by Kenneth W. Krause.
Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer. Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well. He may be contacted at email@example.com.
The French learned precious lessons in 1956 when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, Europe’s fossil fuel lifeline from the Middle East, and again in 1973 when the Arabs imposed a global oil embargo. Through most of the 1970s, France was a net electricity importer. Now, 59 domestic reactors later, nuclear energy supplies 80 percent of the country’s electricity needs and, over the last decade, France has led the world by exporting 60 to 70 billion kilowatt-hours net of electricity every year. With American technology and broad popular support, the French have constructed a safe, standardized, centrally managed nuclear industry, including international fuel reprocessing facilities, envied the world over.
Globally, nuclear generation capacity has more than tripled since 1980. In addition to the 443 commercial units currently operating, 31 reactors are slated for operation by 2013—enough to generate 1000 megawatts each on average and power 31 million U.S. homes. Iran and North Korea plan to build three reactors and China wants to increase nuclear generating capacity fivefold by spending between $50 and $65 billion on nuclear energy-related construction by 2020. With 14 reactors in operation and seven under construction, India plans to boost the nuclear share of total electricity supplied from 2.8 percent in 2005 to 25 percent by 2050.
Meanwhile, the world’s most rapacious oil consumer, the United States, imports better than 60 percent of its crude, most of which originates in OPEC member countries including Ahmedinijad’s Iran, Chavez’s Venezuela, (whose?) Iraq, and, of course, Saudi Arabia. Although Americans maintain 103 commercial reactors responsible for 10 percent of our total installed capacity and 20 percent of our generated electricity (50 percent coming from coal, another 20 percent from oil and gas), not a single new facility has been constructed in 30 years.
American nuclear plants are licensed for no longer than 40 years, with potential 20-year extensions subject to approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The first operating license will expire in 2009; about 10 percent of the total by 2011; and 40 percent more by 2015. Because of alleged security and proliferation concerns, U.S. policy proscribes reprocessing and, thus, all spent fuel is treated as high-level waste. Private utilities are therefore responsible for expensive on-site storage until the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada, yet to be approved by the NRC, becomes both operational (projected to 2010) and fully receptive (projected to 2017).
At the same time, American energy consumption has increased by an average of 1.9 percent each year since 1995. Between 2005 and 2025, commercial customers will demand 50 percent more power, according to the Department of Energy’s Information Administration (EIA). Residential requirements will swell by 30 percent, industrial by 16 percent, during the same period. Americans can no longer afford to ignore nuclear energy’s proven track record and unparalleled potential, say long-time energy consultant Alan Herbst and economist George Hopley. “If the United States is to remain competitive in the twenty-first century,” they warn, “we have no choice but to aggressively construct new nuclear generation assets.”
But consider the bottom line. To inspire an investment renaissance, nuclear energy must compete against oil, gas, and especially “king” coal (typically, the cheapest fossil fuel), and win. A new 1000-megawatt nuclear plant costs from $1.5 to $2.0 billion and takes five years to build, compared to $1.2 billion and three to four years for a coal facility and $500 million for a combined-cycle gas plant. Indeed, single unit start-up costs appear to favor coal and gas, according to a DOE funded University of Chicago report. But the same study instructs as well that nuclear power can meet and beat the competition if companies choose to construct multiple units.
The EIA tracked the average operating expenses for U.S. investor-owned electric utilities from 1993 to 2004, breaking down the costs into three major categories. Operation and maintenance has proven more expensive for nuclear (8.3 mills* per kilowatt-hour and 5.38 Mills/kWh, respectively, in 2004) than for fossil steam** generation (2.68 Mills/kWh and 2.96 Mills/kWh, respectively, in 2004), but operation costs have steadily decreased for nuclear and increased for fossil steam over the twelve year period. By contrast, fuel expenses overwhelmingly favor the use of nuclear energy (4.58 Mills/kWh in 2004) over fossil steam (18.21 Mills/kWh in 2004), and such costs have shrunk for the former and expanded for the latter facilities over time. In the final tally, 2004 expenses totaled 18.26 Mills/kWh for nuclear power and 23.85 Mills/kWh for fossil steam plants. The market consensus, not so incidentally, continues to predict both escalating and volatile fossil fuel prices.
