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  Geotimes - January 2008 - Trends and Innovations

Nuclear in a Carbon-Based World
Nicole Branan

South Texas Project nuclear power plant
Both images courtesy of Edward Conaway at STP
NRG, a New Jersey-based energy company, has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build and operate two new nuclear reactors at its South Texas Project nuclear power plant, shown here.
South Texas Project nuclear power plant
Both images courtesy of Edward Conaway at STP

Few energy industries in the United States have experienced a crash as severe as nuclear power suffered in the late-1970s. Once high on the list of preferred future choices for clean and efficient electricity generation, nuclear energy abruptly lost popularity after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. But signs point to nuclear power making a comeback in the United States.

“It’s a new day for energy in America,” said David Crane, president and CEO of New Jersey-based NRG Energy in September, after his company filed the first application in nearly three decades to build and operate new nuclear reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) plans to make a decision on NRG’s application in 2011, says Scott Burnell of NRC. If approved, the two new units could go online at the South Texas Project nuclear plant near Bay City three years after that, according to NRG.

The 103 U.S. reactors that currently produce about 20 percent of the country’s electricity have been running without major accidents for decades, which, in addition to growing concerns over greenhouse gas emissions, has helped foster a more favorable environment for nuclear power. Thanks in part to the friendly environment, NRG’s submission is only the beginning of an expected tidal wave of applications over the next two years. In preparation for the 21 requests for 32 new reactor permits that energy companies have said they plan to turn in between now and 2009, NRC has hired hundreds of new personnel and created an Office of New Reactors, Burnell says.

The reasons for the sudden explosion of interest are multifold. For one, “energy executives are definitely planning on there being a carbon tax and therefore feel that they have to go to non-carbon power sources,” says James Tulenko, director of the Laboratory for Development of Advanced Nuclear Fuels and Materials at the University of Florida in Gainesville and past president of the American Nuclear Society. Nuclear power generation, like wind and solar, produces none of the greenhouse gases that are currently warming up our atmosphere, which makes it a popular choice especially if there is a carbon tax. And sun and wind don’t work 24/7, he says. “Even though companies are making major investments in wind energy, wind does not deliver base load,” which is the average demand put on a power plant, Tulenko says. “So, for base load power generation, companies that are concerned about carbon taxes have no alternative other than to go nuclear,” he says.

There is also a growing realization among energy companies about the need to diversify to meet future energy needs, says Tom Isaacs, director of Policy, Planning and Special Studies at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. “When you build a power plant of any kind, you are talking about a multi-decade commitment, and when you look at the prices and the availability of fossil fuels 50 years out, you start to see that diversity of fuel supply makes a lot of sense,” he says.

Jumpstarting an industry that has lain dormant for a generation will be challenging, Tulenko says. “The United States workforce has never built a nuclear reactor because we stopped constructing them in the 1970s.” That’s why NRG has chosen General Electric’s Advanced Boiling Water Reactor technology for its new reactors, a design that has already been operating in Japan for more than a decade. And because the first companies to build new reactors have to learn how to build them, the government has implemented incentives, Tulenko says. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides standby support to offset financial impacts of construction delays for the first six new reactors. The bill offers up to $500 million for each of the first two reactors and up to $250 million for plants three through six, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The prospect of a nuclear power renaissance has also triggered an exploration boom for uranium. Prices are up in the $90 per pound range, more than five times higher than they were over the last decade. About half of the uranium that currently fuels the United States’ nuclear power plants comes from Russia’s dismantlement plants. But the United States’ contract with Russia runs out in the next decade and the uranium inventory that was mined years ago is shrinking. “That’s why we see this tremendous enthusiasm for exploration, re-opening of mines and building of mills throughout the entire world,” Tulenko says.

New interest in nuclear power raises old questions about the potential of proliferation and the need for long-term waste storage solutions. Radioactive waste, or spent fuel, is currently stored on a short-term basis and is eventually supposed to be buried in suitable geologic formations, such as the proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. Because the material is potentially hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years, some people have raised concerns that erosion and subsequent water intrusion could potentially flush the waste back into the environment in the distant future. But we may not even need to store the waste for that long, Tulenko says. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, the U.S. government’s research and international policy partnership initiative, is working to develop fast reactors, which, unlike conventional thermal reactors, destroy long-lived radioactive elements. “That means that you are getting rid of them in the process and all you are left with is waste with half-lives of around 500 years, so that’ll be gone in a reasonable amount of time,” Tulenko says. Fast reactor technology is still in the experimental stage, however. “You are not going to see these for another 20 years or so,” he says. By then, he says, he expects reprocessing technologies will also be available to recycle spent fuel.

Expansion of nuclear power also raises concerns about the possibility that weapon-usable materials could fall into the wrong hands. “When it comes to proliferation, the growth of nuclear power is an important consideration; however, the spread of nuclear power is even more important,” Isaacs says. “One more nuclear power plant in the United States won’t change the proliferation concerns very much but one nuclear power plant in another country that so far doesn’t have any might be of much more concern.” Still, the plants by themselves are not particularly proliferation-prone, he adds. The fuel that goes in is not weapons-usable material and the waste that comes out is so radioactive that people can’t easily handle it to make weapons.

Enrichment and reprocessing plants, however, are a different story. These facilities could be used to make weapons and trying to restrict their spread around the world is a major proliferation concern, Isaacs says. He thinks one possible solution could be to supply other countries with fuel and take their nuclear waste products back so these facilities wouldn’t have to be built in other countries. Isaacs likens this scenario to how the airline industry works. “Any country can have their own airline but they don’t all build their own airplanes,” he says. “I don’t think that we want enrichment and reprocessing plants in dozens of countries. I think that would be a very bad idea.” Making arrangements to take nuclear waste back would also help change the public perception of what a repository is, Isaacs says. “Rather than a garbage dump, it would be an important part of a regime for international security.” And even though nuclear waste issues are still a thorn in the side of the public, overall perception of nuclear power has begun to shift, he adds.

“I think the public is beginning to recognize that there are very few options. It’s basically either nuclear or coal, and if you consider all the environmental impacts and cost issues associated with coal, it makes a lot of sense to strongly consider nuclear as part of our future,” Isaacs says. “I think the public understands that.”

Branan is a freelance writer in Colorado.

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