard-sticks. How do renewables look today on such a basis if I need large amounts of power now or in the next seven years?”
Here is the latest from the CPUC on that question. No doubt, there is quite a wide range for some of the renewables, but they are clearly in the running with new-build nuclear and it looks from this chart as though at least some projects could be brought in for considerably less than nuclear estimated $0.154 per kWh. Seven to ten years hence, given current technology trends, one would expect this chart to show even more competitive cost ranges for renewables relative to new build nuclear. The cost of end-use efficiency savings per kWh is not on the chart, but my understanding is that in California this has typically run from about $0.02 to $0.045/kWh.
Posted July 16, 2008, 10:24am
Jim, no offense taken. We've already had a lot of discussion about
the economic costs and it is getting pretty technical, narrow and
abstruse. So my suggestion–and it is only a suggestion–is that the
dialogue might be more productive and interesting if we were to broaden
it out a little bit to include some of the other reasons why people
object to nuclear power in addition to economics.
You mention safety, for example, and cite a T-shirt for the proposition that it is intuitively obvious to everyone that nuclear power is not "safe." I'm not sure everyone on the dialogue would agree with you and the T-shirt that it is ludicrous to suggest that nuclear power is safe. Plus where energy supply is concerned, "safety" is a comparative issue. There are also significant human health issues surrounding the use of coal (both air pollution and mine safety issues). So maybe it would be productive and interesting to discuss a broader list of the objections to nuclear power and not just restrict ourselves to dueling estimates of the costs.
And in any event, to some decree the economics of nuclear power is a moot point. If you're right and no one thinks it is economic and therefore won't finance it, then a major expansion of nuclear power is unlikely to happen. So the interesting case for policy-makers to consider is whether we should decline to "go nuclear" for other reasons of social policy even if it turns out to be economically feasible (which I already understand that you don't think that it will ever be.)
Posted July 16, 2008, 10:39am
According to the pamphlet Exelon released yesterday: "Exelon will not commit to building new nuclear plants, however, until we are satisfied that our conditions for safety, regulatory stability, bipartisan federal, state and local support, spent fuel management and cost have been met." So despite applying for a license from NRC, it seems the decision makers at Exelon have not yet been convinced that new nuclear is a viable option.
Posted July 16, 2008, 11:04am
I am rising to our moderator’s challenge to shift to the broader nuclear issues with this 500-word post:
A global nuclear build-out raises a host of non-carbon costs and risks that must be weighed in the balance. Nuclear power is the only energy technology that requires an international safeguards regime to discourage countries from diverting fuel-cycle facilities and materials to make weapons. It is the only energy technology for which government must assume the ultimate liability for catastrophic accidents, and the only one in which the waste is so dangerous and enduring that government must assume responsibility for its long-term isolation from the biosphere.
Reliance on the nuclear fuel cycle entails some irreducible proliferation risk arising from dissemination of the knowledge, materials and equipment required for nuclear power generation under purely national control. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s application of peaceful use “safeguards” seeks to make this risk tolerable for a nuclear nation’s regional neighbors and the international community. However, as seen in the current case of Iran and several other states of past and present proliferation concern, a national commitment to nuclear power can serve to justify a national interest in acquiring sensitive uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities that are on the critical path to bomb-making, even if there is no present intention to head in this direction.
The international safeguards systems remains ill-equipped to deal with the nuclear diversion threat from such facilities, and thus it would be irresponsible to press today for a global nuclear power expansion that would require the growth and spread of such facilities. The present Administration has sought to deal with this obvious objection by proposing a civil nuclear condominium to match the military one already possessed by the five “permanent” members of the UN Security Council. But the rest of the world is unlikely to accept in the civil nuclear sphere the replication of the prevailing weapons oligopoly, and thus the severe proliferation threat posed by a global nuclear build-out will persist.
We should also remind ourselves that for any given class of reactor, its future output worldwide is contingent on the actions of the least competent nuclear operator on a bad day. This argues against pushing reactors on states that lack the technical infrastructure, safety culture, official transparency, and government accountability that are essential to minimizing the risk of accidents that could paralyze a large share of nuclear power generation.
Finally, we must consider the risks to our own and the global environment posed by a large increase in global uranium demand. This could make marginal US uranium deposits economic to exploit once again, and raises the prospect of a disastrous re-run of the severe environmental and public health abuses that marked the last uranium boom. Judging by its performance to date, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other government agencies are utterly unprepared to prevent such a recurrence.
In sum, nuclear power remains an option for some capital-rich, advanced industrial economies, including the U.S., but one to be expanded only when all the environmentally sustainable alternatives available at equal or lesser cost and risk have been tapped.
Posted July 16, 2008, 11:08am
One of the many reasons environmentalists oppose expanding nuclear power is the threat of proliferation. Stephan Pacala from Princeton has cited this concern in 2004 when he was asked if there were climate wedges that were not worth pursuing.
According to Pacala: "I personally think nuclear is a non-starter. In the article we were not trying to choose sides, only to point out the mitigation technologies that are already in place. However, I cannot imagine that in this era of concerns about terrorism that we are going to start the production of fissionable material all over the world. It is disingenuous when the Bush administration says that the way to solve this problem is through coal and nuclear."
Posted July 16, 2008, 12:24pm
Carbon reduction begins at home. Per capita, the US is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases. Here, commercial nuclear plants are not connected to weapons production. Here, there is careful monitoring of the spent fuel. Here, many of the reactor operators and technicians have been trained by Naval Reactors, which has operated 254 reactors without any release of radioactivity. Here, the accident rate at nuclear plants is lower than in the banking and the real estate industries.
Since it will be decades before alternative energy sources can provide base-load electricity, and provide it on a large scale to meet growing energy needs as the country uses electricity more and more as its preferred fuel, then nuclear power is essential in this country.