Various external costs are important as well, of course, but they are often a great deal more difficult to isolate and quantify. Long after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, nuclear waste disposal remains a grave concern, especially in reprocessing-averse political climates. More recently, however, Americans have become increasingly conscious of carbon dioxide’s potentially disastrous and irreversible effects on the environment and on life itself. But “when all variables are accounted for,” Herbst and Hopley conclude, “nuclear generation is extremely competitive against other fuels and has definite cost advantages in long-term operational costs due to the inexpensive nature of nuclear fuel.”
For the general public, however, safety remains the overriding concern—and understandably so. In May of 1986, more than 160,000 persons living within a 30-kilometer radius of the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl-4 reactor were evacuated following two core explosions discharging approximately half of the reactor’s radioactive iodine and cesium and at least five percent of the remaining contaminated material. 47 first responders perished within four months. The World Health Organization estimated that another 9000 people have died or will die of Chernobyl related cancer. According to the authors, mismanagement, cooling system design flaws, and a blatant disregard for safety at the individual, facility, and cultural levels were to blame.
In March of 1979, a combination of mechanical failures and operator errors relating to convoluted cooling systems in particular led to a core meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island-2 facility. Relatively minor amounts of radiation were leaked, no lives were lost, and the reactor’s concrete containment structure performed exactly as designed. Nevertheless, the investigating Kemeny Commission chastised the plant’s operators, the entire nuclear industry, and the NRC.
But nuclear utilities and their regulating agencies have both learned from these experiences and taken full advantage of better than 20 intervening years of intense research and development. Leading manufacturers have designed so-called “passive” core and containment cooling systems that emphasize natural, gravity-based circulation in lieu of pumps, fans, diesel engines, and other less reliable mechanisms. Westinghouse, whose licensees own about 50 percent of the world’s largest installed base of running nuclear power plants, boasts of a new reactor line (the AP600s and AP1000s) expected to require 50 percent fewer valves, 80 percent less safety-grade piping, 35 percent fewer pumps, and 70 to 80 percent less control cable. General Electric’s next-generation Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor will eliminate eleven complete systems and slash plant construction time and operation expenses to boot—again, all due to passive safety technology.
A more recently created venture, UniStar Nuclear, has championed a different but equally intriguing approach. The U.S. European Pressurized Water Reactor uses four separate and redundant safety systems, yet requires 47 percent fewer valves, 16 percent less pumps, and 50 percent fewer tanks relative to a typical facility. The U.S. EPR is also designed to accommodate recycled fuel, to use 17 percent less uranium per kilowatt-hour than current light water reactors, and to be ten percent less expensive to operate than most modern power plants. The question remains as to which to these approaches, passive or redundant, will gain favor in America. But clearly nuclear safety technology has advanced a great distance since Three Mile Island, and, as the authors are quick to stress, not one U.S nuclear worker has ever been killed in the plant or as a result of workplace conditions.
Herbst and Hopley do not claim that nuclear fission could ever completely replace America’s extensive fossil fuel and alternative energy assets. To some significant extent, however, politics and prejudices must soon yield to more rational economics, more prudent foreign policy considerations, and common sense. No doubt, diverse factions will present and interpret the numbers in different ways. But the authors may have a point or two. After all, the fission of a single U-235 nucleus will liberate 50 million times more energy than the combustion of a carbon atom, and one pound of uranium stores as much energy potential as approximately one million gallons of gasoline. Maybe it’s time for Americans to redo the math.
*A mill is equal to .001 U.S. dollars.
**Fossil steam plants are dominated my coal-fired economics, but also include a much smaller proportion of gas- and oil-fired facilities.