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Nuclear Power as Green Power? Debate Will Heat Up as U.S. Eases Permitting Process

Currently, 439 nuclear reactors in 31 nations supply 15 percent of global electricity, and 31 new plants are currently under construction throughout the world, including in Finland- Europe’s first in 15 years. Last week, in a fascinating and expansive cover piece on nuclear power’s “new age,” The Economist reported a projection that global nuclear capacity will increase from 370 gigawatts currently to 520 gigawatts by 2030. The United States is bracing for a number of applications to construct the country’s first new reactor in almost 30 years thanks to recent changes in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (“NRC”) permitting process. Previously, potential plant operators had to apply for two different permits- one to build the plant and a second to actually start operating it. Billions could be spent on plant construction but the operating permit might get held up during a lengthy review process or even be denied in its entirety. These two permits have now been merged into a “combined construction and operating license.” (That’s not to say the review process isn’t short; the NRC estimates that it will take up to 2.5 years to review each application.) The NRC should receive 12 applications before the close of 2007, and expects 15 more in 2008- if nuclear power isn’t on your list of green hot topics, it will be quite soon.

So, if the regulatory climate for nuclear power is relaxing, utilities are anticipating legislation that will mandate steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and given nuclear’s promises of cheap, clean energy (particularly when compared to coal plants), what’s actually stopping us from rallying around it as green power source? The reasons, unfortunately, are legion. While the uranium that powers the reactor core of a nuclear plant is relatively abundant, inexpensive, and sourced from places like Canada and Australia- significantly less hostile towards Western interests than most of OPEC- nuclear plants are tremendously expensive to build. The most junior of America’s plants, in Watts Barr, Tennessee, took 23 years to build at a cost of $6.9 billion. Safety is always a concern- though new technology from firms like General Electric and Westinghouse is said to make construction and operation cheaper, simpler, and safer. Last year, America’s nuclear plants were online 90 percent of the time and, since 1977, improvements in steam turbine efficiency and other reactor technology have increased the country’s total nuclear output by 5,000 megawatts- equivalent to the addition of five new reactors.

Of course, perhaps the strongest argument against nuclear as a green power source is how the industry disposes of the highly radioactive waste byproducts that are created from reactions in the core. While new technology may eventually make it possible for more of those byproducts to be used as fuel in advanced reactors, the U.S. still does not have a long-term solution for how to store its nuclear waste. The Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, which the federal government hopes will store the waste for a million years, is still in the planning stages, and as The Economist points out may never get built. The Department of Energy will submit an application to the NRC for the repository next year, which will take three years to evaluate. The repository would open sometime in 2017 at the earliest. Currently, plants are responsible for containing and controlling their waste until a final storage location is built- problematic from both environmental and security points of view. Still, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides four different types of subsidies to new potential nuclear operators, including $2 billion in insurance against delays in regulatory approvals or from lawsuits to the first six projects that the NRC approves, and a tax credit of 1.6 cents per kWh for the first 6,000 megawatts of power that the new plants produce.

Nuclear power in America is a fascinating, complicated, but divisive issue, and new plants appear to be inevitable. However, until the industry can convince the public that new technology has made reactors safer and eased its fears over security issues, it will be hard-pressed to include nuclear power within any definition of green energy. We’re curious about your attitudes towards nuclear power- any thoughts?

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