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Nuclear Power Can Help Solve Energy Crisis.

Energy Department leading long-term effort to develop safe nuclear plants

The United States must increase its capacity to generate energy, in order to prevent the shortages in California from cascading across the nation. Nuclear power should be a significant part of the solution.

The energy crisis witnessed in California has exposed a national energy problem that has been more than 20 years in the making. Energy consumption in the United States is now stressing the limits of energy production. Witness the increasing numbers of rolling brown-outs and black-outs on both the East and West coasts during the hot summer months of the past several years.

This nation's political and business leaders have acceded to the will of the very vocal environmental minority. The Three Es- Environment, Economy and Energy-are out of balance.

Even though the U.S. electricity consumption growth rate has slowed to 2-3 percent a year as compared to the pre-1970s growth rate of 7 percent, energy generation stations still need to be added. Electrical generation plant construction originally slowed because of so-called NIMBY (not in my back yard) activism.

In their efforts to protect the environment, many groups, for many valid reasons, have opposed the basic, reliable, base-load generators: nuclear, coal, oil and hydroelectric dams. They support only "renewable" energy sources-defined as wind, solar [photovoltaic], low-head [run-of-the-river] hydro, geo-thermal and biomass. These generators can, and should, contribute to the energy mix. But the renewables are too small to constitute adequate, reliable and economical energy sources to sustain U.S. industry.

By successfully lobbying for federal and state-level regulations and restrictions, activists have imposed overly stringent airemission constraints on fossil-fuel generation facilities, as well as severely slowed exploration for new oil and natural gas reserves and limited coal mining. Thus, expansion of both power generators and fuel reserves for their operation have slowed. This is counter to the steady increase in the demand for electricity. These activists have created a regulatory atmosphere in which their versions of the renewables are the only politically correct new power sources. But those renewables alone cannot meet U.S. power demands.

Base load power-constant source, reliable power-is essential for the nation's electrical grid. Base load electricity currently is supplied by generators using coal (50 percent), nuclear power (20 percent), hydro (9 percent) and oil (3 percent). Of the remaining electricity on the grid, 18 percent is provided by natural gas (16 percent) and the renewables (2 percent).

The potential power supplies from the renewables are either unreliable (insufficient wind, cloudy day, sunless night), or have an insufficient capacity, or occupy an unacceptably extensive beautiful land area (large-scale hydro). Further, hydroelectric power is under siege by environmentalists, who want to remove existing dams and prevent the construction of new dams, in order to save specific fish species.

The less environmentally damaging and easy to turn on-off natural gas-fired power plants were originally designed and installed to supplement the grid to meet peak power requirements. Now, any economic benefit of natural gas electrical generation that provides 16 percent of U.S. electrical power has been erased in the last nine months by the escalating fuel costs.

For example, in 1999, electricity generated by natural gas fired plants cost 3.52 cents per kilowatt-hour. Today, it is up to 17 cents.

These power plants also are competing with other utilities that provide natural gas for household and business uses and for production of anhydrous ammonia fertilizers in the agricultural industry. Even as new natural gas fired generating plants are planned, their construction again is resisted by the small, but vocal groups for environmental, esthetic and zoning and land-use reasons.

Fuel cells must be mentioned here. The fuel cell is an excellent compact electricity generator, and it emits no greenhouse gases. Fuel cells are nor a source of energy. Fuel cells require hydrogen, and hydrogen is not a readily available gas. Hydrogen can be split from water or natural gas, but technologies currently available to do that consume large amounts of energy from other sources.

The environment itself is compounding the electrical supply problem. Drought conditions in the West for the past couple of years have reduced the water volume behind hydroelectric dams, so their capacity for electricity generation is reduced. The agricultural industry is competing with the energy industry for that limited water.

Not all energy producers or energy production technologies are anti-environmental. The need to control pollution and to protect the land is well recognized. But by injecting some common sense and balance into environmental regulation, the United States could eliminate many of the burdensome and costly requirements that are slowly strangling the power generation and distribution industry.

Energy Costs

It is worth looking at statistics for the generation costs of the four conventional electrical production technologies in 1999:

* Natural gas cost 3.52 cents per kilowatthour and produced 16 percent of the electricity generated in the United States in 1999.

* Oil cost 3.18 cents and produced 3 percent.

* Coal cost 2.07 cents and produced 50 percent.

* Nuclear power cost 1.83 cents and produced 20 percent.

The cost for hydro (produced 9 percent of electricity generated in 1999) is not available. The cost for the remaining 2 percent produced by the renewables is estimated to be higher than the other generators.

In the 1970s, the activists convinced both federal and state governments to divert taxpayer energy research and development dollars to renewables. That investment, to date, is about $13 billion. California, the prime example, is now stuck with low-efficiency, costly solar and wind facilities that generate inadequate amounts of power for base load and occupy large land space. Their cost, repayment for past development plus current operation, may contribute to the high utility bills.

It was economics that stopped new nuclear power-plant construction in the 1980s, not safety. The economic roadblock began with the high interest rates of the 1970s. Then came the lack of energy market growth after the 1973 oil embargo. Then came the environmentally imposed regulatory and legal morass. A total of 131 commercial nuclear plants have been built and licensed in the United States. Twenty-eight of those have been shut down. The remaining 103 now produce one-fifth of the nation's electricity.

The nation currently lacks a comprehensive energy policy. The following points should be considered in developing such a policy:

* Stationary electrical power generation for base-loading the grid is accomplished by coal, nuclear plants and hydroelectric dams.

