U.S. Sitting on Sidelines of Global Nuclear Renaissance

Published June 5, 2010

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is taking a lead role in identifying the energy future of the United States, recognizing we will eventually turn away from fossil fuels but refusing to be seduced by the false promise of inefficient and expensive solar power, wind power, and biofuels.

Global Renaissance
Alexander reports there are 40 nuclear reactors under construction in 11 countries around the world, with none of them in the United States. In fact, only two are in Western Europe—one in Finland and the other in France, both built by Areva, a French company. All the rest are in Asia, which may soon lead the world in nuclear technology.

Japan has 55 reactors and gets 35 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, almost double the 19 percent we get here. The Japanese have two reactors under construction and plans for ten more by 2018. They are finding they can build a reactor, start to finish, in less than four years.

Alexander says that is less time than it takes an American reactor simply to get licensing approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

South Korea gets nearly 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and is planning another eight reactors by 2015. So far the South Koreans have bought their reactors from the Japanese, but now they have their own Korean Next-Generation Reactor, a 1400-megawatt giant evolved from an American design. They plan to bring two of these online by 2016.

China Shifts to Nuclear
Last September Bloomberg News reported Japan Steel Works’ stock had risen 8 percent on the Tokyo Stock Exchange because of China’s decision to double future construction from 60 to 132 new nuclear reactors. Much of China’s well-publicized $586 billion stimulus package is going toward developing nuclear power. China had been focusing on building new coal plants, but it has now shifted its focus to nuclear.

Alexander reports India is embracing thorium, a technology many people think may eventually replace uranium as nuclear fuel. Thorium is twice as abundant as uranium and doesn’t produce the plutonium that fuels nuclear weapons. India has six thorium-fueled reactors under construction and ten more planned.

Economic Opportunity
Alexander has used his office to delve deeply into Russia’s nuclear agenda. Russia (then under the Soviet Union) halted construction of new reactors after the horrible Chernobyl accident. But Russia learned its lesson and started constructing much safer reactors in the 1990s, completing the first in 2001.

Now Russia has plans to expand along the lines of France, building two reactors every year from now through 2030. They have a very good reason for doing this. Russia has huge natural gas supplies but is wasting it on domestic electricity production. Alexander estimates Russia could sell its natural gas to Western Europe for six times its production costs.

The United States, which has long been the global leader in nuclear technology and innovation, is sitting on the sidelines watching other nations reap the benefits of this booming growth industry. France’s Areva is building reactors in Finland, China, India, Italy, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi, and the Russians have signed deals with China, Iran, India, Nigeria, and Venezuela. They are even selling to the United States.

In July 2009 a Russian uranium enrichment corporation, Tenex, signed a long-term contract to supply fuel to Constellation Energy, which has reactors in Maryland and upstate New York. It was the sixth contract Tenex signed with an American utility in the past two months.

U.S. Nuclear Advantage Lost
Once upon a time we were pioneers in nuclear technology—forty years ago we were the only people in the world who knew how to deal with the atom. That’s not true now. We’ve shied away from nuclear technology while everyone else has forged ahead.

Even Europe is coming back. The British have announced they’re going to go nuclear. They just hired the French national electric company to help. Italy closed all its reactors right after Chernobyl but ended up importing 80 percent of its electricity at a huge cost. Now they’ve announced they’re going back to domestic nuclear power as well.

France already gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear and has the cheapest electricity in Europe, plus the second-lowest carbon emissions (behind Sweden, which derives half its electricity from nuclear power). France also sells $80 billion worth of electricity to the rest of Europe each year.

Potential Remains
Notice how well France did during the latest economic downturn. The nation barely went into recession at all, and not because the French spend less on government bureaucracy, work harder than we do, or take fewer vacations. It’s because nuclear power is helping keep their economy afloat.

In the United States, by contrast, every major power plant built since 1990 has been fueled by natural gas. We now get 20 percent of our electricity from natural gas—surpassing the 19 percent share of nuclear power—and the percentage is still rising. Natural gas would be an export windfall for us if we resumed construction of nuclear power plants.

Does that mean we’ve fallen behind completely? Not at all. In fact there’s a great irony to all this. We still know how to run reactors better than anyone else, and next month I will explain why the game is not over yet.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.