Nuclear Power: Prospects and Problems

Amid the current drive to develop sustainable and efficient energy sources, nuclear power is experiencing renewed attention. Here we revisit the outlook for a nuclear power infrastructure.

For more than half a century, nuclear power has been variously viewed as a potential solution to the world's energy needs or as an expensive and possibly dangerous alternative to more proven power sourcing methods. Although nuclear power may have a lingering association with nuclear weaponry, the search for clean, sustainable and efficient power sources has shifted discussions toward the economic feasibility and practical requirements of generating nuclear energy.

Not long ago, murmurs of a nuclear revival were getting louder. But things have not gone as planned.

Unlike power plants that rely on fossil fuel consumption, once a nuclear power plant begins operating it burns nothing and produces no carbon dioxide emissions. However, despite the recent drive to expand restrictions on CO2 output in the United States, the American nuclear power industry has experienced relatively little growth.

Since 2003, 17 applications for 26 new reactors have been filed with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As of yet, not a single new reactor is under construction, Scientific American reports. European countries show signs of stagnation, too: The United Kingdom has not begun construction on any new reactors; a new nuclear facility in France has gone over budget and requires complete government subsidization; and Finland has been unable to finish a reactor project already underway.

The recent decision by President Barack Obama's administration to discontinue funding for the storage of spent nuclear fuel rods at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert is posing another setback for the U.S. nuclear power industry, the Wall Street Journal reports (subscription required). Without access to this long-planned facility, the permanent disposal of nuclear waste presents a continued economic and environmental concern.

As a possible alternative, "the federal government is considering advanced nuclear fuel recycling technologies that would reduce the volume, heat and toxicity of used fuel and recover the unused energy that remains in the fuel after one use in the reactor," William Johnson, CEO of Progress Energy, told Scientific American.

Aside from the complexity of waste removal, American nuclear power plants are considered remarkably efficient.

According to an updated study from MIT, the 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. have displayed "excellent" performance in recent years. Since 2003, the total number of kilowatt-hours (kWh) produced by reactors has steadily increased, with a fleet-averaged capacity factor of 90 percent. Nuclear power now supplies roughly 20 percent of the U.S. electricity supply with 10 percent of installed capacity.

However, efficiency and carbon-reduction capabilities may be overshadowed by concerns about financial viability. Since 2003, the estimated average cost of constructing a nuclear power plant has risen by 15 percent annually. Despite nuclear industry performance improvements, "there remains significant uncertainty about the capital costs, and the costs of its financing, which are the main components of the cost of electricity from new nuclear plants," according to the MIT study.

"Nuclear power plants are expensive to build but provide a low cost to operate over the life of the plant, once it is in service. Nuclear fuel is, by far, our lowest-cost fuel," Johnson claims.

While nuclear fuel is the least expensive fuel used in electrical generation, the high up-front capital costs make nuclear energy significantly more expensive than coal and gas alternatives. Furthermore, capital costs for nuclear power facilities have risen more sharply than have those for the coal and gas industries since the onset of the economic downturn, the MIT study says.

However, recent legislation requiring coal, gas and other carbon-producing electrical generation utilities to incorporate renewable sources (such as wind, solar and hydro), to account for at least 15 percent of their total generation by 2021, has excluded nuclear energy from the baseline measurement, Forbes reported last week. This means that nuclear energy providers and states that rely on nuclear power will have lower expenditures on renewable sources, adding incentive to build a nuclear infrastructure.

"Somewhat minimizing the value of the victory is the fact that it's unlikely that any new nuclear plants will come online for at least a decade," Forbes notes.

Of the 44 nuclear power plants currently under construction worldwide, the vast majority are in China, Korea, Russia and India. China alone has 11 plants being built, and the country's nuclear power generation is expected to reach approximately 5 percent of the country's total power output by 2020, exceeding projections set in 2007, Energy Business Review reports.

Public perception about safety likely plays a part in the comparatively slow growth of the U.S. nuclear power industry. Accidents such as those at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island may have made people reluctant to accept nuclear energy, but MIT asserts that the nuclear power industry has "an excellent safety record" and a high degree of reliability.

The risk of commercial nuclear material being used for developing nuclear weapons may pose an even stronger global threat. Internationale Politik, the journal of the German Council on Foreign Relations, warns that "[a]s civilian use of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity increases, so too has the need for enrichment and reprocessing facilities as well as the demand for natural uranium reactors. These reactors all have one thing in common: they employ materials that can be used to make nuclear weapons."

Such risks are important factors in nuclear industry growth. While uranium — the most common source of nuclear fuel — can be denatured to make it unusable for weapons development, plutonium — a common byproduct of uranium fuel processing — normally cannot be neutralized.

However, new research from Ben-Gurion University is showing some promise for denaturing plutonium using a rare isotope, Datamonitor reports. If this denaturing process proves successful, it could be used in combination with closed fuel cycle methods and existing political measures to improve energy security significantly.

According to the MIT study, the worldwide supply of uranium ore can support the building of 1,000 new reactors over the next 50 years, but the timescale is limited: "The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation."

We know IMT readers have a lot to say on the topic of nuclear power as a viable energy solution. Is a nuclear renaissance still in our future?

Earlier: A Nuclear Revival: Are We Ready, Willing and Able?


Will the Nuclear Power "Renaissance" Ever Reach Critical Mass?

Scientific American, May 21, 2009

Yucca Mountain: From Hole in the Desert to True Money Pit (subscription required)

by Keith Johnson

The Wall Street Journal, May 14, 2009

Beyond Fossil Fuels: William Johnson on Nuclear Power

Scientific American, April 28, 2009

Update of the MIT 2003 Future of Nuclear Power Study

by John M. Deutch, Charles W. Forsberg, Andrew C. Kadak, Mujid S. Kazimi, Ernest J. Moniz and John E. Parsons

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, May 18, 2009

No Nuclear Double Jeopardy for Utilities

by Andy Stone

Forbes, June 4, 2009

China to Accelerate Nuclear Power Development

Energy Business Review, June 1, 2009

Backgrounder on Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, April 30, 2009

Fact Sheet on the Three Mile Island Accident

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, March 9, 2009

Help Wanted: Energy Coordinator

by Josef Braml

Internationale Politik, Spring 2009

Nuclear Power: A New Start for Plutonium?

Datamonitor, March 20, 2009

Final Nail in Nukes' Coffin?

by Bill Wolfe, June 6, 2009

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