Power surge: renewed interest in nuclear energy.Just past its 50th birthday, commercial nuclear energy is experiencing a tentative rejuvenation Rejuvenation
in extreme old age, restored to youth by Medea. [Rom. Myth.: LLEI, I: 322]
apples of perpetual youth
by tasting the golden apples kept by Idhunn, the gods preserved their youth. [Scand. Myth. that could result in a greater role as a global source of electricity. Skeptics still harbor many of the objections that have slowed or stopped the construction of new nuclear power plants, but rising concerns about the cost and security of energy supplies and global climate change have reframed the debate in terms more favorable for nuclear power advocates.
As a result, the question of whether governments should encourage the construction of new nuclear power plants is no longer off the table in developed countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area. . For other developed countries such as France and Japan, and for countries with fast-growing economies such as China and India, nuclear energy has remained a central component of energy policy. For example, to achieve its goal of generating 4% of electricity from nuclear power, China plans to add more than 30 new nuclear plants by 2020 to the 11 currently in operation or under construction. India's goal is to supply 25% of its electricity from nuclear power by 2050.
Worldwide there are now 440 nuclear power reactors operating in 31 countries and producing a combined capacity of 367 gigawatts electric, or about 16% of the world's supply of electricity. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic Energy Agency: see Atomic Energy Agency, International.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
International organization officially founded in 1957 to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy. (IAEA IAEA International Atomic Energy Agency. )--the agency of the United Nations chartered to promote cooperation on nuclear issues--estimates that at least 60 new nuclear plants will be constructed in the next 15 years. Given the world's growing demand for electricity, however, this added capacity will still account for only 17% of global electricity use.
One central issue facing policy makers and electric utilities is the question of how to meet the rapidly growing worldwide demand for electricity while not increasing global greenhouse gas greenhouse gas
Any of the atmospheric gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect.
greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration tracks world energy trends and projects a 75% increase in global electricity use between 2000 and 2020. By 2050 a tripling of use is probable. Electricity production currently is responsible for an estimated one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.
In terms of human welfare, this growth in electricity usage is desirable as reflected in the strong correlation between electricity consumption per capita [Latin, By the heads or polls.] A term used in the Descent and Distribution of the estate of one who dies without a will. It means to share and share alike according to the number of individuals. and the United Nations' human development index, which combines indicators of health, education, and economic prosperity. Overall energy consumption per capita in the developing world is less than one-fifth that in the developed world, and as developing countries industrialize in·dus·tri·al·ize
v. in·dus·tri·al·ized, in·dus·tri·al·iz·ing, in·dus·tri·al·iz·es
1. To develop industry in (a country or society, for example).
2. , they will tend to seek the least expensive supply to meet their electricity needs. In most cases this means coal-fired plants, which produce significantly more greenhouse gases--primarily carbon dioxide--than other carbon-based sources such as natural gas-fired generators. Nuclear and noncarbon-based renewable sources such as wind and solar power do not directly create greenhouse gases.
Global climate change and the 2005 entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol Kyoto Protocol: see global warming. to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have spurred new thinking about the potential value of nuclear energy by both environmental groups and the nuclear energy industry. Recently, several prominent environmentalists have publicly supported nuclear energy, including former Anglican bishop An Anglican Bishop is a bishop in the Anglican church, either in the British Isles or beyond. Anglican Bishops
He was a member of a famous Jewish family. His father was Charles Sebag-Montefiore (great-great nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore). , a longtime trustee of Friends of the Earth, and Patrick Moore
Sir Alfred Patrick Caldwell-Moore, CBE, HonFRS, FRAS (born 4 March, 1923) known as Patrick Moore , cofounder co·found
tr.v. co·found·ed, co·found·ing, co·founds
To establish or found in concert with another or others.
co·found of Greenpeace.
Their support has alienated them from many in their former organizations, but indicates a more nuanced challenge to nuclear energy by some environmental activists, who are perhaps more willing to consider the nuclear option but still do not think it's the wisest choice. Organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a New York City-based, non-profit non-partisan international environmental advocacy group, with offices in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Beijing. Founded in 1970, NRDC today has 1. and the Union of Concerned Scientists The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is a nonprofit advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States. The UCS membership includes many private citizens in addition to professional scientists. now talk in terms of the proper role of government in energy policy and ensuring the safe operation of nuclear plants, rather than whether nuclear power should even be considered.
