Nuclear Energy Policy (12-11-07)
Twenty percent of U.S. electricity generation comes from 103 nuclear
power plants. All of these nuclear power plants were built before
1975 and the Energy Information Administration's 2005
Energy Outlook projects that by 2030, nuclear power will account
for only 15 percent of U.S. electricity generation. This outlook assumes
that all 103 of the old plants will have their licenses renewed by
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission beyond their initial 30-year lifetimes
and that the tax incentives included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005
(Public Law 109-58) will ensure that an additional 4 to 6 new nuclear
power plants will be built by 2021. The percentage of electricity
generation from these old and potential new plants will still decrease
over the next 25 years because demand will increase more rapidly.
Most of the increasing demand for electricity will be met by coal-fired
power plants. While safety and waste disposal remain as serious concerns
to increasing nuclear power capacity, others are expressing greater
concerns with the increase of coal-fired power plants to meet energy
demands because coal-fired plants emit more greenhouse gases and other
pollutants than nuclear power plants. Policy makers and the public
are now grappling with the future of nuclear power in the U.S. and
whether it would be wise to increase nuclear power capacity.
DOE's Nuclear Fuel Recycling Program Losing Support
The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a Department of Energy
(DOE) nuclear energy program to promote safe, clean nuclear energy
use worldwide, has recently lost many of its previous supporters.
The program advocates recycling spent nuclear fuel and sharing technology
and resources between countries to help all nations achieve reliable
energy without greenhouse gas emissions.
The decrease in support is due to increasing budget estimates and
a 2007 National Academies of Science (NAS) report which suggests "the
GNEP program should not go forward and that it should be replaced
by a less aggressive research program." The authors justify their
decision by stating that GNEP "is premised on an accelerated
deployment strategy that will create significant technical and financial
risks, engendered by the premature narrowing of technical options."
The DOE issued a response stating that the NAS report "is premised
on a faulty assumption that DOE intends to facilitate premature commercial
deployment of technologies that have not been demonstrated beyond
laboratory-scale" and due to "large expected increases in
the demand for electricity as well as serious concerns about climate
change, a substantial increase in nuclear capacity is required worldwide"
faster than recommended by NAS. The DOE response admitted that "although
the analysis in the report was based on outdated, early-program information,
the recommendations developed by the committee mirror many of the
conclusions developed and incorporated in the program by the Department."
Senator Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) strongly supports nuclear energy
initiatives and until recently showed similar support for GNEP. During
a November 14th Senate hearing, Domenici said "I have remained
committed to helping nuclear power reach its full potential in this
country, yet we are still lagging behind on what to do with our nuclear
waste. If the Department of Energy cannot start taking spent fuel
from our reactors, the liability for DOE's failure will continue to
accumulate and accelerate. We must act quickly to address our spent
nuclear fuel issue and ensure that taxpayers are spared the direct
costs resulting from our flawed Yucca Mountain strategy."
The current Yucca Mountain storage facility program is over twenty-five
years old, has been plagued with budget increases and timeline delays,
and is still in the design process. The U.S. needs a permanent, safe
strategy for nuclear waste recycling and storage, but no other options
have been developed as far as Yucca Mountain.
For information on the GNEP click here.
For the NAS report click here.
For the DOE response click here.
For information on the November 14th Senate hearing click here.
Earlier this month the Council on Foreign Relations published "Nuclear
Energy: Balancing Benefits and Risks" in partnership with Washington
and Lee University. Written by the Council's Fellow for Science and
Technology, Dr. Charles D. Ferguson, the report is a sobering analysis
of the "nuclear renaissance" currently touted by policy
makers on Capitol Hill.
Although currently in favor among politicians as a clean source of
energy, nuclear power is unlikely to play a major role in augmenting
America's energy security and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.
In the report, Dr. Ferguson argues that the rapid nuclear expansion
needed to even moderately reduce emissions would "pose serious
concerns for how the industry would ensure an adequate supply of reasonably
inexpensive reactor-grade construction materials, well-trained technicians,
and rigorous safety and security measures."
Also sobering is the fact that, of the 103 operating nuclear reactors
in the U.S., almost all face retirement by mid-century, even with
20-year life extensions to their original 30 year lifetimes. According
to the report, replacement of existing facilities would require building
a new reactor every four or five months over the next 40 years.
