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America’s long fever dream of boundless nuclear power: What’s a country to do?

America’s relationship with civilian nuclear power is curious: it’s like the story of the aging playboy who can’t let go of his alluring but high-maintenance showgirl. The two love each other, dreaming of what might have been and what might be. They can’t quite make the relationship work, but can’t let go either.

I don’t suggest this perhaps inapt metaphor idly, because I have great respect for those who continue to work on this once-and-still promising technology. I really do. They are scientists and true believers, and may be justified in continuing to pursue their dream because we might really need it.

After all, it’s hard to say how efforts to deal with our ongoing experiment with climate change will fare. There are not yet enough believers that 100 percent renewables, abetted by storage and demand response, will provide the service our electric dependent economy need, while curbing the disastrous results that many project: an Antarctic ice melt as large as the state of California that will speed warming, flood low lying islands and coastal cities, and deliver more droughts and unendurable temperatures.

Next generation nuclear power might take many forms. Those behind the technologies they are working on – the small, modular, passively safe nuclear reactor; the traveling wave rector Bill Gates and others are backing, and other advanced concepts, which a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing learned about from experts last week – seem aware they may never see the fruit of their labors in their lifetime. They talk of initial developments by 2030 or 2035 and beyond.

They talk of public-private partnerships aimed at solving supply chain problems, of resolving technical and licensing challenges, and addressing technical and economic questions at the demonstration phase. After 60-some years of commercial nuclear power, we’re still trying to profit from what we’ve learned and determine what yet we need to do. It’s conceptual, patient work. It seems we’re willing to keep the industry alive, but just barely. DOE’s Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative will be funded at a modest $80 million over several years.

“The U.S. has the opportunity to regain domestic manufacturing and supply chain capabilities lost when we did not build new reactors during the last 30 years,” Dr. Mark Peters, Director of DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory, told the Senate committee. “[Small modular reactors] and advanced nuclear reactors can be entirely sourced in the U.S. creating new advanced manufacturing facilities vital for economic growth.” And then there’s the not inconsequential fact that 63% of our carbon-free electricity comes from nuclear plants. But the longer term view Peters put forth was mostly lost on the Senate committee, whose horizons don’t extend beyond five or ten years.

The Senate Committee discussion, reported in E&E Daily, showed the political disconnect. Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) made light of nuclear ambitions. Referring to one energy company’s comment—“Listen, we can make ten natural gas plants for the cost of what [nuclear is] doing, and they’re cheaper to operate.” He called nuclear “quite unaffordable.”

Steve Kuczynski, president, CEO and chairman of Southern Nuclear Operating Co., whose affiliated utility is building two nuclear reactors near Augusta, Ga., responded, noting the value of resource diversity. “You cannot be all gas,” he said. “In fact, our fleet has now transformed itself, from less than 20 percent gas to over 55 percent gas.” But Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle 3 and 4, the first US reactors to be built in over 30 years, are over budget and behind schedule.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) commented, “I’m not anti-nuclear. I like Maseratis; I just can’t afford them.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) would like to end tax incentives for wind and instead double spending on new reactor research, but there’s no consensus for that.

Internationally, the US nuclear industry is falling behind in building plants, if not in research. China alone, with 29 GW of nuclear operating, has 22 GW under construction and plans an added 58 GW at whiz-bang speed by 2020. Among OECD countries, France had been a leader, but its companies—EDF and Areva—have made serious mistakes in ongoing construction and are financially insecure.

The biggest challenge to nuclear power in the US today is keeping existing plants that perform well operating, particularly in competitive markets, where they are challenged by low-cost gas and wind energy. That’s because the markets sort competitors by their bid costs, not by unquantified external benefits—producing electricity while not emitting carbon dioxide. But consider: 63% of our carbon-free electricity comes from our nuclear power plants.

Like it or not, the bottom line is this: Nuclear power, while conceptually a superior means of producing electric energy, is a complex, delicately balanced technology that demands extraordinarily careful planning, deployment, and operation. It requires skillful administrative oversight. It is time-consuming to build and potentially dangerous. All that means it is high cost. And then, of course, there’s the little matter of what to do about the still-radioactive spent fuel.

This column has been rerun with permission from ElectricityPolicy.com 

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Robert Marritz
Robert Marritz is editor and publisher of ElectricityPolicy.com
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4 thoughts on “America’s long fever dream of boundless nuclear power: What’s a country to do?

  1. An honorable person cannot continue to oppose nuclear power, nor remain lukewarm. It is, uniquely, the technology that has deprived government of trillions of dollars in fossil fuel tax revenues while saving the lives of millions of people who would have had to die in order for those revenues to be obtained.

    Marritz’s final sentence is truthful — spent nuclear fuel really is a minor matter. All that was produced up to 2011, in the world, could be safely stored above-ground in Vatican City — but seems designed to insinuate the opposite.

  2. From Forbes Magazine, May 1, 2015 “We all know that the wind doesn’t blow consistently and the sun doesn’t shine every day …. but the nuclear industry would have you believe that humankind is smart enough to develop techniques to store nuclear waste for a quarter of a million years, but at the same time human kind is so dumb we can’t figure out a way to store solar electricity overnight. To me that doesn’t make sense.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2015/05/01/did-tesla-just-kill-nuclear-power/#69c5de616cc4

  3. “And then, of course, there’s the little matter of what to do about the still-radioactive spent fuel.” Perpetual toxic nuclear waste containment, monitoring, upkeep, and security
    is not a “little matter”. When all the nuclear power ‘benefit’ is gone, our grandkids and their grandkids will be dealing with the radioactive waste. All deficit and no ‘benefit’ for them. An immoral, criminal legacy.

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