The potential for building new nuclear power plants is quite different in different countries. For example, the role of nuclear power is unlikely to change substantially in countries with a flat demand for electricity, such as Japan, which now relies on nuclear power for 30% of its electric capacity and expects to see a population decline, or France, with a stable population and a power industry that is 80% nuclear. On the other hand, the United States, which currently operates 103 nuclear power plants and relies on nuclear energy for 20% of its electricity, expects to see a rising population and consequent greater demand. Developing countries offer the potential for considerably more use of nuclear power, especially as much of their populations will be urban, providing a concentrated market for large electric-generating plants.
So in answer to the question of whether nuclear power makes economic sense, it simply depends--"in some countries it does, in others it does not," says Alan McDonald Alan McDonald is the name of:
Relative costs of nuclear energy vary depending on what options and factors are being considered, but in general, McDonald says, the up-front costs of nuclear energy are very high while the cost of operation is relatively low. Thus, countries with government-owned electric utilities have an advantage in new power plant construction because they can fund investments more easily than investor-owned utilities, which are subject to the capital markets and the demand for rapid returns on investments.
"Until the Kyoto Protocol, the environmental value of nuclear energy could not be translated into financial terms," says McDonald. "But now, obtaining greenhouse gas emission permits for a new coal-fired plant in Europe can cost more than the coal itself. Although the United States is not bound by Kyoto, U.S. investors may see the writing on the wall. If the treaty is changed and nuclear power becomes part of the international market mechanism that allows credit for clean energy sources and the trading of carbon emission credits, that would be a big incentive."
But more nuclear power doesn't come without potential security threats of another sort. "If the world sees a big increase in nuclear energy, there will be an increased risk of [nuclear arms] proliferation--all things being equal," McDonald notes. Indeed, the director general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei Mohamed ElBaradei (Arabic: محمد البرادعي, transliteration: , says that recent revelations about undeclared uranium enrichment activities and reprocessing Reprocessing may refer to:
In response to the threat of proliferation, the IAEA has developed a model Additional Protocol that signatories can add to their IAEA Safeguards Agreements, which address questions of traceability and verification of nuclear materials. The Additional Protocol strengthens safeguards, protects nuclear materials and facilities, and bolsters the systems of nuclear export controls. So far more than 100 countries have added the protocol to their agreements. The IAEA further proposes that future reactor technologies be designed to be more resistant to proliferation, and that the international enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear fuel be centralized in a few countries under a structure that guarantees supply to member nations.
An Industry with a Storied Past
The question of whether nuclear energy should play a significant role in future electric power generation cannot be separated from its history, the role played by governments, or the nuclear fuel cycle Nuclear fuel cycle
The nuclear fuel cycle typically involves the following steps: (1) finding and mining the uranium ore; (2) refining the uranium from other elements; (3) enriching the uranium-235 content to 3–5%; (4) fabricating fuel elements; (5) itself. The cycle has always been a focus of concern, from the potential hazards of uranium mining Uranium mining is the process of extraction of uranium ore from the ground. As uranium ore is mostly present at relatively low concentrations, most uranium mining is very volume-intensive, and thus tends to be undertaken as open-pit mining. operations, through the processing of uranium into fuel, to the controlled fission fission, in physics: see nuclear energy and nucleus; see also atomic bomb. process in the reactor core reactor core
The central part of a nuclear reactor where atomic fission occurs. , and finally to the disposal or reprocessing of the fuel and related waste products.
The civilian nuclear power industry was created through U.S. government-electric utility industry cooperation that officially began with the Atomic Energy Act The Atomic Energy Act may refer to a number of different laws around the world, usually meant to govern nuclear power and/or nuclear weapons production.
In the United States, there are two federal laws known by the name:
The United States then launched an "Atoms for Peace" program that supplied equipment and information to schools, hospitals, and " speech to the United Nations in December 1953 led to the U.S. government's financial and technical support of commercial nuclear energy. The government also enacted the Price-Anderson Act of 1957, requiring nuclear power operators to carry the maximum insurance offered by private insurance companies but also limiting their liability--a stipulation demanded by the utility companies before they would invest in building nuclear power plants.
The U.S. Navy first developed the now widely used pressurized-water reactor for propulsion in submarines. This design became the basis for the first commercial nuclear plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania For the abandoned settlement in Kentucky, see Shippingport, Kentucky.
Shippingport is a borough in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, along the Ohio River. The population was 237 at the 2000 census. , which began operation in 1957. In the Soviet Union, reactors designed for producing plutonium for weapons were modified and new ones developed to generate heat and electricity. The first such reactor began producing electricity for the city of Obninsk in 1954.
