“A more productive approach to developing nuclear power—and confronting the mounting risks of climate change—is long overdue.” Ernest Moniz (currently the secretary of energy) summarized his thoughts of the US’ use of nuclear power in a 2011 essay written in the months after the fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. He reaffirmed his belief in nuclear power on August 20 by doling out 83 nuclear energy research projects worth a total of $67 million through the Department of energy.
While nuclear power provided 19 percent of the US electricity in 2012, many residents may be surprised that no new nuclear power plants have been commissioned in 40 years. A combination of high upfront capital cost, volatile public support for projects, and lack of a national nuclear waste disposal program have been barriers to new construction. While many people see nuclear power as a dangerous generating source, since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 a total of 7 people have died as a direct result of nuclear accidents (zero in the United States). Nuclear power in the United States has not had a loss of life accident since 1961 and has achieved this safety record while never producing any greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, with conventional fossil fuel generation plants, several groups have tried to estimate the external effects that the emissions from these plants have caused. In 2004, the Clean Air Task Force estimated that particulates from fossil fuel generation cause 24,000 premature deaths each year in addition to detrimentally warming the planet. These types of numbers make it seem like nuclear power would be an easy option for any new power plant, but the argument isn’t so simple.
As part of President Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, the United States was well on its way to authorizing new nuclear plant construction, when the Fukushima disaster put any new plans on hold. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami exceeded the safety precautions of the nearly 40-year-old Japanese nuclear plant and once again put the dangers of nuclear power on center stage for the world to see. Global reaction was mixed. In Germany, the phase out of existing nuclear plants was accelerated. Germany replaced much of the nuclear capacity with solar and wind power and now produces more than 17 percent of its annual electricity from these two sources. Other countries have stuck with their plans to expand nuclear power. China currently has 28 reactors under construction and will more than triple its electrical output from nuclear power when those plants come online.
The United States didn’t take a hard stance on how it felt about nuclear power after the disaster. It didn’t publicly condemn nuclear power, but slowed its approval processes to a crawl. While not exactly championing nuclear power’s advantages to the public, the Department of Energy stayed on the track to bring new nuclear power plants online. Then Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu said in 2012, “Restarting the nation’s nuclear industry … will help create new jobs and export opportunities for American workers and businesses, and ensure we continue to take an all-of-the-above approach to American energy production.” And with Secretary Moniz’s recent comments, the U.S. nuclear industry may be gaining some traction again.In conjunction with his Department distributing nuclear research grants, Moniz made comments stating that doing nothing to the status quo will exacerbate climate change, but he also stated that the goal of the new generation is also to keep energy cost low for Americans. Additional safety requirements that need to be implemented to safe guard against disasters like Fukushima have driven the upfront costs of nuclear plants to over $10 billion for a single reactor in some cases. But the operational costs of nuclear power remains very competitive at around 2 cents per kilowatt hour.
One way that utilities have been looking to reduce some of the cost of new construction is to build smaller reactors. Research has been ongoing to develop Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology that can be constructed mostly off-site (imagine a type of reactor assembly line) to reduce costs and will not have to be redesigned for each new site. Instead of producing 1,000 megawatts or more, these reactors will produce around 300 megawatts and can be stacked to meet demand. Locally, Ameren Missouri looked to partner with Westinghouse to bring SMR technology to its Callaway nuclear facility after it struggled to put together financing for a second conventional nuclear reactor. Ameren and Westinghouse were one of four finalist to develop a pilot plant, but were passed over for federal funding on the project and the plans for any new reactor at Callaway site 2 are on hold.
While SMR’s haven’t been approved for Missouri yet, Ameren’s vice president of external affairs, Warren Wood, stated that “I’m convinced it’s not a matter of if SMRs become a viable technology, it’s a matter of when.” These types of remarks continue to portray the long standing issues with the nuclear industry in the United States. Many people in the industry think that proper implementation of nuclear power will lead to cheap, reliable power and many utilities would like to be able to employ nuclear power, but the plant costs and the regulatory approval process (in additional to unsteady public support) causes many new proposals to be delayed or halted, which only increases construction costs.
As a technology nuclear power has always been well ahead of the government’s ability to regulate it. The science behind all of the reactors is sound, but the externalities that regulatory commissions control (siting restrictions, weapons-level safety concerns, waste treatment processes) is a patchwork mess that continues to slow the industry. To be fair, all of the concerns cited above are very important in maintaining a secure and safe energy future, but maybe some of the grant money focused on research would be just as well spent on streamlining these external factors.
As the Obama administration moves forward with its “all-of-the-above” energy strategy it still appears that nuclear will be one of those choices, even if the US hasn’t brought online any new generation yet. But in the post-Fukushima world, there appears to be a growing dichotomy between nuclear power producing countries. Countries like Germany that have seen declining energy demand (Germany’s total energy consumption has decreased over 10 percent in the last decade, while its economy has remained one of the strongest in Europe) can afford to reduce their dependence on nuclear power. However, rising economies like China and India (whose total electricity consumption has risen over 50 percent in the previous decade) continue to push forward with nuclear power. The United States seems to straddle this line, with a modest 5 percent increase in electricity production since 2004, wavering on just how much to support the technology. The next two years will show if nuclear will really become a part of the nation’s future energy strategy or if it continues to fade out in favor of other types of generation.