Will Nuclear Power Grow in a Low Carbon Economy? (1/12/10)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Stephanie Praus is reprinted from the January/February 2010 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.


Climate change is now front and center on the national policy stage. Both houses in Congress as well as the White House have acknowledged that we need to address this challenge and legislation that would push the U.S. toward a low carbon energy portfolio is under consideration in 2009. A critical part of such a low carbon energy portfolio is nuclear power, which already supplies about 20 percent of the nation’s electrical generation. Although nuclear energy is critical, U.S policy regarding nuclear energy remains uncertain and until longstanding issues are resolved, it is uncertain whether nuclear energy can grow to fulfill the nation’s energy needs.

Nuclear power generation results in essentially zero carbon emissions. Around the world successful operations of numerous nuclear power plants have occurred for decades. The United States operates more than 100 nuclear power plants, while France operates the second largest number of plants at more than 60. France now generates about 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear power.

The arguments against expanding nuclear energy in the U.S. remain significant with safety and security topping the list of concerns. There is always a fear of catastrophic accidents and a fear of nuclear weapons proliferation that must be balanced against any expansion of new nuclear power plants for low carbon energy.

Economically, it is very expensive to build a new nuclear power plant with current estimates of capital costs at $4,000 per kilowatt compared to $2,300/kW for a new coal plant.1 This expense would be coupled with the enormous cost of increasing the number of reactors needed to keep up with the energy demand of a growing U.S. population. Right now there are 103 old nuclear power plants generating about 20 percent of our electricity and we would need to build about 100 new nuclear power plants to double this percentage and keep up with new demand.

If capital costs can be constrained, then nuclear power becomes more competitive with coal-fired power plants because nuclear power has much lower fuel costs. The total cost for nuclear drops from 8.4 cents per kilowatt hour to 6.6¢/kWh, while coal power is about 6.2¢/kWh. In addition, if a carbon charge of about $25 per ton of carbon dioxide is initiated, then coal power costs rise to 8.3¢/kWh.1

Environmentally, nuclear power plants produce nuclear waste that is dangerous and has long-lived consequences. Nuclear power plants are also water hogs and require 33 percent more water than a coal-fired power plant. Most water is returned to its source at a higher temperature, but between 0.4 and 0.72 gal/kWh can be lost in a nuclear power plant through evaporation. There is also waste water to consider, environmental issues associated with uranium mining and indirect carbon emissions from the mining, transport, building, maintenance and waste disposal of such plants.

Unfortunately, U.S. policy on nuclear power generation has shifted with different administrations over the past 60 years and now seems particularly lost in regard to the growing problem of nuclear waste disposal and whether newer recycling processes that reduce the total amount of waste should be allowed for new plants.

Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1982 which tasked the Department of Energy (DOE) with finding, building, and operating a geological repository for permanent nuclear waste disposal. This process ultimately led to Congress directing DOE in 1987 to only study Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a site about 90 miles from Las Vegas. In 2002, President Bush authorized DOE to establish a repository at Yucca Mountain, despite local opposition to the site due to groundwater and public safety concerns. DOE submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) as a final step in the authorization.

In February 2009, President Obama requested a halt to funding for the Yucca Mountain repository and asked Congress to change the law, so that the building of the Yucca Mountain repository could be halted legally and permanently. The DOE has formed a blue ribbon panel to pursue alternate options to deal with the nation’s nuclear waste instead of establishing a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain.

The controversy surrounding Yucca Mountain and the need for more low carbon energy has renewed interest in nuclear fuel reprocessing, which would reduce the amount of high level radioactive waste. Reprocessing allows nuclear fuel to be used for power generation several times before it is disposed of as waste. France uses reprocessing to limit the amount of waste produced at most of their power plants. The U.S. has historically prohibited reprocessing for commercial nuclear power generation, with some exceptions, due to fears of weapons proliferation. In 1981, President Reagan lifted a ban on commercial reprocessing activities, a policy that was reversed with the Clinton administration. Recently, President Bush’s 2001 National Energy Policy recommended the development of reprocessing and fuel development technologies that are more efficient and more proliferation-resistant.

Two major energy bills enacted into law in the past two Congresses provided incentives for the development of new nuclear power plants without specifically dealing with nuclear waste or nuclear reprocessing. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorizes loan guarantees for nuclear power plants to encourage new plants through financing and for “innovative technologies” which could include advanced nuclear power plants. The Energy Security and Independence Act of 2007 included a provision for an unlimited number of government loan guarantees for “clean” power generation, which could pave the way for new nuclear power plants in the U.S. The law also instructs the Secretary of Energy to establish a Next Generation Nuclear Power Plant Project based on fourth generation nuclear power plant research and development.

While the outlook for future U.S. policy on commercial nuclear power is uncertain, there is growing consensus that it must be part of the energy equation. The U.S. is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while balancing its growing energy needs with economic and security concerns. There has been new discussion concerning reprocessing in the current Congress because it conserves uranium resources, results in less high level waste (but more low level waste), and reduces the need for a permanent geologic repository.2 Additional discussions focus on whether reprocessing should be implemented now, or in the future after better technologies have been developed.

In June 2009, the American Energy Act (H.R. 2846) was introduced in the House, primarily by Republicans, which sets the goal of building 100 new nuclear power plants within 20 years. It would also accelerate the regulatory process for obtaining licenses from the NRC to build new plants, allow the NRC to finish its review of Yucca Mountain, and allow recycling of spent nuclear fuel. In the Senate, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has repeatedly expressed his support for adding 100 nuclear plants over 20 years to the national grid.

Clearly the debate about Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository is not quite over and renewed congressional discussions will ensue once the DOE blue ribbon task force completes their report on long-term nuclear waste storage options.

Many questions remain on where the U.S. is willing to go with nuclear power and how the nation will deal with nuclear waste and nuclear reprocessing. There are clear benefits when considered within the problem of climate change, but concerns remain about the cost and safety. Nonetheless, the fact that policymakers are talking about building new nuclear power plants, that the Administration is studying nuclear energy and waste options and that recent legislation supports Yucca Mountain and reprocessing indicates potential near-term growth for nuclear energy within the U.S. energy portfolio.


1. All costs estimates are in 2007 constant dollars and were determined in “Update of the MIT 2003 Future of Nuclear Power.” MIT
Energy Initiative. Web. 03 Aug. 2009. http://web.mit.edu/nuclearpower/pdf/nuclearpower-update2009.pdf

2. Advanced Technology for Nuclear Fuel Recycling, 111th Congress, 12 (2009) (testimony of Dr. Alan S. Hanson). Print.


This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

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

Posted January 12, 2009


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