The fostering of nuclear energy was woven into many U.S. foreign policy initiatives during the early days of the Cold War. The United States sponsored the creation of the IAEA as the global manager of nuclear technology and materials, it supported international research reactors and isotopes for nuclear medicine and agriculture, and it helped create a nuclear energy industry in Europe, where coal production was declining and other sources of electric power were limited.
The U.S. commercial nuclear power industry flourished from the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, although the power plants operating then were not economical compared to other sources at the time. Nuclear energy advocates argued that, with moderate and selective government assistance, the technology could cross the economic threshold into widespread acceptance by the utility industry. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission--which then combined the functions of today's Nuclear Regulatory Commission Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent U.S. government commission, created by the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 and charged with licensing and regulating civilian use of nuclear energy to protect the public and the environment. (NRC NRC
1. National Research Council
2. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Noun 1. NRC - an independent federal agency created in 1974 to license and regulate nuclear power plants ) and Department of Energy--estimated that the United States would exhaust its oil and coal supplies within 100 years and that nuclear energy was the best replacement for fossil fuels in electricity production. The commission optimistically estimated that by 2000 as much as two-thirds of the nation's electric power could come from nuclear energy.
The peak year for achieving this scenario in the United States was 1973, when 50 orders were placed for new nuclear plants, although in the following years leading up to 1979, cancellations began to exceed new orders. Then, in March 1979, a series of operator errors and miscommunications led to the partial core meltdown in the pressurized-water reactor at Three Mile Island Unit 2. The accident did not result in major damage outside of the core and primary cooling system cooling system: see air conditioning; internal-combustion engine; refrigeration.
Apparatus used to keep the temperature of a structure or device from exceeding limits imposed by needs of safety and efficiency. , and according to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.
2. In keeping with: according to instructions.
3. all official estimates, the radiation released during the accident was minimal, well below levels that have been associated with health effects from radiation exposure. However, a panicked evacuation of nearby residents took place, followed by extensive investigations and a government-subsidized 10-year cleanup effort. The notoriety of the accident, combined with the high cost of construction, slow regulatory processes, and political opposition, essentially halted the growth of the U.S. nuclear industry. Although numerous nuclear power plants that had been under construction at the time eventually came online, no new U.S. plants were ordered.
The devastating dev·as·tate
tr.v. dev·as·tat·ed, dev·as·tat·ing, dev·as·tates
1. To lay waste; destroy.
2. To overwhelm; confound; stun: was devastated by the rude remark. accident at Chernobyl Unit 4 in April 1986 could have been the death knell death knell
something that heralds death or destruction
Noun 1. death knell - an omen of death or destruction of the industry worldwide. The steam explosion, fire, and nuclear fuel melting at the site were the result of a flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained personnel who violated safety procedures. The reactor design widely used for nuclear power in the Soviet Union did not include the containment system used with most Western reactors, and so substantial quantities of radioactive material radioactive material Radiation A substance that contains unstable–radioactive–atoms that give off radiation as they decay. See Radioactive decay. , dust, and gases escaped into the atmosphere.
The Chernobyl site is now entombed Entombed, or entomb, may refer to:
1. The doctrine that all events are predetermined by fate and are therefore unalterable.
2. Acceptance of the belief that all events are predetermined and inevitable. ," manifested as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy Life Expectancy
1. The age until which a person is expected to live.
2. The remaining number of years an individual is expected to live, based on IRS issued life expectancy tables. , lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state.
Even with the resulting public outcry against nuclear power, the world did not halt new construction of nuclear power plants. However, some European countries such as Belgium, Germany, and Sweden began to reconsider their plans for nuclear energy, and eventually developed policies to phase out existing plants. Now some of these countries are under the gun to find replacement energy sources. Sweden, for example, aims to be nuclear-free by 2010, having taken a second reactor offline in June 2005 (the first was closed in 1999). But the remaining 10 plants still supply about half of Sweden's domestic energy production, according to the World Nuclear Association.
An influential 2003 report out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at Cambridge; coeducational; chartered 1861, opened 1865 in Boston, moved 1916. It has long been recognized as an outstanding technological institute and its Sloan School of Management has notable programs in business, (MIT MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology ), The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study, spelled out the major areas of concern surrounding nuclear energy and proposed a plan that the authors hoped would allow the United States to resume development of nuclear power in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The study identified the four critical problems that must be overcome for nuclear power to succeed--cost, safety, waste, and proliferation. It also offered policy recommendations for making the nuclear energy option commercially viable, including steps to lower cost and a limited production tax credit to "first movers," private sector investors who build and then operate new nuclear plants.
