It's been 32 years since an electric power company ordered and then built a nuclear power plant in the United States. But as energy needs increase, and global warming concerns grow, the nation may soon build a new generation of nuclear reactors. "In the 21st century, our nation will need more electricity -- more safe, clean, reliable electricity. It is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again." So said President George W. Bush, an advocate for constructing new nuclear power plants.
And the U.S Senate recently passed a comprehensive energy bill that includes tax credits, loan guarantees and a $1.2 billion subsidy to encourage construction of the first new nuclear plants in more than a quarter century.
It's been a long time since the golden age of U.S. nuclear power, in the 1960s and 70s, when 103 nuclear plants were ordered and built.
Today those plants are America's number two source of electricity, providing 20 percent of the total. Coal remains the leading source, at 52 percent; followed by natural gas, 16 percent; hydroelectric, seven percent; oil, three percent; and renewable sources such as wind and solar power, two percent. Nuclear construction ground to a halt, however, in the 1980s.
Dr. Nils Diaz, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the industry, says economic factors were already working against nuclear power, and then came two nuclear plant accidents, in the state of Pennsylvania, and in Ukraine. He also states that, “We had the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, and the accident at Chernobyl. The combination of those issues is what really slowed down and eventually stopped the growth of nuclear power”.
Existing nuclear plants in the United States, however, have been going strong for many years, often increasing their generating capacity. About a third of them have renewed their licenses for 20 more years, and all are expected to seek renewals eventually.
Unlike coal, nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases. Although the U.S. declined to join 150 other nations in signing the Kyoto treaty on global warming, President Bush touts the value of nuclear plants in combating climate change.
The president said, “Without these nuclear plants, America would release nearly 700 million metric tons more carbon dioxide into the air each year.” That's about the same amount of carbon dioxide that now comes from all our cars and trucks.
Environmental organizations, however, question the need for more nuclear power.
The Sierra Club's David Hamilton says, "We simply have cleaner, smarter ways that can get us to a society that has less risk -- less risk of terrorism, less risk of pollution, and cheaper, cleaner energy. Right now energy efficiency is our cheapest form of electricity, bar none, because reducing end use of electricity increases supply, just as if you've dug up a bunch of coal, or burned it, or started splitting atoms."
Environmentalists also have concerns about radioactive waste disposal, operational safety and untested new licensing procedures for building nuclear plants.
Nuclear waste is now stored at 126 sites around the nation, in containers and pools designed for temporary storage.
Plans call for transporting all of it to Nevada and burying it in tunnels about 300 meters beneath Yucca mountain, according to Shane Johnson of the U.S. Department of Energy.
"The mountain itself is a rock, of course. There's not expected to be any kind of penetration into the rock from ground surface water and things like that," says Mr. Johnson. "However, the facility is being designed in the eventuality that that could happen. So there are things such as metal drip shields or umbrellas that will be placed over the spent fuel storage containers to try to protect them for the long period of time that the geological repository is supposed to operate."
The project is about six years behind schedule, but DOE plans to seek an operating permit by the end of the year. It will be up to the NRC to grant or deny that permit.
Dr. Diaz remarks that, "It is our obligation to look at every major technical and safety issue related to this geologic depository... and make sure it is for protection of the public, according to the standard that was developed according to the Environmental Protection Agency."
The safety of operating nuclear plants is another major concern for many people because of the dangers of radioactive material leaking into the air or water. But the nuclear industry, and government officials say, times and technology have changed.
Scott Peterson is a vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a pro-nuclear trade association. "If you think about the most significant safety issue we've had in the United States nuclear industry, it's Three Mile Island. And that was in 1979. In the quarter century since then, we've taken the lessons learned from that incident we've increased training of our operators; we share lessons learned across our industry on a regular basis. And in the last 25 years we have a very good safety record built on that experience."
And new plants may be even safer, for several reasons.
Mr. Johnson, at the Department of Energy, explains. "There has been a move in the designs to more simplicity, less reliance on mechanical operating parts and more reliance on physical phenomena such as using gravity instead of pumps."
Also, the NRC now pre-approves standardized designs for nuclear reactors and power plants, as a measure to increase safety and uniformity.
Nils Diaz says that technology has improved. "We have improved... And we expect them to be safer, to operate more reliably, and to operate with less maintenance, and I believe that what we have now on the shelf, and the ones that are coming will actually do that."
Dr. Diaz predicts that eight nuclear power plants could begin construction by the end of the decade. "And several of them could be in operation by the year 2015. If that trend continues we could expect to see as many as 20 power plants in the next 20 years. That is a reasonable number for the infrastructure that presently exits.
But the new nuclear plants, alone, will not meet the nation's electrical energy needs in the next two decades. More than 1,000 new electric plants will be required to do that, according to a report of the National Energy Policy Development Group, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.