Exclusive: A Nuclear Renaissance Beckons

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS August 18, 2009
In 1993, I taught an upper level course in managerial economics for Tusculum College in an unusual setting. The classes were held at the Watts Bar nuclear power plant. Watts Bar was the third nuclear plant built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and was located not far from Knoxville. Construction had started in 1973. The plant still was not operational when I was teaching there 20 years later due to constant legal challenges and regulatory delays driven by anti-nuclear environmentalists. If Watts Bar had been a private enterprise rather than a government project, it would have been driven out of business by the Green obstructionists, as were so many planned nuclear facilities.
My students were employed at the plant, and most thought the facility would never be turned on. Yet, in 1996, Unit 1 did go online, the last commercial nuclear reactor to do so in the United States in the 20th century. Unit 1 produces 1,170 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve 650,000 homes.
In 2000, under the Clinton Administration, the decision was made to halt work on Watts Bar Unit 2 even though substantial work had been completed. But in 2007, in the pro-growth climate of the Bush administration, the TVA Board decided to complete construction of Unit 2 to help meet the region’s expanding energy needs. Completion of Unit 2 is scheduled for 2013 and will double the electrical output of Watts Bar. TVA was able to move forward fairly quickly because it was already licensed. Building new power reactors elsewhere will be more difficult, but there are signs that for the first time in over 30 years, progress is possible in this vital field.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has received 17 license applications for 26 new nuclear power reactors. These are the first applications for new reactors since the late 1970s. In addition to new reactors, the NRC has seen an increase in licensing applications related to uranium recovery and fuel-processing facilities.
Electricity demand is expected to increase 50 percent by 2030. NRC head Kristine L. Svinicki has said that for nuclear power to maintain its share of production,it would be necessary to build and bring on line nearly 50 additional large, commercial nuclear power reactors to add to the 104 that are currently operating. “ She called this a “nuclear renaissance.” Under projections made by the Environmental Protection Agency, nuclear expansion will have to be even greater if coal and natural gas are to be partially replaced to comply with mandated limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
The controversial Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act (H. R. 2454), passed narrowly by the U.S. House in June, requires utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from “renewable” sources by 2020. Nuclear power is excluded from the list of renewables, but the bill is silent about the overall role of nuclear power in meeting the bill’s overall targets for reducing carbon emissions.
In the EPA’s April analysis of the initial Waxman-Markey draft legislation, nuclear power was included along with renewables and improved efficiency as “low- or zero-carbon primary energy” sources. But the EPA also noted that there was an “uncertainty” about “The degree to which new nuclear power is technically, politically, and socially feasible” and that “Constraints on nuclear power growth are exogenous.” Yet, the EPA model postulates that nuclear power will be “allowed to increase by ~150 percent from 782 bill. kWh in 2005 to 1,982 bill. kWh in 2050.” The growth would have to be even greater and faster if the EPA’s optimistic forecasts of progress in creating renewable energy technology are not met. And the EPA counts heavily on gains in efficiency that will mean “lower energy demand” resulting in “fewer new power plants needing to be built.”
The Department of Energy says it wants to support the revival of nuclear construction and development. DoE claims it will make “investments in clean energy sources that will curb our dependence on fossil fuels and make America energy independent.” To generate more domestic energy, it will “Enhance U.S. energy supplies through responsible development of domestic renewable energy, fossil fuels, advanced biofuels and nuclear energy.” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu was director of DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and professor of Physics and Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California. He worked in atomic physics and does not have the Luddite mentality of the Green zealots even though he is concerned about carbon emissions and climate change.
On May 6th, Secretary Chu announced the selection of 71 university research project awards to advance cutting-edge nuclear energy research and development. These projects will receive approximately $44 million over three years to advance new nuclear technologies in support of the nation’s energy goals. “As a zero-carbon energy source, nuclear power must be part of our energy mix as we work towards energy independence and meeting the challenge of global warming,” said Secretary Chu at the time, adding, “The next generation of nuclear power plants – with the highest standards of safety, efficiency and environmental protection – will require the latest advancements in nuclear science and technology. These research and development university awards will ensure that the United States continues to lead the world in the nuclear field for years to come.”
DoE’s Office of Nuclear Energy has stated as goals: “Develop new nuclear generation technologies that foster the diversity of the domestic energy supply through public-private partnerships that are aimed in the near-term (2015) at the deployment of advanced, proliferation-resistant light water reactor and fuel cycle technologies and in the longer-term (2025) at the development and deployment of next-generation advanced reactors and fuel cycles.”
What could disrupt a nuclear renaissance in America is “exogenous” politics, the kind that has crippled an industry that was created in the United States. The Left is still anti-nuclear for ideological reasons that have nothing to do with science or the energy needs of the nation. Greenpeace opposed the Waxman-Markey bill because it felt the door had been left open for new nuclear plants. Greenpeace is still peddling fears of another Chernobyl, the only catastrophic example the movement has. It took place in 1986 in the old Soviet Union at a plant whose obsolete technology bears no resemblance to what is being used in the U.S. Christopher Barker, of the popular Motley Fool investment advisory group, told AARP members that he opposes nuclear power “because I consider radioactive waste and Chernobyl-type risks utterly unacceptable.”
After the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee held hearings on July 7th, the Sierra Club found “troubling” that “many senators continued insistence that nuclear power is the sole answer to our climate and energy problems. Many have called for as many as 100 new nuclear power plants. This plan ignores the cleaner, cheaper, safer, and faster emissions reductions that could be achieved through energy efficiency and clean energy.” Sierra defined clean energy two days later as “wind, solar and geothermal” in a press release celebrating their role in blocking the construction of 100 coal-fired power plants.
The 100 nuclear plant proposal was contained in the American Energy Act (H.R. 2846) offered by the Republican leadership on June 12th. That the GOP is pro-nuclear is not news, but that there is growing support within Democrat ranks for a revival of atomic energy is surprising.
The Democrat Obama administration can only defy its left-wing constitutions on an issue as emotional as nuclear power if the American people impress upon it their unwillingness to suffer a decline in living standards as the country reduces pollution and moves towards energy independence. While some Americans may like the “wilderness adventures” that the Sierra Club promotes as a vacation, few want it as a way of life. The future simply won’t work without a major expansion of nuclear power.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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