Nuclear power, well-managed, is safe. Certainly safer than fossil fuels, which cause thousands of deaths annually. Our reactor designs are completely different from the Chernobyl reactor and all our reactors are enclosed in several layers of containment–Chernobyl was not.
Posted July 16, 2008, 1:00pm
Ms. Craven's comment is at odds with the NRC testimony to Congress in the wake of the Chernobyl accident. NRC testimony stated: "Unit 4 at Chernobyl contains characteristics of both containment and confinement. There appear to be two regions that appear to be designed to withstand 27 psi and 57 psi. These volumes are in turn interconnected with two suppression pools via pressure relief valves and downcomers. The remaining portions of the plant are housed within a confinement structure."
Additionally, not all reactors have massive domes we associate with nuclear plants. GE and Westinghouse ice condensers are especially vulnerable. In 1986 Harold Denton, former director of NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, again acknowledged this vulnerability while speaking to utilities executives at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Denton noted that, according to NRC studies the GE Mark I reactors had “something like a 90% probability of that containment failing."(Brian Jordan, “Denton Urges Industry to Settle Doubts about Mark I Containment, Inside N.R.C., June 9, 1986, pp. 1, 3.)
U.S. reactors are not designed to withstand meltdowns. Meltdowns are considered "beyond the design basis" and engineers were not required to design against them.
Posted July 16, 2008, 1:07pm
The reality is that other countries are committed to the pursuit of nuclear power, including many new entrants, regardless of whether the US is involved. It has seemed to me that we are in a much better position to influence the safety and proliferation regime that will attend the expansion of nuclear power in these countries if we are a participant in the enterprise rather than a bystander. Proliferation concerns are not a justification for the US to reject nuclear power. In fact, they justify enhanced involvement.
The proliferation concerns with nuclear power do not arise directly from reactors. Fresh fuel enriched to 5%, which is typical of reactor fuel, cannot be used in a weapon. Rather, the proliferation risk arises from the other parts of the fuel cycle–enrichment and reprocessing. What is needed is an international regime to discourage and limit the places in which enrichment and reprocessing take place and to make sure that they are under tight safeguards. Moreover, reprocessing is occurring today in other countries using technology that produces separated plutonium, which is a weapons-usable material. Again, our non-proliferation objectives would be served by seeking to assure that reprocessing involves technologies that do not produce a weapons-usable material stream. We can have no influence on the technologies that will be applied by other countries if we are not serving as leaders in defining a safer and more proliferation-resistant path.
Posted July 16, 2008, 1:22pm
I'm not clear whether or not someone is contending that a modest expansion of civilian nuclear power for electricity generation in the U.S. (say from 20% of our electricity today to 30% or 40% by 2040 or 2050) would substantially increase the proliferation and/or terrorism risks–and if so, how that would work?
I suppose we might not want to see nuclear reactors in Iraq or North Korea for those reasons (and maybe regret seeing them in Pakistan). But since climate change is a global problem, expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. and other "capital-rich, advanced industrial economies" contributes to solving the world-wide problem and creates more room for other, less "advanced industrial" countries to use other methods of power generation and still stay under the global targets over all.
Posted July 16, 2008, 2:33pm
I think what we're concerned about is not that the US will proliferate, but that the expansion of nuclear power globally will pose a threat of proliferation. According to reports in the NY Times & Christian Science Monitor, U.S. government officials voiced these concerns last year.
The Iranian nuclear program, which the Bush administration continues to contend is merely a cover for a nuclear weapons program, has spurred interest in the region. In the past year, thirteen Middle Eastern countries have announced their intent to pursue nuclear power. The interest expressed by majority Sunni Muslim states is viewed as a direct response to the nuclear ambitions of Shiite Iran. Additionally, in 2004, a report from Jane’s Intelligence Review concluded that an increase in the number of nuclear power plants worldwide would directly increase the risks associated with nuclear weapons proliferation.
Posted July 16, 2008, 2:42pm
The interest of Iran and other Middle Eastern countries in pursuing nuclear will arise regardless of whether or not the US builds more nuclear plants. If this discussion is about whether the US should choose to pursue nuclear power, proliferation concerns are largely a red herring.
It is true that an increase in nuclear plants worldwide will increase proliferation risk. That is because the need for fuel will result in the need for more enrichment facilities and the proliferation of that capacity entails the risk that the enrichment facilities could be used for the production of highly enriched uranium, a weapons-usable material. But again, the need for expanded enrichment capacity will arise regardless of a US decision on nuclear power. The proliferation concerns about nuclear technology are real and are serious. But our capacity to influence such matters is enhanced by involvement in nuclear power, not by turning our back on it.
Posted July 16, 2008, 3:37pm
I agree with Richard. The more international involvement with nations that want to add nuclear power plants to provide electricity, the better. We and other nations with experience in civilian nuclear power can partner with countries to help them build the plants and after they're operational control the nuclear fuel cycle.
Although the US pioneered civilian reactor technology, other countries have been applying it and elaborating upon it in useful ways.
I understand that some of those Middle Eastern countries wanting nuclear plants plan to use them not only to generate electricity without burning fossil fuels but also to desalinate seawater. According to Tom Graham of Thorium Power, these new reactors could be fueled with thorium, which is more proliferation resistant than uranium.
Also, there are a number of designs for reactors in the 25-60 MW range which might be appropriate for some of the developing countries. Toshiba and NuScale are working on projects of this kind.
Posted July 16, 2008, 3:47pm
It was never my intent to throw a red herring into the discussion. If the industry wants to address climate change with nuclear reactors you are, by necessity, talking about a global expansion of nuclear power.
That's purportedly why the Bush Administration has been pushing the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) scheme around the planet. However not even nuclear power proponents think GNEP is a good idea. John Deutsch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a former Department of Energy official and the co-author of the MIT report on the future of nuclear power, told the National Academies of Science that the Bush Administration's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is “a goofy idea.”
