The Revival of Nuclear Power

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 11/21/2007 12:44:00 AM
Carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide emissions are largely unavoidable when using coal, oil, or natural gas as fuels. But, nuclear power--radioactive waste aside--produces none of those emissions nasties. Zero, zip, zilch, nada. Hence, some environmentalists who used to bash nuclear power are now seeing it as the lesser evil in confronting global warming. Today's story concerns the much-touted renaissance of nuclear power Stateside in line with its somewhat rehabilitated reputation in the public sphere. The challenges in this sphere are not new: it hasn't really been worked out yet where to dispose of nuclear waste material (that old "not in my back yard" NIMBY syndrome) or even if building nuclear plants is economically viable. From Wired, of all places:

A recent application to build the first American nuclear power plant in nearly 30 years has the nuclear community aglow with talk of possible industry resurgence.

In September 2007, NRG Energy filed a proposal with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a nuclear power plant in Texas. Last month, NuStart, a nuclear consortium, also filed an application. These represent the leading edge of a wave of renewed interest in domestic nuclear energy.

"We are expecting an additional three (applications) before the end of this calendar year," said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman, who said another 16 applications, some for multiple power plants, are likely by the end of 2009. "If all of these applications were approved, we would end up with a total of 32 new reactors in the United States," Burnell said.

Currently 104 reactors are spread across the United States -- approximately 20 percent of domestic-energy output. Assuming all goes well, the first plants could come online as early as 2015, according to Burnell.

This resurgence of commercial attention to nuclear power is coming about for several reasons. The increased attention on greenhouse gases and their effects on the global climate is spurring interest in carbon-neutral power-generation technologies, including nuclear power. Improved technologies make new nuclear plants safer and more reliable, supporters say. And federal tax credits and subsidies (.pdf) tucked into the Energy Policy Act of 2005 have kick-started a once-dormant industry.

"The performance record from an operational point of view is extraordinary," said David Crane, the CEO of NRG Energy, of the next-generation plants currently operating in other, more nuclear-friendly countries such as Japan, China and France. "The U.S. has missed two generations of design that's been carried out in other countries -- they're simpler to maintain."

Further, he adds, among the 104 reactors currently online in the United States, none have had any disasters since the infamous Three Mile Island incident in 1979.

However, industry analysts and scholars are not quite as bullish as industry representatives seem to be, and don't see a nuclear renaissance at all.

"We really see it as essentially a number of companies are getting in line for a set of significant taxpayer subsidies," said Geoffrey Fettus, a senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council. "At this point we're years away from commitments from any of these companies to build."

The subsidies that Fettus refers to include a tax credit of up to $125 million total per year, estimated at 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour during the first eight years of operation, for the first 6,000 megawatts of capacity -- the same credit offered for plants that use renewable fuels.

In addition, the law provides support for construction of new nuclear plants costing over $1.18 billion, and an extension until 2025 of the Price-Anderson Act, which mitigates financial and legal risk for nuclear plant accidents.

Despite the incentives, experts point out that new nuclear construction may still be prohibitively expensive.

NRG Energy says its two proposed units, which would produce a total of 2,700 megawatts, or enough to power 2 million homes, would cost $6 billion to build. A conventional natural-gas plant of the same size would cost $2 billion, according to Jeremy Carl, a research fellow and PhD candidate at the Center for Environmental Science and Policy at Stanford University.

"To make money back you've got to charge a pretty high price for your power and it's not clear that the market will support that," Carl said.

Even if more nuclear plants do get built, Carl pointed out that the United States still does not have a definitive long-term strategy for dealing with nuclear waste.

Analysts also point out that American's energy demands continue to soar at a rate of 50 to 60 gigawatts each year, and there is no easy answer to America's constantly growing thirst for energy.

"You can't build wind and solar fast enough and their inherent production profiles are different enough such that you can't use them for base-load generation," said Michael Carboy, an analyst with Signal Hill.

"Wind power doesn't always occur during peak demand times and you don't have solar in the evening. You need something that's going to be a stable contributor to 20 or 30 percent of the daily power loads that's going to sit there and run all day long."