The U.S. Secretary of Energy formed the Nuclear Energy Task Force in July 2004 and directed its members to “assess the issues and determine the key factors that must be addressed if the Federal Government and industry are to commit to the financing, construction, and deployment of new nuclear power generation plants to meet the nation’s electric power demands in the 21st Century.”
Dramatic Efficiency Gains Noted
The panel noted nuclear power has played a major role in electric power supply in the United States for 30 years. The U.S. has 103 nuclear power plants, more than any other country in the world. Those plants have supplied 20 percent of the nation’s power over the past three decades–even as the country’s energy demands have grown, and despite the fact no new plants have been ordered or built since 1973.
Improvements in efficiency–from a 70 percent average to a current 90 percent average–over the past decade have produced the equivalent power of 18 new nuclear plants. Over this same period, the committee determined, nuclear safety improved significantly, while operating costs have declined and the volume of nuclear waste has been reduced.
Economic Benefits Cited
According to task force member C. Paul Robinson, the economic arguments “are just becoming very timely in terms of electrical needs. We have looked at all the alternatives, and certainly if you believe in the threats of greenhouse gases, then it is important to have something that can produce electricity with good efficiency and cost, and be emission free.”
Added task force member Burton Richter, it “looks very much as if, once you get past the extra costs of a first-of-a-kind plant, then the costs of nuclear power are competitive with coal. That’s a surprise to most people. If you can replace coal, you do good for air pollution, the economy, energy supply, and competitiveness.”
Michael J. Wallace, executive vice president of Constellation Energy, in April 26 testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources observed, “New nuclear power plants provide future price stability that is not available from electric generating plants fueled with natural gas. Intense volatility in natural gas prices over the last several years is likely to continue, thanks partly to unsustainable demand for natural gas from the electric sector, and subjects the U.S. economy to potential damage.
“Although nuclear plants are capital-intensive to build,” Wallace continued, “the operating costs of nuclear power plants are stable and can dampen volatility of consumer costs in the electricity market.”
Plants Are Non-Polluting
Unlike coal and natural gas, which account for 51 percent and 16 percent respectively of U.S. power generation, nuclear plants emit no sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, or carbon dioxide. In contrast to U.S. petroleum supplies, North America has ample uranium resources for use as fuel for these new plants.
The Nuclear Energy Task Force concluded, “It is now imperative that the U.S. government act decisively to create the environment and incentives to ensure that the construction of new, safe and reliable nuclear generation capacity occurs expeditiously.”
New Construction Guidance Offered
The committee went into considerable detail in offering guidance for the government to clear up residual uncertainty in the licensing of nuclear power plants and to minimize the threat of the abuse of litigation as a means of delaying the operation of well-constructed plants.
The committee also outlined methods to coordinate the activities of various regulatory bodies to ensure continual modification of workable designs would not be necessary.
The committee also strongly recommended the federal government provide financial incentives to overcome the uncertainties and economic hurdles that would otherwise prevent the first few new nuclear plants from being built.
U.S. Leadership at Risk
The committee indicated its concern over the fact that nuclear power plant construction is underway in many other countries, raising issues associated with the loss of U.S. leadership and business opportunities if the United States does not commit to new construction.
The report stated that as a result of 9/11 there is a need to provide the country with confidence that nuclear power plants are adequately protected against terrorist attacks. While significant security upgrades since 9/11 have made the nation’s nuclear facilities more secure than most other elements of the civilian infrastructure, this has not been adequately communicated to the public, the report found.
To facilitate nuclear energy production, the committee report directed the Secretary of Energy to strengthen the department’s investment in the physical sciences and advanced engineering research and to enhance its role in educating and training future scientists and engineers for careers in nuclear science and engineering.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.
For more information …
Testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources’s April 26 hearing on the Nuclear Power 2010 Program is available online at http://energy.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Hearings.Hearing&Hearing_ID=1465.