But, as Pacala notes: "If you try to solve even one wedge of this problem with nuclear, it would require a doubling in the amount of nuclear power deployed. Solving the problem entirely with nuclear means increasing deployment by a factor of 10, and if you calculate how many of these plants would have to be in countries like Sudan and Afghanistan, you are just not going to do it."
Posted July 16, 2008, 3:52pm
I agree that Middle Eastern interest in pursuing "nuclear" technology will continue whether or not the US builds new nuclear power plants. Some of those countries have nuclear ambitions that are not limited to nuclear energy, which is dangerous. But I think their interest in pursuing nuclear power could diminish if the US moves in the opposite direction. Since 2005, more than 13 states in the Middle East have expressed interest in nuclear power. U.S. support for nuclear energy as a solution to climate change is clearly sending a message that it's now okay to build power reactors in countries where we would not have supported them in the past, including in Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, among others. The United States has the largest number of reactors of any country. If we conclude that it's safe, economic, and we can solve the waste problems, why wouldn't other countries follow?
As for our ability to influence their decisions–and I'm guessing that Dick means their choosing safer, smaller, proliferation-resistant reactors–I think we've lost the game. These states are going to want to buy what's on the market now, which are typically the kinds of reactors purchased by advanced states at the 1000 MWe capacity or above. If they are forced to wait for more modest options, they will likely perceive this as another form of discrimination.
Beyond our domestic considerations, however, U.S. government policies in promoting nuclear energy abroad have quickly outstripped any of the necessary rules for restricting the sensitive nuclear technologies like enrichment and reprocessing. In fact, the GNEP program has probably engendered more interest in enrichment than dampened it. Now, countries like Canada, Ukraine and South Africa have a renewed interest in enrichment. In fact, this is what's behind the G-8 dropping its moratorium on selling such technologies to non-technology-holder states.
Posted July 16, 2008, 3:57pm
As we wade into the discussion about the safety and proliferation risks of nuclear power, it is worth stating something fairly obvious: namely, that we have to weigh the risks against the potential rewards. After all, virtually every fuel and/or energy technology carries with it some sort of risk. Coal is dangerous to mine, and a pile of the stuff can smolder and combust (and, of course, there are emissions concerns). Petroleum is flammable, and let’s not forget the geopolitical complications. Natural gas is highly flammable, too, so much so that terrorism concerns factor into debates over LNG terminals. Manufacturing solar panels means dealing with highly toxic materials. Windmills occasionally kill birds. Hydropower disrupts habitats. And yes, nuclear power means dealing with somewhat dangerous materials.
So the question isn’t whether nuclear power is dangerous. It is. But is it too dangerous? Or can we adequately mitigate its safety risks? The benefits of nuclear power are largely unmatched by other conventional technologies – i.e. the ability to generate huge volumes of absolutely reliable baseload power while using a relatively tiny amount of fuel and making a tiny footprint on nature. Oh, and there are hardly any pollution or GHG worries. Those benefits, it seems to me, are worth dealing with nuclear power’s risks.
Posted July 16, 2008, 4:41pm
I am in South Africa where there is a desperate need for additional electricity; there are rolling black-outs in the country and they have a major negative effect on the economy. Conservation is very important to them right now and they work at it hard, but with a rapidly growing population and need for more power for their economy and to provide most of the power to Africa, certainly the southern half, they are not going to use conservation to avoid electricity growth and condemn a lot of very poor people to continued dire straits. They need a large amount of power relatively quickly–say 20000MWE over the next 10-15 years. They have no gas, but have copious coal they burn to make electricity now. South Africa makes about 40 percent of its liquid fuels from coal, a process with lots of greenhouse gas emissions. They plan major expansion of the latter capability.
They were a weapons state and are the only one I know about that disassembled all their weapons and shut down their program, fully complying with the NPT. They are very aware of the emissions issues from coal and are seriously considering carbon sequestration which they consider expensive, unproven and difficult; but it is on the table being seriously considered. They have two successfully operating nuclear plants. Asking them to turn their back on nuclear power is nonsense in my judgment. It is safe, they need to see if it is more economic than coal sequestration or not.
Nuclear power is safe, they need to see if it is more economic than coal sequestration or not, but I am pretty sure how that comparison turns out. I don’t see SA as a proliferation threat either, even if they have their own enrichment capability, and their using nuclear going forward would make a real dent in CO2 emissions for the world. So I agree with Dick that proliferation is a red herring, not only in the US but many other countries as well. We need to keep thinking in terms of what works best in each locale and situation.
Posted July 16, 2008, 4:45pm
So if I understand correctly, it seems that no one is really contending that the proliferation risk is a reason for the U.S. not to expand its domestic commitment to nuclear power (although there may be some enhanced proliferation risk if there is a GLOBAL expansion of nuclear power).
And we have already identified the economic issues–on which there seems to be a fundamental disagreement as to whether nuclear power will or will not be viable economically. But on that, everyone also seems to agree that the economics will depend at least in part on the "price of carbon" that eventually emerges. That may in part explain why utilities are waiting until that is clear before they make commitments one way or the other.
For those who aren't specialists, if a cap-and-trade program or a regulatory fee on greenhouse gas emissions such as the bills currently pending in Congress are eventually enacted in the U.S., that will narrow the economic gap between nuclear plants and their fossil fuel competitors, because a nuclear plant does not emit carbon dioxide and so wouldn't need to buy allowances or to pay the tax to operate, but a plant burning fossil fuels would. How much the economic gap would narrow, however, is not yet clear because how much the gap will narrow is dependent upon the stringency of the regulatory program, i.e. the implicit "price" that is put on emitting a ton of carbon. Fossil fuel plants can now emit greenhouse gases for free, which amounts to an implicit "pollution subsidy" to the fossil fuel plants, but that will go away to the advantage of nuclear to some as yet unknown extent if and when a regulatory program for carbon dioxide in enacted.
