Taking a harder look at clean nuclear energy

Taking a harder look at clean nuclear energy

Three years ago, I heard a presentation by the head of the Nuclear Energy Institute about the history and then-current status of the nuclear energy industry in the United States. I had not previously given much thought to nuclear energy and my attitudes and biases with respect to nuclear energy were largely shaped by media reporting of the Three Mile Island Pennsylvania reactor meltdown in the 1970s and the Chernobyl, Soviet Union reactor meltdown in 1986. I also remember how difficult it was for Pacific Gas & Electric to get regulatory approval to startup the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant near Lompoc, California. Scary stuff that is problematic both financially and politically.

Fast forward to the present — a time of growing attention to carbon emissions and the reported link to a rise in global temperatures, the presentation about the nuclear energy industry's safe operating history (outside of the Chernobyl accident), the redundancy built into plant design in the name of safety, the reduction in regulatory barriers to nuclear power plant licensing and the standardization of nuclear facility designs, greater knowledge of the limited risks associated with waste storage, and nuclear power's low operating costs makes nuclear power a serious solution to reducing carbon emissions . The drawback to expanded nuclear power development remains its substantial up-front capital costs and the industry's ability to attract sufficient investment capital to expand much beyond its current 19-20% share of the contribution to electricity production in the United States. On an operating cost basis, nuclear power is more competitive than most other types of electricity production; when the capital costs are amortized and added to the equation, nuclear power is slightly more expensive. The other drawback is that it takes a long time to construct a new nuclear power facility after you have invested years in applying for a license; it is not an immediate solution to the reduction of carbon emissions.

I vowed to learn more when I could find the time, and I searched for a book that would objectively address the subject of nuclear energy, because as my own experience told, beliefs (not facts) were shaped by emotional discussions about nuclear power, radiation exposure, and fear. I looked at several titles on the subject and found Gwyneth Cravens' Power to Save the World , the cover of which described Cravens as a skeptic who set about to find the truth about nuclear energy. Early on, Cravens cites polling data that lists the three sources of information that the public finds least reliable on the subject of nuclear energy — politicians, the media, and the utility industry — and instead she turns in her search for facts and truth to the scientists, engineers and researchers who have spent their careers addressing all of the issues that surround nuclear power. Her guide and guru is Dr. Rip Anderson, long affiliated with Sandia National Laboratories outside of Albuquerque where Cravens was raised as a child.  Cravens traces our knowledge of atoms, electrons, protons, and atomic nuclei, and Anderson's non-biased probabalistic risk assessment approach to nuclear safety and public health, and builds toward the public policy conclusion that nuclear energy is one of the solutions to arresting rising global temperatures and is a safer, healthier mode of generating electricity than fossil fuel generation. Anyone who is interested in the subject of climate change, carbon policy, and clean energy should be reading this book. Our elected representatives who are deciding public policy should be reading this book.

We supposedly have a comprehensive national energy policy law reflected in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act and several other statutes, but it is questionable just how comprehensive our public policy really is given that we all but abandoned nuclear energy for forty years now and have never devoted significant resources to renewable energy supplies. Europe and Japan have leapfrogged over the United States in their share of energy production from nuclear power facilities during that time period and have moved to the head of the technological class. Amazingly, the U.S. nuclear industry has steadily maintained its 19-20% share of electricity production over the intervening decades, not from building new facilities, but from making the existing facilities more efficient. Ultimately, there is a limit to the gains to be achieved from that strategy and if nuclear is going to retain its current share the United States will have to build new reactors. As of December 31, 2009, there were 18 applications pending at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build 28 new reactors. There are a few other announcements of investment intentions for new reactors as reflected in early site permit applications, and only last week a letter of intent was announced by Areva to consider a new nuclear facility in California's Central Valley near Fresno. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute's website, the US Department of Energy estimates that 3 new reactors will have to be brought online every two years beginning in 2016 in order for nuclear energy to maintain its 19-20% share as electricity demand increases by 21% over the next two decades. So if all the pending applications are ultimately approved, nuclear may hold its own or enjoy a slight gain over its current share if the estimated demand for electricity is correct and the financial community is able to raise sufficient capital to build them by 2030. That is an optimistic scenario because it does not factor in the litigation that seems to ensue with every application and leads to delay in the development of this clean energy.

