Nuclear Energy Policy (12-11-07)

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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.

Recent Action

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. (12-11-07)

Previous Action

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."

Click here 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 future.

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…State 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 proliferation.

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 Summer Intern

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on May 16, 2007.