* The renewables (low-head hydra, wind, solar, geo-thermal, biomass) provide peak load energy and some site-specific generation. Add fuel cells for point sources when they become feasible.

* Petroleum and natural gas are reserved for transportation, home heating and selective industrial purposes.

There is a clear need to construct new electric power plants. They must be environmentally friendly, economical in construction and operation and provide reliable base load electricity. And for national security reasons, they must use a sustainable fuel of U.S. origin.

The United States has an abundance of coal yet to be mined. In order to use that resource in a more environmentally friendly way, the Department of Energy is promoting Vision 21. The goal is to achieve clean coalburning technology so that no emissions will go beyond the power plant's fence line--a feat that nuclear power plants already achieve.

What is interesting, and should be of national concern, is the government's long silence about nuclear power as part of the solution for both environmental problems and economic power generation woes. The Energy Department's national laboratories have been working toward the definition and design of the next generation of nuclear power plants, Generation IV. To date, little has been said publicly about their work.

The federal government sent a delegation to the Sixth U.N. Conference of the Parties (COP 6) at The Hague in November 2000. COP 6 was supposed to formalize agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emission to levels that had been set at COP 3 in Kyoto, Japan, issued as the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. representatives at COP 6 were unable to get agreement that nuclear power is an environmentally friendly, safe, life-saving, economical electrical power-production technology and should be accepted as at least part of the solution. Vice President Richard B. Cheney did announce in late April 2001 that his energy group will recommend nuclear power as an option for balancing The Three Es, but re-emergence of this power source will face an uphill battle. Nuclear power deserves a serious re-look at this time.

When considering the total life cycle, nuclear power plants create a small fraction of the greenhouse gases that all fossil-fuel plants produce.

The nuclear reactor-waste problem is a bogeyman. Few people know that for the past 40 years, the nuclear reactor waste that has been generated by all U.S. nuclear power plants remains stored on site. How many other industries could do that: store all their industrial waste on site and remain in business? If all the high-level nuclear waste, which is actually spent fuel, from all the U.S. nuclear power plants were collected and stacked in one place, it would cover a single football field with a pile about 15 feet high.

Yucca Mountain, located on the west edge of the Energy Department's Nevada Test Site, is the place where more than 500 nuclear weapons have been detonated above and below ground. The federal government has selected that site as the spent-fuel repository. Yucca Mountain is a well-researched and correct site to place the material safely underground.

The nuclear material (uranium) came out of the ground originally as an oxide (U3O8). About 97 percent of this uranium--with 3 percent waste products--would be returned to Yucca Mountain. It would be a more concentrated form than the uranium ore from whence it came, but placed into corrosion resistant canisters that will isolate the spent fuel from the surrounding tunnel walls until it has the same radioactivity as the original uranium ore.

The danger of transporting reactor waste to Yucca Mountain is another bogeyman. The actual spent fuel is a ceramic uranium oxide pellet, similar in look and feel to a coffee mug. The uranium pellets are encased in zirconium tubes, which are then held in a thick steel-and-lead transport cylinder. It has absorbers built in so that any impacts will not violate integrity of the cylinder, let alone the individual zirconium tubes with their solid uranium oxide pellets. The lead component provides radiation shielding.

These transport cylinders have been tested extensively under severe conditions--smashed into concrete walls at high speeds, hit by trains, placed in pools of burning fuel, and dropped on spikes--without being breached. Gasoline tankers transiting U.S. highways do not necessarily provide this level of protection for the public.

The 131 nuclear plants that have operated in this country have produced no radiation-related injuries or deaths. The infamous 1978 Three Mile Island accident outside Harrisburg, Penn., was precipitated by human error, then compounded by a relief valve not re-setting. The plant shut itself down. The minor amount of gaseous radionuclides that was vented was not detectable outside the plant boundaries.

Current nuclear power plant technology in the United States can be categorized as three distinct design generations: prototypes, current operating plants and advanced reactors. While the Generation III plants have been successful where they have been built, further evolution will make new nuclear-energy systems an even more attractive option. Many countries recognize that nuclear energy must remain or become an integral part of their energy mix to meet present and future energy supply needs. To help achieve this recognized need, the Energy Department's Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology is encouraging a wide-ranging study of the next-generation nuclear energy system--Generation IV--for development.

The Generation IV initiative is a process, not a plant design. Its intent is to gain international cooperation to identify, assess and develop sustainable nuclear energy technologies. Technologies that can be licensed, constructed and operated in a manner that will provide a competitively priced supply of energy while satisfactorily addressing nuclear safety, waste, proliferation resistance and public perception concerns of the countries in which they are deployed.

Generation IV designs need to involve the public so that their expectations are included in the design. They might include siting a coal plant to sequester carbon dioxide, or generating hydrogen for fuel cells during off-peak hours, or shortening the half-life of current nuclear waste, or siting it on a coastline and using the "waste" heat to distill fresh water. This time, the deployment of nuclear power plants can better serve the public needs.

Nuclear power plant construction--the brick and mortar and pipe and dome cost--is economical. Included in the concepts for Generation IV reactors are factory-built components that are assembled on site to speed completion times. What makes nuclear plants an expensive option are the legal and permit requirements, which can stretch a nuclear plant start-up schedule from three to 10 years, tying capital up with no return.

Eric P. Loewen, Ph.D., is a consulting engineer at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Idaho Falls, Idaho. The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Department of Energy.
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Author:Loewen, Eric P.
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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