But a more thoughtful comprehensive energy strategy might not consider maintaining the nuclear status quo at 19-20% enough. Pending energy legislation aimed at promoting "clean energy" renewable power sources such as hydroelectric, solar, wind, and tidal are looking to increase their share, yet ironically the House climate change legislation (Waxman-Markey) is nearly silent on nuclear energy and does not consider nuclear to be a renewable energy resource, although from a depletion point of view the supply of uranium is vastly longer than fossil fuel resources. A separate piece of legislation (HR 2768) would declare nuclear energy a form of "clean energy." To pass clean energy legislation in the Senate, it appears that there will have to be a provision that enhances nuclear energy's contribution to our national electricity supply. Instead of focusing on increasing the share of renewable energy sources for the future supply of electricity, the public policy discussion and decision should be focusing on increasing clean energy's contribution (including nuclear) to the supply of electric power. Renewable energy sources, as defined in the Waxman-Markey legislation, have their limits too, and they will never be able to satisfy the planet's energy needs. In this respect, Waxman-Markey seems short-sited. This is the balanced conclusion of Cravens' Power to Save The World.

To understand the relative role of nuclear power as a "clean energy," Cravens' research comes to this conclusion: "An inclusive analysis of the life cycle of nuclear power–the extraction of uranium and its transformation into fuel, the construction of plants, the decommissioning of reactors, and the disposal of waste–shows that throughout the process, nuclear power emits about the same amount or carbon or is slightly less than is typically produced during the typical life cycle of wind turbines and solar panels. Radiation from nuclear plants, strictly regulated, is so insignificant that it is difficult to distinguish it from normal background radiation. Even when American plants have accidentally released radioactive materials, the actual exposure of humans has been miniscule compared with what we receive daily from natural sources."

After confronting all the challenges laid at the doorstep of nuclear energy and spelling out the facts uncovered by her questioning of researchers, engineers, and nuclear scientists, Cravens has two messages for the public and policymakers. The first is a simple equation: one nuclear fuel pellet weighing 0.0007 pounds can generate the same amount of electricity 1,780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil, or 157 gallons of regular gas. The second is that the risk to health and safety from possible radiation exposure is very small; there are greater risks from chemical plants and refineries and driving automobiles, all of which are not regulated as strictly as nuclear power.

Just this past week, there appeared an article in The Washington Post reporting about Sweden's experiment with a number of American families to reduce their carbon footprint.  This article demonstrates that individual households can reduce their respective carbon footprints if they adopt that as a goal. For many Americans, except for small, but nevertheless important strategies such as using energy-efficient lighting and recycling, there are hurdles or barriers to adoption to overcome at the household level, such as the cost of purchsing energy efficient appliances to replace less efficient appliances and weatherproofing. The federal and many state governments are offering incentives to overcome those barriers for households and landlords and industry. But as Mayor Bloomberg recently discovered in New York City, there is push-back, even with these incentives, in difficult economic circumstances. While the small individual changes can be important, for the United States to approach Sweden's carbon footprint is a huge undertaking that will require more than the sum of individual efforts.  Before we will see the United States approach Sweden in terms of metric tons of greenhouse gases per capita (23.5mt vs 7.4mt as reported in the Post article; other sources place the US closer to 20.5mt), we will need to configure our electricity supply to emulate (or at least move in the direction of) Sweden. Sweden produces about 45% of its electricity from 10 nuclear reactors and roughly another 45% of its electricity from abundant hydroelectric sources. Less than 10% of Sweden's electricity comes from fossil fuels. In contrast, only 25% of US electricity supply comes from nuclear (19.6%) and hydroelectric (5.8%) sources, while 70% comes from fossil fuels. Hydroelectic sources for the United States cannot be expected to increase dramatically, but there are decisions this country can make about nuclear power. If we want to make a serious dent in greenhouse gas emissions long-term, the US should be giving serious consideration to increasing the share of nuclear from near 20% to 30% or higher, while at the same time encouraging renewable development. Nuclear energy is the country's biggest opportunity. The State of Vermont is the lowest US jurisdiction in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (equal to Sweden), and has a nuclear/hydroelectric mix that is similar if not greater than Sweden's. The public needs to be educated that nuclear power is a safe supply of energy in the relative scheme of things and its lifecyle carbon contribution is estimated to be equal to or lower than wind or solar. Ironically, the pending so-called "clean energy" legislation in Congress pays only lip service to nuclear energy.

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