Is there anything else that you feel should preclude an enhanced commitment to nuclear in order to meet global climate change targets? Safety issues? Waste disposal issues? Opportunity cost? Public perceptions and distrust? Or is it all really down to the economic question?
Posted July 16, 2008, 5:20pm
We haven’t discussed it that much so far, but the waste issue would appear to be among the biggest obstacles to the expansion of nuclear power. A number of states (California, for instance) have moratoria on building nukes until the waste issue is resolved. And obviously the uncertainty over the waste question can dampen investors’ enthusiasm. The irony, I think, is that the waste question has an obvious answer: Yucca Mountain. The real problems with regard to waste aren’t geologic or scientific, but political. And while I think that Yucca Mountain would be a fine repository (assuming the we raised the arbitrary capacity level set years before anyone had a real idea how much the mountain could hold), I am increasingly of the opinion that it is never going to open. And that’s a real dilemma.
Posted July 16, 2008, 5:39pm
We haven't addressed either safety or waste. As noted earlier the industry will be judged by its worst performer. This supposed nuclear "renaissance" is just one accident away from oblivion; and it nearly happened in Ohio in 2002. But there is also another issue we haven't addressed: the new threat to nuclear power plants due to terrorism. We've known since the first World Trade Center bombing trial in 1993 that Al Qaeda was targeting U.S. nuclear reactors. That information was contained in FBI testimony from the trial.
The 9-11 Commission testimony showed that Mohammad Atta (one of the 9-11 hi-jackers) suggested to Al Qaeda leadership that they strike Indian Point nuclear plant 24 miles from Manhattan, but was told not yet. If Senator McCain is right and we really are in a hundred year war against terrorism, we shouldn't be building 45 additional terrorist targets that can be used as prepositioned weapons of mass destruction. We should be phasing out nuclear power plants and securing their wastes.
Posted July 16, 2008, 6:08pm
There are moratoria on nuclear construction in 13 states until there is a pathway for the disposal of spent fuel. These are legislative barriers that were established in the 1970's, and there are moves to eliminate them in at least some of these states. Nonetheless, these moratoria could be a barrier to new construction in some places. Their existence simply means that new plants will be built elsewhere.
There is significant uncertainty as to whether Yucca Mountain will ever open as a disposal site. Senator Obama has indicated his opposition to it and Senator Reid clearly places a high priority in blocking the licensing or usage of Yucca Mountain. Nonetheless, although we need to solve the waste problem, I do not think it should be a barrier to new construction. Spent fuel can be stored safely and securely in dry casks for a century or more. As a result, we have time to pursue disposal sites other than Yucca Mountain if necessary; there is a consensus in the scientific community as reflected in several reports issued by the National Academies that deep geologic disposal can isolate the waste for the necessary long period time. Moreover, R&D could lead to technologies that significantly reduce the waste challenge (by transmutation). We have to solve the waste problem in any event given the existing inventory of spent fuel and the increment of spent fuel arising from new construction does not change the challenge. The waste problem, although it needs to be solved, should not become a barrier to new construction.
Posted July 16, 2008, 7:05pm
Yucca Mountain has been thoroughly vetted, will be scrutinized now by the NRC, and, as Max points out could accept all the spent fuel generated thus far plus a lot more.
Military nuclear waste has been safely transported from around the US and stored in a deep geologic repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), since it was EPA-certified in 1999. Area residents like WIPP. A university monitoring center constantly checks the people and the environment for contamination from the facility and has found none. WIPP is in a half-mile deep, stable salt bed 230 million years old. The facility was initially considered for storage of spent nuclear fuel as well, but for bureaucratic reasons, disposal of civilian waste was separated from defense waste. WIPP receives contact-handled waste and remote-handled waste; there's no technical reason why it could not also store spent nuclear fuel (salt is a good conductor of heat and it also immobilizes radionuclides).
Probably the spent nuclear fuel now in pools and concrete casks at nuclear plants will be reprocessed. Spent fuel retains 98% of its energy.
Posted July 16, 2008, 8:34pm
I am sorry to be slow in joining this interaction. Waste management would be a huge challenge under a large expansion of nuclear energy. A fleet of 1700 once-through LWRs would produce 34,000 tons of spent fuel per year–a nominal Yucca Mountain’s worth every two years. While I personally believe that handling a waste-management task of this magnitude is technically feasible, whether publics will acquiesce in the siting of the needed number of facilities and degree of waste transport through their communities that this would entail is at least questionable. The proposition that reprocessing and recycling would solve this waste problem is a snare and a delusion, moreover, at least with currently available technologies.
Posted July 17, 2008, 1:04am
Nuclear waste is a tiny amount of material in comparison to waste from fossil fuels that is considered to be driving the climate issue; one gram of uranium produces the power equivalent to about three tons of coal; the ratio in wastes produced is even more favorable. Nuclear waste is already separated, captured and sequestered. Further it is nearly all solids and readily contained. The used fuel such as that which goes in a repository is a solid and these solids from all the reactors in the US that have operated so far would fit within the confines of a baseball diamond. It is heavy (60,000 tons) but very dense so it takes up little room. It is highly radioactive; that’s the reason to bury it–to provide shielding. If we don't bury it, casks with a few feet of shielding provide plenty of protection. Nuclear sites make poor targets for terrorists as they are very robust and highly defended, and even if attacked and penetrated by terrorists are not going to cause a major catastrophe; see Science (September 20, 2002) for article peer-reviewed by a large number of US National Academy members. It is not true that nuclear plants are weapons of mass destruction. Radioactive releases from nuclear plants under all conditions, including accidents, are simply not a major threat to the environment or to people, and are very tightly regulated.
Nuclear safety and wastes are not good reasons to avoid nuclear power; in fact, they are probably reasons to pursue it, if one compares it to other power sources on a level playing field.
