Friday, November 6th, 2009
Nuclear power isn’t as scary to many Americans as it once was and it’s not just the nuclear lobbyists’ doing. With oil prices reaching nearly $150 a barrel and carbon emissions melting the ice caps, some began seeing nuclear power as the lesser evil.
Fifty-nine percent of Americans favor the use of nuclear energy and 27 percent strongly favor it, according to a recent Gallup Environmental Poll .
Even so, the United States has lagged in the actual construction of new plants. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission won’t approve Areva’s newest reactor for U.S. markets before 2012, but the company is already building new reactors in Finland and France and will build two in China. The new Finnish reactor, which is located about 1,000 miles from the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, is expected to be one of the most powerful ever built. Areva and GE Hitachi also have plans to build plants in India, a country that is aggressively pursuing nuclear power to meet its increasing energy needs.
“The resurgence in new nuclear power plants has been made possible, in part, by the sustained safe and reliable performance of the current fleet of operating reactors today,” said Ned Glascock a GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy spokesperson. The company has built four advanced boiling water reactors in Asia with four more under construction.
But the construction of plants abroad has not been without its challenges. Areva is spending much more time and money constructing its Finnish reactor than anticipated, which hasn't helped quell U.S. investors' concerns about cost overruns.
Getting Wall Street to finance new nuclear plants has been a challenge, said Areva spokesman Jarret Adams. “That’s why government loan guarantees are important.”
Opponents counter that until the industry figures out how to reduce plant construction costs and ways to dispose of radioactive waste, no new plants should be built. “The nuclear power industry is always going to remain several minutes away from serious accident and disaster,” said Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, a global environmental group.
On Jan. 14, about 100 people protested the continued operation of Vermont Yankee's nuclear plant in Vernon. One week prior, the Vermont Health Department began investigating how one of the plant's groundwater monitoring wells became contaminated with tritium – a radioactive byproduct that is created in a nuclear reactor. The plant's operating license will expire in 2012 unless legislators and the Public Service Board extend it.
The United States currently subscribes to a “once-through” policy whereby nuclear fuel is removed from the reactor and then stored. In contrast, French-based Areva has been recycling nuclear fuel for years. And GE Hitachi believes its proposed Advanced Recycling Center can turn used nuclear fuel into an asset, senior vice president Lisa Price said during congressional testimony last summer.
The problem with the company’s proposal is that it would not be cost competitive with light-water reactors operating on a once-through fuel cycle, according to Frank von Hippel , a physicist and professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University. The process would also involve separating and putting huge quantities of nuclear-weapon-usable plutonium into circulation.
Critics of recycling, or reprocessing, point out that once the plutonium is separated, it can be used to make nuclear bombs, as evidenced by India’s 1974 nuclear test.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not received applications for any U.S. reprocessing facility and does not expect to for quite some time, according to spokesman Scott Burnell.
Regarding a new plant’s multi-billion dollar price tag, the industry says nuclear plants are less expensive to operate than coal plants, even if they cost more to build. In addition, proponents say it’s no coincidence that 80 percent of France’s electricity is generated by nuclear power and that the country boasts the lowest carbon dioxide emissions per capita of any industrialized nation.
“We don’t believe that nuclear energy is the answer, but as you look at needs for clean energy and the need to protect the environment, there isn’t a solution without nuclear,” Adams said.
Environmentalists argue that building new electric-generating facilities, nuclear, coal or any other type, is not the answer. Rather, Americans should first take a step back and consider how to conserve and use energy more efficiently. Some utilities in the Southeast have begun to include energy efficiency and conservation efforts as part of their nuclear plant proposals, a move that Clements says marks progress, even if the proposals are weak.
However, one big question remains. “If nuclear power is the right path to go down, why can’t it pay for itself?” Clements said. “Nuclear power is going to be dependent on subsidies and handouts and we still get nuclear waste and the threat of accident in return.”
But for some, such as Sen. Bob Bennett , R-Utah, nuclear is still the best alternative: “Solar, wind and other favorite renewables will never produce electricity on the scale that nuclear power can.”