"Our recommendations are basically holding up," says study cochair Ernest Moniz, who is codirector of MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment and former undersecretary for energy during the Clinton administration Noun 1. Clinton administration - the executive under President Clinton
executive - persons who administer the law . "On the positive side, new regulatory approaches are being developed, the industry's intent is to build a new reactor, there are more open discussions with environmental groups, and the Energy Policy Act became law," he says. "On the negative side, the situation with spent fuel management is worse--Yucca Mountain casts a shadow over any decision. And the nonproliferation non·pro·lif·er·a·tion
Of, relating to, or calling for an end to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by additional nations: a nonproliferation treaty. situation in Iran is a real problem."
The fate of Nevada's Yucca Mountain Yucca Mountain, mountain in the SW Nevada desert about 100 mi (161 km) northwest of Las Vegas. It is the proposed site of a Dept. of Energy (DOE) repository for up to 77,000 metric tons of nuclear waste (including commercial and defense spent fuel and high-level nuclear burial site is unclear. In the face of sustained resistance from the state and citizens groups, the federal government has slowed in its effort to build a long-term geological repository for commercial spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste Noun 1. high-level radioactive waste - radioactive waste that left in a nuclear reactor after the nuclear fuel has been consumed
radioactive waste - useless radioactive materials that are left after some laboratory or commercial process is completed . Opposition to the Yucca Mountain project is based on a long history of Nevada being a nuclear weapons testing grounds, resentment at becoming a repository for toxic waste toxic waste is waste material, often in chemical form, that can cause death or injury to living creatures. It usually is the product of industry or commerce, but comes also from residential use, agriculture, the military, medical facilities, radioactive sources, and generated elsewhere in the country, and concerns that the site is not geologically stable enough to guarantee that the radioactivity will remain confined over the required 10,000-year span. But several more such sites will be needed in future decades if a significant number of new nuclear power plants are built.
Moniz says the MIT study endorses a robust research and development program and tax credits for the nuclear industry. This is because, in the past, there has been considerable regulatory uncertainty, causing prohibitively high financial risk for utility investors. In addition, the true cost of burning carbon-based fuels has not been internalized, meaning that if the health and environmental costs of pollution and greenhouse gases could be factored in, nuclear energy would be very competitive. As a result, public subsidy of noncarbon-based energy sources is justified.
The comprehensive Energy Policy Act of 2005 that Moniz cites provides loan guarantees to develop energy technologies, including nuclear power, that avoid, reduce, or sequester sequester v. to keep separate or apart. In so-called "high-profile" criminal prosecutions (involving major crimes, events, or persons given wide publicity) the jury is sometimes "sequestered" in a hotel without access to news media, the general public or their greenhouse gases. It also provides a tax credit of 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour Kil´o`watt` hour
1. (Elec.) A unit of work or energy equal to that done by one kilowatt acting for one hour; - approximately equal to 1.34 horse-power hour.
Noun 1. for 6,000 megawatts of capacity at new nuclear power plants (equivalent to the output of about six new plants). Important to the industry, the act provides investment protection against delays in licensing and startup that are beyond the control of industry, including litigation An action brought in court to enforce a particular right. The act or process of bringing a lawsuit in and of itself; a judicial contest; any dispute.
When a person begins a civil lawsuit, the person enters into a process called litigation. .
The act also provides several billion dollars for nuclear energy research and development, which translates into work on a more cost-efficient and inherently safer generation of reactors known as Generation IV. These reactors achieve greater safety through passive technologies that automatically shut down the reactor in an emergency, bypassing the risk of operator error (humans still control the normal operation and shutdown of these reactors). They are also more efficient and relatively more cost-effective than their Generation III predecessors. In another bow to the environment, the act funds construction of a cogeneration reactor that will produce both electricity and hydrogen, which advocates hope will be a new, carbon-free fuel for automobiles--the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Finally, the act funds a central nuclear energy program of the Bush administration: Nuclear Power 2010. The program was unveiled in 2002 as a government-industry cost-sharing plan to identify three sites for new nuclear power plants, develop Generation III reactors, and develop a single-license process with the NRC for approval of both plant construction and operation, thereby removing much of the delay and uncertainty for investors.
