Without significant gains in storage technology, electric generation from solar and wind will not meet the world’s energy needs. Nuclear power, however, can deliver electric power in a sufficiently safe, economical and secure manner to supplement supply from other carbon-free sources. Despite this, there remain major objections to the safety, cost, waste management and proliferation risk of nuclear power, which I’ll seek to address here.
There have been three serious accidents that challenged the safety record of nuclear power: the Three Mile Island (TMI), Chernobyl, and the tsunami-induced Fukushima accident. In all these accidents there were no immediate public fatalities and only at Chernobyl were there workforce fatalities (28) arising from radiation exposure. Since the TMI accident, the operating and safety record of US operating plants has improved steadily and now includes standards to handle terrorist attacks and extreme natural disasters.
The anticipated capital cost of new advanced nuclear plants is about $7 Billion. Four such plants under construction in Georgia and South Carolina are due to start up by 2020. Despite this high capital cost, the long-term cost of power is estimated to be 8.4 cents/kWhr, which is competitive with natural gas prices of $9.5/MMBtu. Although this break-even cost may be higher than the current price of natural gas, the stability in the cost of nuclear electricity provides an important hedge against future price increases in natural gas (especially if the US becomes a major gas exporter), as well as protection from supply interruptions. And, of course, the cost of electricity from natural gas plants does not include any recognition of the carbon emissions that they produce.
At present used nuclear fuel is safely and effectively managed; it’s temporarily stored at reactor sites in used fuel storage pools or in dry casks in shielded concrete canisters. The abandonment of the US Yucca Mountain Repository Project led to the formation of the “Blue Ribbon Commission,” which recommends proceeding with centralized interim storage of spent fuel and a “consensus” process to site a new repository(s), an approach included in current bipartisan waste legislation in the Senate.
The threat of nuclear proliferation is currently managed through international treaties and the conduct of inspection programs. The risk may be amenable to future reduction by technological developments. Additionally, weapons development by all countries has been done independently of, and usually prior to, a commercial nuclear power program, and therefore proliferation risk is not a compelling basis upon which to oppose the deployment of civil nuclear power plants.
The energy needs of the world are large and growing and nuclear energy provides a scalable, clean source of safe power, which, with other clean energy sources, can meet the world’s needs in a sustainable manner.
What role should nuclear power have in America’s energy future?