Posted July 17, 2008, 9:23am
Reprocessing is certainly no solution to the waste problem. Especially in a world where terrorists are intent on securing fissile material for a nuclear weapon. In hearings held before the US Congress, even proponents of nuclear power concluded that reprocessing radioactive waste was unsafe, uneconomical, and unnecessary.
Matthew Bunn of Harvard University testified that, “a near-term decision to reprocess US commercial spent nuclear fuel would be a serious mistake, with costs and risks far outweighing its potential benefits.” Mr. Bunn also stated that, "reprocessing is far outpacing the use of the resulting plutonium as fuel, with the result that over 240 tons of separated, weapons-usable civilian plutonium now exists in the world, a figure that will soon surpass the amount of plutonium in all the world’s nuclear weapons arsenals combined."
Richard K. Lester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cited the Institute’s study on the Future of Nuclear Power, which concluded that, “(w)e do not believe that a convincing case can be made on the basis of waste management considerations alone that the benefits of advanced, closed fuel cycle schemes would outweigh the attendant safety, environmental, and security risks and economic costs.”
The MIT study also found that other waste management strategies are available that result in long-term risk reduction at least as great as those claimed for reprocessing with fewer short-term risks and lower development and deployment costs.
Posted July 17, 2008, 9:34am
Excellent point from Doug. It’s ironic that we worry as much as we do about the “volumes” of nuclear waste, when if we stop to consider those numbers relative to the amount of usable power we get from nuclear, they are extremely tiny. And that goes to the heart of the argument for nuclear power–its ability to pack so much energy into such a small amount of space. Pound for pound, coal supplies about twice as much energy as wood. Oil is twice as good as coal. And a gram of uranium, as Doug points out, is worth several tons of coal. Are there concerns handling the waste? Sure. But again, it’s worth dealing with those concerns in order to derive the tremendous benefits from nuclear.
Posted July 17, 2008, 9:42am
I am wondering whether “solving the nuclear waste problem” is really the best way to conceive of the issue. As Gwyneth points out, “spent fuel” retains 98% of its energy. Therefore, it can be “recycled” over and over. Shouldn’t we be talking about “recycling” nuclear fuel (or better yet, “recharging” it, like a battery!), rather than “disposing of nuclear waste” or “building the breeder reactor”? I am aware that some types of recycled nuclear fuel (plutonium) is more easily made into weapons than the type of uranium currently used in US power reactors, and for that reason, the Carter Administration decided in 1979 not to go in the direction of recycling nuclear fuel, for fear of proliferation and terrorism concerns. That was a long time ago and we hoped that the rest of the world would follow suit. But it hasn’t. For example, India recently unveiled an advanced thorium breeder reactor that simultaneously recharges the fuel at the same time that it is producing power.
Isn’t it time to re-examine the decision to "dispose" of nuclear fuel and find advanced ways to re-use nuclear fuel rather than bury it?
Posted July 17, 2008, 9:59am
Doug's claims about invulnerability of reactors to terrorist attack are contradicted by NRC documents. I know because I have the NRC's documents that were pulled from circulation after 9-11.
Unbelievably, the NRC allowed Dave Lochbaum at UCS to purchase their entire library including documents they had scrubbed due to security and safeguards concerns. After 9-11, the NRC too claimed that the reactors were invulnerable. They were forced to retract their statements and acknowledge that 96% of U.S reactors were never designed with airliner crashes in mind.
Ironically one of the few reactors designed to deal with an airliner was Three Mile Island, unfortunately it couldn’t deal with a melt down and spewed radiation into the environment for days.
Posted July 17, 2008, 10:42am
Breeders and reprocessing? Haven't we been here before? In November 1955, the first U.S. “power reactor” ever to produce electricity, the EBR-1, (experimental breeder reactor) melted down during testing. The public was not made aware of this meltdown until Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic Energy Commission and the man who claimed nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter” was confronted by the Wall Street Journal and had to admit his ignorance of the accident.
Not to be dissuaded by the meltdown of the EBR-1, The Power Reactor Development Corporation, a consortium of 35 utilities headed by Detroit Edison forged ahead with the first commercial fast breeder reactor. The Fermi reactor was to be a scaled up version of the EBR-1. Fermi the first commercial power-producing fast-breeder reactor in the U.S. also had a core melt accident. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,712093,00.html " target="_blank">[See 1968 Time article]
And according to GAO, it will still take 40 years and 4.5 billion to clean up West Valley, NY, site of the failed commercial venture to reprocess radioactive wastes.
Posted July 17, 2008, 11:45am
Much, although not all, of the discussion so far has been contributed by the two camps at opposite ends of the spectrum of opinion about nuclear energy:
The enthusiastic “pro” side: “A large contribution from nuclear energy is not only clearly feasible, eminently affordable, and better than most anything else from the standpoint of safety and public health, but so important to addressing the climate-change challenge that the world simply cannot do without it.”
The determinedly “anti” side: “A large contribution from nuclear energy is probably not feasible (because of resource constraints and public acceptance), if feasible then still probably not as cheap as renewables, and in any case undesirable because of waste, safety, and proliferation; and we can meet the climate challenge without it.”
Like a few others in this discussion, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I believe it will be EASIER to surmount the climate-change challenge if we can get a substantial contribution from nuclear than if we cannot; but that, with additional difficulty, the lack of such a contribution from nuclear could be compensated by getting somewhat larger contributions than would otherwise be needed from the combination of end-use efficiency, renewables, and advanced fossil-fuel technologies that capture and sequester CO2.
I also believe that it will turn out to be either infeasible or irresponsible to GET a significantly expanded contribution from nuclear unless its own challenges of waste management, safety (including terrorism vulnerability), and proliferation are addressed with greater wisdom and determination than this country or any other has demonstrated up until now. The motto “fix it or forget it” is germane here; the nuclear option needs fixing in some important respects if it is to be viable on the needed scale, and if we succeed in expanding it WITHOUT fixing it I believe that we or our successors will end up regretting that we did.