The biggest challenge America faces in regard to nuclear power is
overcoming a decades-long fear of nuclear energy. Primarily due to
the dual horrors of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and the
Chernobyl accident seven years later, America's nuclear program has
been mothballed for the past thirty years. Finding the expertise and
infrastructure necessary to replace aging reactors and construct new
ones presents a daunting challenge: "For this reason alone,"
Dr. Ferguson argues, "nuclear energy is not a major part of the
solution to U.S. energy insecurity for at least the next fifty years."
for a copy of the report (April, 2007).
Currently, 104 nuclear reactors operate in 31 states, generating
20% of U.S. electricity. All of these nuclear power plants were built
before 1975 and the construction of new plants has been stymied by
safety issues, costs and waste disposal concerns. The operating costs
of a nuclear power plant have decreased over time and are now more
competitive with the operating costs of coal-fired and natural gas
fired power plants, especially with the rising costs of natural gas.
Nuclear power plants are also much cleaner than coal or even natural
gas fired power plants, producing almost no emissions of pollutants
or greenhouse gases. Assuming safety, construction costs and waste
disposal issues can be dealt with, the public and policy makers have
become more interested in the construction of new nuclear power plants
to generate a greater percentage of U.S. electricity needs in the
Indeed, nuclear power has been included in many major energy policy
initiatives introduced by President George W. Bush since 2001. The
National Energy Policy Group (NEPG) was established by President Bush
shortly after taking office in early 2001 with instructions to "develop
a national energy policy designed to help the private sector, and
and local governments promote dependable, affordable, and environmentally
sound production and distribution of energy for the future."
The NPEG report encouraged the expansion of nuclear power as a percentage
of U.S. electricity generation by providing financial incentives to
build new nuclear power plants. The NPEG report serves as a template
for major energy policy legislation in Congress and after many years
of work, Congress passed this legislation in 2005. The Energy Policy
Act of 2005 provided the nuclear energy industry with tax rebates
on capital facilities investments, help with liability coverage, and
a new, faster process for approving new nuclear power.
The President's FY 2007 budget proposal requests funding for a program
called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) to promote new
nuclear power recycling technologies that would be particularly cost-effective
for developing countries. This is a shift in U.S. policy regarding
nuclear waste recycling. Previously the U.S. did not approve of any
recycling of nuclear waste for energy because of the possibility of
nuclear weapon proliferation from enriched waste products. Now there
is new technology which makes recycled waste far less viable for weapon
production and the U.S. would like to capitalize on these technological
advances. GNEP would share civilian nuclear power generation technology
with developing countries that agree to use the technology for civilian
purposes only. GNEP would also begin nuclear waste recycling to reduce
the amount of storage needed by about 90%. Nuclear waste recycling,
which reduces the total amount of leftover nuclear fuel, would be
combined with nuclear facility monitoring to prevent nuclear weapon
The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
(NRC) are the primary federal agencies with oversight authority over
nuclear power generation in the U.S. The United States Geological
Survey (USGS), under the Department of the Interior, has a more limited
role managing waste repository research and facilitating nuclear fuel
research. DOE responsibilities include research and development of
nuclear technologies, providing for the security of nuclear facilities,
facilitating international cooperation, and ensuring a continual supply
of resources necessary for nuclear power. Managing these responsibilities
in DOE are the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, the
Office of Nuclear Energy and the Office of Science. Nuclear programs
within DOE also serve defense purposes, including the development
of defense nuclear power and nuclear weapons research through the
National Nuclear Security Administration. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission
is an independent agency that regulates the civilian nuclear power
industry. Split from the Atomic Energy Commission by the Energy Reorganization
Act of 1974, NRC is charged with maintaining safe nuclear power generation.
Licensing, operational oversight, and rulemaking are ways the NRC
ensures a steady supply of safe nuclear power.
Sources: Hearing Testimony, Department of Energy, E&E Daily,
Environmental Protection Agency, Greenwire, Energy Information
Administration, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the White House
Contributed by Timothy Donahue, 2006 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern, Linda
Rowan, Director of Government Affairs, and Paul Schramm, 2007 AGI/AIPG
Please send any comments or requests for information
to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on May 16, 2007.