Posted on November 29, 2010 by Rodney Brown, Jr.
The US hasn’t licensed a new nuclear power plant in a quarter-century. Most people have forgotten the plants even exist – but they might be coming back. In the last couple of years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received more than twenty new plant applications.
Are we ready to go nuclear again?
The US has about 100 nuclear plants in operation today, generating around 20% of the nation’s electricity. Most plants were built in the 1960s and 1970s, and will need to be replaced before too long. Far more plants have been built abroad, and many of them will need to be replaced too.
Replacing worn-out nuclear plants with new ones is very controversial, at least in the US. Our colleague, Michael Gerrard, will explore the controversy by hosting a debate on nuclear power at Columbia Law School on Monday, November 29th from 7 to 9 PM. The debate will be webcast live, and a video will be posted on the website of the Center for Climate Change Law. Contact Ashley Rossi at email@example.com for more info.
In the meantime, how can we learn what to believe — and what not to? Fortunately, in 2007 the Keystone Center conducted a “joint fact-finding” to identify facts upon which people with different policy goals could absolutely agree. The participants came from all over, ranging from utilities like Exelon and Entergy to environmental groups like Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They may continue to disagree on the values implicit in their various policy goals. But it turns out that they can agree on a foundation of facts.
For example, all agreed nuclear power is in fact a low-carbon energy source that can help fight climate change. They also agreed that the global nuclear industry would in fact need to embark on a massive construction program if nuclear power is to provide even 1 gigatonne of carbon reductions (equal to just one “wedge” from the famous Sokolow & Pacala climate stabilization wedges. Here’s the specific factual finding:
“The NJFF participants agree that to build enough nuclear capacity to achieve the carbon reductions of a Pacala/Socolow wedge (1 GtC/year or 700 net GWe nuclear power; 1,070 total GWe) would require the industry to return immediately to the most rapid period of growth experienced in the past (1981-90) and sustain this rate of growth for 50 years.”
On another point, the participants agreed that nuclear power probably would cost between 8 and 11 cents per kilowatt/hour (kW/h) delivered to the grid. This compares to current natural gas costs of about 5 to 6 cents per kW/h. (Wind power’s costs fall somewhere in between.)
On the controversial topic of using new technologies to “reprocess” nuclear fuel, participants agreed it wasn’t likely to prove economically viable:
“No commercial reprocessing of nuclear fuel is currently undertaken in the U.S. The NJFF group agrees that while reprocessing of commercial spent fuel has been pursued for several decades in Europe, overall fuel cycle economics have not supported a change in the U.S. from a “once-through” fuel cycle. Furthermore, the long-term availability of uranium at reasonable cost suggests that reprocessing of spent fuel will not be cost-effective in the foreseeable future. A closed fuel cycle with any type of separations program will still require a geologic repository for long-term management of waste streams.”
Agreement on all the true facts might make it easier to resolve the debate over nuclear power’s role in our energy future. To learn more about them download the Keystone Center’s executive summary or the report in full.