[Editor’s note: Professor Holdren’s complete comments can be found in PDF format here]
Posted July 17, 2008, 11:51am
Operational performance will not preclude an enhanced commitment to nuclear in the U.S. The nation’s nuclear capacity factor in 2007 was 91.8%, the highest ever and a record of reliability that cannot be matched by any other baseload fuel source. Safety performance will not preclude an enhanced commitment to nuclear. The nation’s fleet of nuclear plants has a strong record of safe performance and effective and expert regulatory oversight. Operating/production cost will not preclude an enhanced commitment to nuclear. 2007 estimated average total production cost for the U.S. plants was at a record low, due to the efficiencies of scale and low, relatively stable fuel prices. Total production cost in 2007 was 1.76¢/kwh for nuclear-fueled electricity, 2.47¢/kwh for coal-fired generation, and 6.78¢/kwh for natural gas-fired electricity. Public opinion will not preclude an expanded commitment to nuclear. In fact, public support for nuclear energy as part of a low cost, reliable energy mix has been increasing since 1986 and has reached a favorable/unfavorable rating of 63% to 33% (Nuclear Energy Institute, June 2008). Clearly, the general public is more aware of nuclear energy’s benefits than ever before. Waste disposal issues should not preclude an enhanced commitment.
As other posts this morning have noted, spent fuel is being safely stored at operating and retired sites, pending further technology development and political consensus building. Finally, the economics should not preclude a nuclear commitment either. The nuclear industry is obviously aware of the cost and financing challenges. Operators are working with vendors to standardize designs to reduce cost, to revitalize the supply chain, and to identify and implement more efficient and productive construction methods. Stakeholders in new nuclear build are examining ways to both share and mitigate the substantial costs involved in financing the first new plants, including effective implementation of the provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Posted July 17, 2008, 11:55am
The urgency of climate change should force us to get beyond the "physics" of various energy alternatives to the "engineering." All of the lower carbon-emitting or carbon-free energy alternatives to coal confront engineering challenges, but some are bigger than others. All will require investment; some will take longer than others. Fusion energy could solve all our problems, but we don't have the engineering in place yet. It might happen in the last half of this century. The same is true of thorium reactors and any "proliferation-resistant" recycling. Breeder reactors, here and elsewhere, have experienced technical problems, as Jim points out in his last posting. These are old concepts, but is the engineering ready? If so, we need to carefully consider the opportunity costs of moving forward in these areas.
With respect to Don's post, it's true that the energy potential of irradiated fuel is still high. Light water reactors were initially considered to be an interim stage toward breeders and the use of plutonium as fuel. However, engineering so far has trumped physics. Although fuel could theoretically be recycled many times, France has only recycled its MOX once because it's not cost-effective.
As others have pointed out, however, reprocessing and breeder reactors don't solve the waste problem. They create other wastes, including liquid wastes, which pose safety, security and proliferation concerns. Matt Bunn does a good job of describing them in his Senate testimony (on GNEP, September 14, 2006, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Appropriations).
Posted July 17, 2008, 12:58pm
Chris is right capacity factors are up.
But that is because the NRC has been in regulatory retreat for the last decade.
When NRC/NEI (Nuclear Energy Institute) re-wrote the technical specifications for operating reactors they wiped out 40% of the stop signs known and limiting conditions of operation or LCO's. As Richard Meserve knows only too well, this has made certain nuclear incidents more dangerous than they needed to be. But it certainly helped improve the industry's bottom line.
NEI even provided the NRC with a wish list of regulations to gut along with a dollar amount that the industry would save per plant and the agency has delivered. As my colleague Paul Leventhal, said a few years ago, "The NRC has become a wholly owned subsidiary of NEI!"
Posted July 17, 2008, 1:24pm
Chris, I'm wondering if you could provide a little more information about NEI's public opinion poll. Were these favorable/unfavorable ratings for existing nuclear power or for new builds? Also, who conducted the polls?
Posted July 17, 2008, 1:31pm
I want to respond to the ongoing waste management conversation. There must be a better way to tackle waste management strategies than the painfully frustrating path we are now on. The issue is currently entangled with partisan politics, the annual federal budget cycle, and evolving technology. Today’s stalemate simply cannot continue. We need a new path forward. It is my belief that we must reform the overall governance structure of the civilian nuclear waste program. It should be housed in a new governmental entity, to assume the current federal authority and obligations for disposition of commercial spent fuel and high-level waste. It should continue to be under the regulatory oversight of the EPA and NRC. It should be funded off-budget so that long-term programmatic initiatives can be pursued without annual perturbation. It should be charged with both offsite interim storage and the facilitation of solutions (by both DOE and private-sector entities) beyond immediate direct geologic disposal, including recycling and repository options. This new government entity should be a more effective steward of the existing national Nuclear Waste Fund, to which nuclear operators and their customers have already committed $21 billion to date. This fresh approach I believe offers greater likelihood of long-term success.
Posted July 17, 2008, 2:48pm
The licensees have an economic interest in assuring the safe operation of the plants for many reasons, including their economic interests. Any plant with a serious safety problem runs the risk of an extended shut-down, with the obvious consequence that a plant that is not operating cannot earn revenue. In this instance, economic self-interest aligns with safety objectives. There needs to be a vigilant regulator, but there are pressures that make the regulator's job somewhat easier.