In response, three consortia of electric utility companies, reactor suppliers, and construction firms have made proposals. None are yet committed to building a new nuclear plant. The consortia are led by Dominion Resources Dominion NYSE: D (formerly Dominion Resources) is a power and energy company headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, USA, that supplies electricity, natural gas, or other energy services to homes in Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and eastern North Carolina. , Exelon and Entergy (via the NuStart Energy Development consortium), and the Tennessee Valley Authority Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), independent U.S. government corporate agency, created in 1933 by act of Congress; it is responsible for the integrated development of the Tennessee River basin. . These consortia represent operators of 67 of the nation's nuclear plants, and their proposals have all focused on building a new plant on sites where plants already operate--in much the same way that a consortium of 10 electric utilities built the Yankee Rowe plant, one of the first commercial nuclear plants, in the 1950s.
The consortia embrace a number of different reactor vendors and designs, some of which have already been certified by the NRC. The final decision on building a nuclear power plant will depend on factors as they stand later this decade, including the power market, the status of permanent spent fuel storage, and the ability of the participants to obtain financing without adversely affecting their credit ratings.
"The industry's interest is very real," says Russ Bell, a senior project manager for new plant development at the Nuclear Energy Institute, a utility trade association. "The utilities are [participating in consortia and spending money on preliminary designs and siting plans] because the economics are turning in favor of nuclear, especially over the long term. [The Kyoto Protocol] is not driving us, but it makes sense and there is increasing concern about pollution in the United States and more stringent environmental regulations."
Bell says the industry is getting what it needs from the Energy Policy Act and is looking to government to do no more than jumpstart new builds after so much time has passed. He acknowledges the long time horizon for building new plants in the United States. Assuming that any of the consortia meet the 2010 goal of being licensed to build and operate a plant, another four to five years will pass before construction is complete and electricity flows. Meanwhile, the electric utility industry will continue to improve operating performance of existing nuclear power plants and apply for license extensions.
Originally licensed for 40 years, the first operating license issued by the NRC will expire in 2006, approximately 10% will expire by the end of 2010, and more than 40% will expire by 2015. The decision to seek license renewal is strictly voluntary, and nuclear power plant owners must decide whether they are likely to satisfy NRC requirements and whether license renewal is more cost-effective than shutting down and pursuing other sources of energy. The NRC has now granted 35 plants the right to operate for another 20 years. Three-quarters of the nation's plants have received, have applied for, or are expected to apply for an extension.
The question of plant life extension can bring the relationship between nuclear energy and greenhouse gases into sharp focus. For example, the governors of nine Northeast states have proposed an agreement to cap greenhouse gas emissions from all power plants in their states. Two nuclear power plants in the region, one in Vermont and one in New Jersey, are up for life extension, yet if these plants are shut down, the result would be increased reliance on carbon-based fuels. This could potentially triple greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont and double them in New Jersey, according to the 14 September 2005 edition of The New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of Times.
"We are not fundamentally opposed to nuclear power," says David Lochbaum, a nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "but there are better choices. In addition, we now have spent nuclear fuel Spent nuclear fuel, occasionally called used nuclear fuel, is nuclear fuel that has been irradiated in a nuclear reactor (usually at a nuclear power plant) to the point where it is no longer useful in sustaining a nuclear reaction. in storage places where it is not meant to be. It's not a health threat yet, but it could be."
Lochbaum is also concerned about the oversight role played by the NRC. "The NRC budget has been cut for a decade," he notes. "It is understaffed to support a nuclear resurgence. And the industry still has operational troubles at some plants."
These concerns are echoed by Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council and an advisory committee member on the MIT study. "The Energy Policy Act was the result of successful lobbying by the nuclear industry," he says. "They will probably build a few plants and then the issue is, are you back to where you are today?" Cochran does not believe that the subsidy or the economics will work for nuclear power. "It's not helpful to just say you are for or against nuclear," he says. "Ultimately you must make a decision on real policy to address global warming, and a carbon tax is the best way."
The objective of a carbon tax would be to internalize internalize
To send a customer order from a brokerage firm to the firm's own specialist or market maker. Internalizing an order allows a broker to share in the profit (spread between the bid and ask) of executing the order. the environmental costs and hope for an open competitive market for energy. "To balance the energy market, you either tax a pollutant or regulate it," says Cochran. "If public policy was made correctly, it would help the nuclear industry."
Is there a real, economically justified "nuclear resurgence," or simply a steady growth in some regions to meet rising demand for electricity? Nothing happens quickly in the world of power plant construction. Yet major investments by government and industry can change the bases of electricity supplies in the time flame of a decade or two. France closed its last coal mine in 2004, and its transition from 15% to 80% nuclear-based electricity was accomplished in 20 years. A sense of optimism and urgency now surrounds the question of whether to pursue nuclear power. How this translates into results should unfold at a brisk, measurable pace.