I first started discussing challenges associated with the global generation of electrical power in June 2006 [The Energy Challenge]. In that post, I discussed a number of non-carbon-based energy methods for electric power generation including nuclear energy. I wrote: “Nuclear power is one way of providing that energy. Of course, environmentalists fear that nuclear waste will cause as many problems as the clean energy it produces will solve. New ‘pebble bed’ reactors are also a promising technology.” Since then, the subject of nuclear power has come up a couple of more times. In the first blog I dedicated to the subject [The Future of Nuclear Power], I wrote: “Some environmentalists laud the fact that nuclear energy is once again receiving attention. Not only do nuclear plants reduce the emissions that cause global warming, but if the U.S. really wants to move to a hydrogen economy, nuclear reactors will be needed to extract the hydrogen. Other environmentalists are not so sanguine about the benefits of nuclear energy. They most often cite the risk of accidents, the threat of terrorism, and the problem of nuclear waste as reasons to be cautious. This is one of those situations in which everyone is correct. Nuclear power should receive renewed attention, but moving ahead we need to ensure that all security and environmental concerns are adequately addressed.”
In another post [Natural or Manmade Environmentalism?], I noted that one famous scientist and environmentalist, Stewart Brand, was pushing nuclear energy as a way to help the environment. Brand indicates that he understands the risks associated with nuclear power generation but believes the risks do not outweigh the benefits. Still another post [Boron Fusion] talked about a potentially promising breakthrough in fusion reactor technology and how politics plays a role in how R&D dollars are spent. In a recent BusinessWeek column, Christine Todd Whitman, a former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and currently an energy lobbyist and co-chair of the CASEnergy Coalition, argued that the U.S. needs to embrace nuclear energy if it is going to meet its future energy needs [“The Case for Nuclear Power,” 17 September 2007]. She wrote:
“I am addicted to electricity. So are you. And so is your business. We live in an ‘always on’ world—air conditioners, streetlights, TVs, PCs, cell phones, and more. And with forecasts that we’ll need 40% more electricity by 2030, determining how we can realistically feed our energy addiction without ruining our environment is the critical challenge of the new century. … Enter nuclear energy. Nuclear alone won’t get us to where we need to be, but we won’t get there without it. Despite its controversial reputation, nuclear is efficient and reliable. It’s also clean, emitting no greenhouse gases or regulated air pollutants while generating electricity. And with nuclear power, we get the chance to preserve the Earth’s climate while at the same time meeting our future energy needs. … Here’s the reality: The U.S. needs more energy, and we need to get it without further harming our environment. Everything is a trade-off. Nothing is free, and nuclear plants are not cheap to build (although costs should drop as we build more of them). But we have a choice to make: We can either continue the 30-year debate about whether we should embrace nuclear energy, or we can accept its practical advantages. Love it or not, expanding nuclear energy makes both environmental and business sense.”
Whitman is basically pushing the same logic as Brand. As a lobbyist, she put the best possible face on nuclear power but her main points nevertheless hold true. Matthew L. Wald reports in the New York Times that NRG Energy is ready to break the building hiatus [“Approval is Sought to Build Two Reactors in Texas,” 25 September 2007].
“In a bid to take the lead in the race to revive the nuclear power industry, an energy company will ask the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission … for permission to build two reactors in Texas. It is the first time since the 1970s and the accident at Three Mile Island that an American power company has sought permission to start work on a new reactor to add to the existing array of operable reactors, which now number 104. The company, NRG Energy, based in Princeton, N.J., wants to be the first to pour concrete in the main section of the plant, allowing it to qualify for the maximum federal benefits, David Crane, its chief executive, said in a telephone interview. NRG is applying under a new process intended to avoid the extensive delays and cost overruns in the last round of nuclear construction. In the 1970s and ’80s, more than 100 of the reactor projects were canceled, some abandoned in late stages of construction, mostly because they no longer made financial sense.”
NRG Energy obviously expects that new nuclear plants will make financial sense. It is betting that the price of natural gas will continue to go up and that carbon taxes and technologies to make coal-fired plants more environmentally acceptable will also push up the price of generating electricity. NRG Energy is not the only company likely to apply for applications to build nuclear plants.
“Three other companies are likely to apply for licenses by the end of the year, according to industry experts. One of those, Constellation Energy, like NRG, has also ordered parts for its plant, planned for Calvert County, Md., and says it believes it has an advantage because its reactor will be precisely modeled on one now under construction in France.”
Companies are rushing for approval because the first four plants built qualify for government support. That is probably why all of the proposed plants use technology in service elsewhere rather than new designs such as the pebble bed reactor mentioned earlier.
“NRG is planning to build the Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, which represents a relatively low-risk choice in an industry where few American companies have current experience with building a plant. American utilities have expressed strong interest in new designs by G.E. and two other companies — Westinghouse, now a subsidiary of Toshiba, and Areva, a French-German consortium. Of those, the boiling water reactor is the only design that is actually operating. Four are operational in Japan (although two are at a complex struck by an earthquake last month and are shut for the time being) and two are in advanced construction in Taiwan. The N.R.C. approved a version of the plant in 1997, though that design differs somewhat from the plants now operating in Asia, according to experts. The new design has several innovations that are aimed at sharply reducing the risk of meltdown, a risk that is described by the industry and by regulators as very low in any case. Other innovations are supposed to reduce the time and cost of construction.”
Texas was selected because the political environment there is more friendly than in some other states; but critics believe that the system Texas uses to buy electricity will work against relatively expensive nuclear energy. Despite formidable challenges, it looks like nuclear energy may rise from the ashes in the U.S.