The NRC has maintained data on objective factors related to safety–numbers of emergency shutdowns, availability of safety equipment, worker exposures to radiation, public exposures, etc. The trends show a consistent improvement over time. These trends reflect the pressures to improve safety performance as well as the knowledge that comes from expanded experience. The companies have learned that vigilance on safety matters is essential to their business. Aggressive maintenance and surveillance, for example, not only improve safety, but also improve reliability. In the early days of the commercial nuclear power, constraints were put in place based on design philosophy (e.g., defense in depth) and engineering judgment. The idea was to assure a wide safety margin. As understanding has grown and analytical capabilities have improved, such as understandings derived from sophisticated probabilistic risk assessments, safety experts have learned that some of these requirements were excessive or even counter-productive, whereas in a few cases the requirements needed to be strengthened. Adjustments based on increased understanding do not reflect a captive regulator. Rather they reflect an intelligent one.
Posted July 17, 2008, 3:36pm
While I respect Richard, my research on performance indicators using NRC data paints a different picture. Whenever the NRC or NEI could not get a performance indicators to trend downward they would merely redefine the indicator to get the results they wanted. I have repeatedly documented this practice in the Nuclear Lemons reports I wrote for Public Citizen. Even the NRC staff thought that NEI had too much influence and that the new process was at best weak. When the NRC first instituted the revised reactor oversight process, the staff was surveyed. The results should have given the Commission cause for concern:
* 70% of those surveyed believed that the new process would not catch declining performance “before a significant reduction in safety margins.”
* 70% of NRC’s resident inspectors believed that the new process “may not identify and halt degrading performance.”
* 79% of NRC staff either had no opinion or believed that the new performance indicators did not provide an adequate indication of declining performance.
* 75% of the NRC staff thought that the nuclear industry and NEI had too much influence and input into the new process.
(Jenny Weil, “Some Regional Staffers Question Adequacy of New Oversight Process.” Inside NRC, January 17, 2000, p. 1.)
Guess what? The NRC staff was right! The new oversight process gave us the Davis Besse debacle in 2002, by NRC’s own calculations the football-sized hole in the vessel head was the most dangerous near-miss since the Three Mile Island meltdown.
Posted July 17, 2008, 3:40pm
This responds to Sharon's earlier question. The public opinion research I referenced was conducted by Bisconti Research, commissioned by the Nuclear Energy Institute in June of 2008. Survey participants were asked if they favored or opposed nuclear energy as one of the ways to provide electricity in the United States.
In addition to the data I referenced earlier, a Zogby poll (Zogby is an independent public opinion research firm conducting surveys on a variety of topics with the American public) conducted in June of 2008, found 67 percent of its survey responders favored the construction of new nuclear plants in the U.S. 23 percent of the survey responders opposed construction of new plants in the U.S.
Posted July 17, 2008, 3:46pm
It is hard to believe but we are rapidly nearing the end of our three-day dialogue.
I will not try to sum up or assert that there is any spurious "consensus." On the contrary, I think several of our exchanges–although generally polite and respectful–have shown that some of us are in fundamental disagreement on important issues, such as whether or not nuclear power is safe, economically feasible and whether waste disposal/reprocessing issues can or cannot be handled successfully.
As we near the end of our dialogue this afternoon, I'd like to raise as a final issue for our consideration: what changes in public policies or institutions might be needed to facilitate a modest expansion to nuclear power in the U.S., if it were deemed desirable (of course, as part of portfolio of responses to climate change, including efficiency, renewables, and advanced coal with sequestration). Chris Crane began to get into that subject in his recent post, in which he calls for a new governmental regulatory institution, and several others have done so obliquely by observing that we should be able do better on certain issues than we have in the past. It would be good if others could consider 2 or 3 concrete recommendations for changes in public policy that they think might make the most difference.
Posted July 17, 2008, 4:20pm
Thanks, Chris. It still isn't clear whether those polled also favored new nuclear plants (a different question than whether existing plants are ok), which is what we're discussing. Some other data points: The 2003 MIT Future of Nuclear Power study conducted its own poll and found that a majority of respondents favored existing nuclear power plants, but opposed building new plants. Top concerns: environment, safety/waste, cost. At that time–2003–global climate change didn't factor into considerations very much. A more recent poll, by the Pew Foundation, found that 48% of respondents opposed nuclear energy and 44% favored. A February 2006 Gallup poll showed that 55% favored and 40% opposed nuclear energy, but that 55% opposed (vs. 42% favoring) building new nuclear power plants.
Posted July 17, 2008, 4:22pm
I agree with Chris that our existing structure for managing the disposal of spent fuel is dysfunctional. This is inherently a long-term project and there is a resulting need for management and financial continuity. Placing this obligation in a government agency subject to frequent changes in personnel and to the whims of an annual budget process does not work. A quasi-government corporation with stable personnel and access to the Waste Fund outside the annual appropriations process would be an improvement. But it would be very difficult to get Congress to agree.
Posted July 17, 2008, 4:27pm
In the US, we generate 120 million tons a year of solid waste and 2-3 billion tons of CO2 from burning coal. This is likely to increase unless alternative base-load sources are expanded. By contrast the annual waste from nuclear plants is minuscule and doesn't impact public health or the environment. I've observed various discussions about energy and the environment in which nuclear power is not even mentioned. People are surprised that it provides 20% of our electricity and nearly 75% of our low-carbon electricity.
We need programs to better educate the public, starting in grade school. When most people get the facts, they look at nuclear power and the climate crisis with new eyes.
As Chris points out, we need an agency with a vision of the big picture and the long-term, and it must be apolitical. The history of waste disposal options is studded with stories of promising research that, for political reasons, was canceled or the budget cut.
The Office of Technical Assessment, which used to advise Congress, is now gone. So our representatives instead get scientific and technical information from lobbyists; facts take a backseat. A revival of the OTA is essential as various energy schemes are presented to Congress.
Posted July 17, 2008, 4:37pm
I would like to take one more shot at putting the safety issue in perspective. For nuclear safety to be of major concern–it has to result in real consequences; for example, a good measure is the radiation impact on people. Jim says I claim containments are invulnerable to damage from airplane crashes; I make no such “claim” although given a choice I would rather be inside containment than on the plane and I expect Jim would be inside as well.
