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Political Scene

Expanding Nuclear Options
Linda Rowan

The Bush administration recently proposed significant changes to U.S. nuclear policy to resolve some of our current waste disposal problems and to accelerate the development of new nuclear power capacity. Suggested changes that require approval from Congress include accelerating the opening of the Yucca Mountain repository, allowing waste recycling for energy generation and increasing technology transfer with other countries.

None of these policy shifts has generated significant public outcry. This is partly because the public is seemingly more willing to accept nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels than it was in the past, and partly because people recognize that increased nuclear capacity could be essential to meet growing energy demands.

According to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) survey, the American public is willing to consider new nuclear power plants, as a way to reduce carbon emissions and satiate electricity demands. More than 1,400 fossil-fuel-burning plants produce the majority of U.S. carbon emissions, principally from 600 coal-fired power plants (the rest being natural-gas- and oil-fired plants). While natural-gas-fired plants are cleaner burning — emitting fewer greenhouse gases and fewer pollutants than other options — the cost of natural gas in the United States is high and continues to rise, making the possibility of safer, cleaner and more efficient nuclear plants even more appealing to an energy-hungry public.

Perhaps the most stunning example of the public’s changing viewpoint is an article in The Washington Post on April 16 by Patrick Moore, founder of Greenpeace, an environmental group. Moore supports the development of more nuclear power plants to replace coal-fired power plants to help stop “catastrophic climate change.” He wrote that he hopes that nuclear power plants can generate about 60 percent of U.S. electricity in the future, which would significantly reduce carbon emissions.

Unfortunately Moore’s optimism about the potential of nuclear energy is not matched by the feasibility of adding more nuclear capacity to the U.S. power grid over the next 25 years. To generate about 60 percent of our future electricity from nuclear sources, the United States would need to add more than 150 new plants. Currently, 103 nuclear power plants, all built before 1975, operate in the United States.

These plants generate about 20 percent of our electricity, and by 2030, the percentage will decrease to about 15 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Even this projection is optimistic because EIA assumes that all of the 103 plants will have their licenses renewed well beyond their original 30-year lifetimes and that at least 6 gigawatts of new electricity will be generated through four to six new nuclear plants by 2030.

France is often mentioned as a good example of using clean and efficient nuclear power for a majority of its electricity. In 2004, the country generated about 78 percent of its electricity from 59 nuclear plants, according to IAEA. France enjoys greater energy independence and lower costs for electricity than most other European countries because of its nuclear capacity. France has also gained economic benefits from generating excess electricity that can be exported, and it can sell its nuclear technology to others. Unfortunately, risks and liabilities remain high, requiring the government to pay for and maintain most of the country’s nuclear power because commercial entities cannot afford the risks.

In Russia, the government owns and operates the country’s nuclear plants and has recently decided to increase its nuclear capacity from 15 percent (22 gigawatts from 31 plants) to at least 25 percent of electricity generation by 2020. To meet this goal, the country needs to build about 26 new plants over the next 13 years.

Russia’s primary reason for this increase is economic, rather than based on reductions in carbon emissions. The country hopes to reduce its domestic use of electricity generated from relatively clean natural-gas-fired power plants, and instead export its natural gas to other countries for a greater profit as prices continue to rise. The new Russian nuclear plants will also be cleaner and more efficient because they will recycle waste to generate additional energy, according to the Uranium Information Center in Australia.

For the United States to increase its nuclear capacity, the government would need to open the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain and resolve the current waste disposal problem by considering additional waste repository options. The U.S. government would also need to accelerate the development of waste recycling and provide greater financial incentives for commercial development of new, safer and more efficient nuclear power plants.

On April 6, Sens. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) announced joint sponsorship of a bill to increase the storage capacity of Yucca Mountain, ease the permitting issues and remove any further delays in an effort to relieve the waste disposal problem. Congress has also suggested in committee reports that new waste repositories be considered because Yucca Mountain will fill to capacity soon after it opens.

The problem of waste disposal and advances in nuclear technology also have led to a major shift of policy regarding the use of recycled waste for energy. The president’s proposed budget requests funding for a new Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) program, which would develop a new generation of small reactors that use recycled fuel and would share this technology with developing countries. Concerns.about nuclear waste disposal and the demand for more and cleaner electricity have overtaken concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation that stalled previous consideration of recycled waste.

Most importantly, the United States must develop greater financial incentives for commercial development of nuclear energy. Unlike France and Russia, the United States relies on the nuclear industry for new development. A nuclear energy task force of the Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board suggested that the government should share the costs of developing at least the first few new nuclear plants. To that end, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides loan guarantees, extends insurance coverage to reduce liability risks and provides a production tax credit for new nuclear plants.

U.S. nuclear capacity is already massive in scale compared with France and Japan, which have the second and third largest programs, and compared to the expected growth in nuclear capacity in Russia, India and China. Policy-makers and the public need to seriously consider the maintenance of older plants, the development of new plants, safeguards against environmental and proliferation problems, and the storage of nuclear waste before moving ahead with some suggested plans. The United States will continue to demand more energy from nuclear resources, and it’s time to pay attention to what such growth really means for our future.


Rowan is director of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. E-mail: rowan@agiweb.org.

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