Skip to main content

Nuclear's On the Road Again, But It's Uphill

Climate change and fossil-fuel costs have re-energized the flickering nuclear movement in the United States, but many proponents are the fairest-weather of friends.

Opposition in America to nuclear energy appears to be thawing and, though many concerns remain, the industry is gearing up to take advantage of this new willingness to reconsider nuclear power.

Mounting concerns over global warming, soaring fossil-fuel prices and a pressing need to tap all available sources of energy have combined to make it politically and economically expedient to at least put nuclear energy back on the table.

That small step marks a huge advance for nuclear power after decades of being treated by many as a pariah, especially among environmentalists.

Evidence piling up about the causes and effects of climate change is the primary motivation behind this newfound readiness to resurrect nuclear power, now regarded by some former opponents as perhaps the lesser of two evils.

On the plus side, nuclear generation does not emit the key global warming ingredient carbon dioxide. But critics point to other eco-faults, among them a huge thirst for precious water resources and, of course, radioactive waste that needs to be safely stored, effectively forever. Fears about proliferation, security and accidents also dog the industry.

Old Foes as Friends, and Foes
A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists added a twist to the debate by raising the prospect that even if we can get past our nuclear phobia, we may still not have found the solution to surging global energy demand.

“The risks posed by climate change may turn out to be so grave that the United States and the world cannot afford to rule out nuclear power as a major contributor to addressing global warming,” the group states in its 82-page report.

“However, it may also turn out that nuclear power cannot be deployed worldwide on the scale needed to make a significant dent in emissions without resulting in unacceptably high safety and security risks.”

The Keystone Center, a Keystone, Colo., nonprofit that seeks solutions to pressing environmental, energy and health issues, has also closely examined this issue.

In 2007, the center brought together environmental and consumer advocates, academics, state and federal government officials, and representatives from the nuclear industry to discuss the costs, benefits and risks associated with nuclear power.

The group found that while plants have become safer since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, public concern over security has risen since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Principal concerns for U.S. nuclear power plants will continue to include aging equipment and materials, and potential terrorist threats,” The Keystone Center wrote in a summary of its findings. Participants were also concerned over the potential theft of material for nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, nuclear plant builders, owners and operators, buoyed by what they see as inklings of consensus over a renewed role for atomic power, are dusting off plans for new facilities.

The U.S. has 104 nuclear power plants, scattered across 31 states, generating close to 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. However, no new licenses have been issued in 30 years and the last plant opened was Watts Bar, Tenn., in June 1996.

But that’s all changing, said Mitch Singer, senior media relations manager for the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute, a policy organization for the industry. Helping boost the industry was the Energy Policy Act of 2005, legislation that set aside $20.5 billion for nuclear power, including federal tax credits and loan guarantees for up 80 percent of the cost of building a plant.

Singer said 17 companies have announced plans to file license applications for about 30 reactors, and six have already done so.

Also on, how an expert in nuclear power safety soured on the energy source and turned to solar.

He said it takes about three years for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review an application and issue a license and around another four years to build the plant. Accordingly, he expected it would be at least 2015 or 2016 before the nation’s next nuclear reactor is up and running.

In December, Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., filed to build a facility in Cherokee County, S.C. Company spokeswoman Rita Sipe said the earliest that plant could come on line is 2016, more likely 2018.

She said Duke already operates three plants and is investigating two other sites as it explores ways to meet soaring demand from 40,000 to 60,000 new customers annually over the next 15 years.

While acknowledging the wider debate over nuclear energy, Sipe casts Duke's plans as just business as usual. “What’s driving us is our customer needs,” she said, adding that the company is also considering increased capacity from coal, gas and renewables.

Duke will be buying the cream of current technology for its new plant, according to Sipe, where less piping, fewer valves, more gravity feed and fewer moving parts means a safer and more secure operating system.

Singer believes nuclear plants today are safer than ever thanks to what he calls “evolutionary” advances in technology plus a sharper, self-policing focus through the industry’s Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.

Nuclear power already provides 15 percent of global electricity — the figure is close to 80 percent in France, the poster child for nuclear energy — and the quest for acceptance and expansion in the U. S. seems to be running a parallel course in Europe.

The U.K. government, for example, recently gave the green light to a new generation of nuclear power plants, with Business Secretary John Hutton describing nuclear energy as a "tried and tested, safe and secure" source of power.

That decision upset some governing Labour MPs, who apparently share many of the doubts and reservations expressed in a 2005 survey of the British public.

In a new paper on a survey taken in the fall of 2005, three British academics found that while people have problems with the risks of both climate change and nuclear power, they only reluctantly accept nuclear as a mitigating "solution."

This acceptance is "highly conditional" and the study, "Climate Change or Nuclear Power — No Thanks! A Quantitative Study of Public Perceptions and Risk Framing in Britain" in the February 2008 issue of Global Environmental Change, shows that very few people, given the choice, prefer nuclear over renewable energy sources.

The survey estimated that 15 percent to 25 percent of people remain opposed to the renewal of Britain's aging nuclear power facilities "even when climate change arguments are taken into account."

The academics note that this "relatively large, highly concerned and motivated sub-section of the population ... would be sufficient to create a genuine opposition movement to any change in policy ..."

Technology Offers an Assist
Researchers and scientists are also studying the safety of reactors, the best ways to decommission the world’s many aging nuclear facilities, and the perennial topic of how best to manage, safeguard and store highly toxic nuclear waste.

The solution may one day be to reprocess or recycle more of that waste. This is already happening to a limited extent in England, France, Japan and Russia, but the process is not cost-effective and still leaves residues that need to be securely stored, perhaps for millions of years.

The preferred storage medium is “glassification,” a process in which high-level radioactive liquids bind with molten glass; once cooled, the resulting blocks render the radioactive waste much more stable and manageable.

Even so, says Edwin Karlow, professor of physics at La Sierra University, in Riverside, Calif., transportation and storage remain key issues.
Karlow believes nuclear power should be included among future energy sources and thinks the industry’s safety record in this country — “a few accidents but no human fatalities” — needs to be given its due.

Spent fuel is stored at nuclear plants and other secure facilities across the U.S. But Karlow, like many experts, does not see above-ground storage as a viable long-term solution; instead he prefers an underground repository like that proposed at Yucca Mountain, Nev., where glassified waste, heavily encased in nickel alloy and concrete, would be buried in a deep, dry space. Scientists believe that even if radiation were to leak out over many thousands of years, surrounding rock and other geological material would prevent it reaching the air or underground water.

However, Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, is among a number of academics and environmentalists with serious reservations about Yucca.

“If the containers leak, the Yucca geology will be useless,” he said. “We’re just kicking the problems down the road to our kids.”

Makhijani, whose Maryland-based nonprofit provides scientific and technical studies on a range of energy and environmental issues, senses the shifting sympathies toward nuclear energy but remains deeply skeptical.

He is one of many who question the economics of nuclear power, challenging plant construction and operating costs used by the industry to calculate the eventual “competitive” price of nuclear energy.

Instead he proposes a carbon-free and nuclear-free solution, arguing that wind and solar power, combined with greater energy efficiency, can meet our energy needs within 30 to 50 years.