The information I referenced is in a peer-reviewed article in a reputable scientific journal; usually considered a pretty good test of its validity. It has not been refuted in that forum or by USNRC documents despite ample opportunity to do so. What the article says is: let’s assume the containment is damaged so that it leaks (has a hole in it) and on top of that the core is damaged and releases fission products. The physics and chemistry of that situation treated in realistic terms do not allow for large number of casualties at all. Of course, we should do our best to prevent that from happening, but using nuclear power does not perch us on the edge of a precipice leading to a catastrophe.
We ought to build strong buildings; we ought to look at terrorists threats including airplane attacks and we do. One should not use semantics to scare monger that that airplane crashes are not treated and evaluated in the design process – they are – just not in the special category of events called “design basis events” by the USNRC; those events have to be solely dealt with special safety systems. Like waste, we need to understand the facts that are in play here and not allow the dialog to be conducted on the level of tee-shirt slogans. It makes all the difference in the world.
Posted July 17, 2008, 4:49pm
One of the most important things that must be done from a policy standpoint is for the NRC to process in a timely fashion the license applications for new reactors that are coming in. Perhaps Richard has a better perspective on this, but I have heard concerns that there may not be the manpower to do this. It would be a shame, in light of the streamlined application process, if worthwhile projects languished because the NRC didn't have the people and resources to act expeditiously.
Posted July 17, 2008, 4:55pm
Just some back ground on Bisconti Research that doesn't appear on their web site.
According to an ANS web page:
Ann Bisconti was previously a vice president with the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), where she directed one of the most comprehensive research programs ever undertaken by an industry on challenging social issues. Bisconti Research continues to conduct public opinion and communications research for NEI under contract and serves many other clients in energy and other fields.
So the poll wasn't merely commissioned by NEI, it was conducted by their former VP.....
Posted July 17, 2008, 5:15pm
Regardless of whether the supposed "renaissance" ever comes to fruition, the industry and the public would be better served by a strong, independent regulator. Unfortunately this has not been the case since Richard left the NRC.
The NRC's "risk informed" regulatory approach has resulted in the industry being exposed to less regulation while the public gets exposed to greater risks. NRC/NEI have been whittling away at safety margins to improve the industry bottom line.
It’s time to separate the NRC/NEI conjoined twins and re-instill some independence at the agency.
Unfortunately, the current NRC chairman lacks that independence. It’s hard for the public to respect, let alone trust, someone who was part of the industry PR campaign having his opinions written for him by the industry. See: Will Shill For Nukes
And Doug, it’s not fear mongering to point out that the NRC has done precious little to defend nuclear reactors for a 9/11-type attack. Perhaps if the industry had been more honest about what reactors were and were not designed to withstand, I wouldn't have to debunk their propaganda. As pointed out by Bennett Ramberg, in the NY Times in 2003:
"Keeping the terrorists guessing about our defenses was presumably one motivation for the secrecy. However, it might also reflect the commission's desire to play down its acquiescence to the nuclear industry's hubristic view that the plants are nearly invulnerable... the commission doesn't seem to have learned the lesson of those attacks — not a thing will be done to reduce the vulnerability of reactors to strikes from the air.”
Unfortunately, now nearly 7 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Ramberg is still right. Another example of an agency in need of a serious overhaul.
Posted July 17, 2008, 5:23pm
We’ve moved from asking whether nuclear power is essential to addressing climate change and energy independence to what’s necessary to facilitate modest expansion in the United States if it were deemed desirable. Limiting the discussion to whether or not nuclear energy should be expanded misses some of the broader debate that has to be engaged. In order for real, dramatic reductions in carbon emissions in the next ten years, we will have to address carbon reduction in more than the electricity sector.
There is no doubt that the US government should facilitate near-term options to reduce carbon. An objective approach would place priority on options that make the biggest reductions in the shortest amount of time for the least amount of money – efficiency. Note that in almost all technical carbon emissions reduction paths, efficiency accounts for the largest reductions.
We haven’t talked about opportunity costs specifically, but we need to think creatively about baseload power options from diverse sources (see Arjun Makhijani’s Carbon-Free, Nuclear-Free). I like Gwyneth’s recommendation for an agency like the Office of Technology Assessment to help sort out the technical options for Congress. This gets at the heart of the dilemma – how to compare technical solutions across disciplines, sectors, costs, and time.
Posted July 17, 2008, 5:26pm
The NRC anticipates that it will receive 34 applications for new construction by the end of 2010 and is confronted with several design certifications at the same time. It has been hiring extensively for several years in order to have the capability in place to handle the work flow. But the challenge will be great.
This is only one of the many possible bottlenecks to new construction. One major one is that the Japan Steel Works is the only place in the world that is available today to provide the jumbo forgings that are needed for new plants. The queue to get these forgings is growing long. All of these problems will resolve themselves in time. If there is work, the market for people will adjust. Similarly, new forges will come on line. But there will be some dislocations and interruptions along the way.
Posted July 17, 2008, 5:34pm
The survey that is reported by Jim was taken at a time when a revised inspection program was just being put in place. Staff was understandably nervous about a new way of doing the work. But the logic of the new approach was appropriate–namely, to adjust the inspection resources to reflect the areas of risk–and I believe that the staff is now quite comfortable with it.
I am not aware that anyone has ever previously alleged that the problems at Davis-Besse were the result of the revised inspection program. In fact, the Davis Besse problem was revealed by a special inspection program that had been launched by the NRC to examine stress corrosion cracking in PWR heads. The hole was the result of the cracking.
Posted July 17, 2008, 5:45pm
It will be interesting to see how this all works out in practice and–whether we think it is "essential" or not–if the U.S. actually does expand its commitment to nuclear power over the next few years in response to the challenges of global climate change.
Thank you all for participating in a most stimulating and spirited dialogue.
Our discussion is now closed.