As America lumbers along toward a low-carbon economy, nuclear energy is expected to play a significant role in generating emission-free electricity.

But how significant?

The Senate’s debates this fall on plans for the nation’s energy future may provide some clues.

Nuclear energy, promoted as “clean air energy” by the Nuclear Energy Institute, carries some pretty heavy baggage. Thirty years after Three-Mile Island and more than 20 after Chernobyl, it’s fair to say that fear of a power plant accident is not highest on the list of challenges the industry faces today.

Instead, a handful of other daunting challenges – three in particular – continue to weigh especially heavy on the industry:

An Editor’s Advice: Weigh Full Nuclear Enrichment Cycle to Avoid Apples/Elephants Comparison

1. New nuclear plants, now estimated to cost at least $6 billion to $8 billion (one hears responsible estimates also of $12 billion), are astronomically expensive, and the industry wants $60 billion or more in loan guarantees from the federal government to help back investments by utilities.

2. Highly radioactive nuclear waste continues to pile up at plants across the country, and there still is no national repository where it can be stored safely – essentially forever. Nor does resolution on waste siting appear imminent at this point.

3. The idea of recycling nuclear fuel is seductive, but no one has figured out how to do it without producing pure plutonium, inevitably provoking concerns about nuclear proliferation.

Energy Secretary Chu: U.S. to ‘Recapture Lead’ on Nuclear Power

Secretary of Energy and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu has told Congress that nuclear energy, which today generates about 20 percent of the U.S.’s electricity, will be a critical part of America’s future energy mix. Chu acknowledges the obstacles the industry faces, but he expresses a determination to have the U.S. lead in nuclear energy technology.

“I think nuclear power is going to be a very important factor in getting us to a low carbon future,” he told the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on July 7.

“Quite frankly, we want to recapture the lead on industrial nuclear power. We have lost that lead as we have lost the lead in many energy technologies and we want to get it back.”

The Obama administration’s support for nuclear energy has been seen as part of an effort to build momentum for a comprehensive energy bill in the Senate, where several Republicans simply support a revival of nuclear energy.

Republicans in Senate Back More Nuclear Plants

Sen. Lamar Alexander

Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, for instance, has introduced his own plan for a “Nuclear Renaissance.” Alexander on July 13 introduced a plan for expanding nuclear power plants – his “Blueprint for 100 New Nuclear Plants in 20 Years.”

Alexander’s plan calls for federal loan financing for the first nuclear plants; plant construction ultimately paid for by ratepayers; plants to be insured by one another; and an aggressive effort to reprocess nuclear waste.

Loan guarantees for nuclear power plants, seen by the industry as essential to jumpstart an expansion, were outlined also in the 2005 Energy Act. The federal government earmarked $18 billion.

The NEI, which has complained that $18 billion is far too little and that it would cover only three reactors, wants the loan guarantees to be expanded to $60 billion, Alexander said in his blueprint.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is leading an effort in the Senate to expand the loan guarantee program. (A July 18 piece by writer Dan Yurman offers an interesting analysis on prospects for nuclear energy in the Senate this fall.)

NEI estimates that the nation will need to build 45 new reactors by 2030 if the U.S. is to meet projected increases in demand for electricity and meet greenhouse gas reduction targets. There is no difficulty finding any number of independent experts and environmentalist doubters concluding that that estimate is impractical politically and economically.

“The [Department of Energy] loan guarantee program could … significantly reduce interest costs on new plants, making it possible for utilities to order plants, reducing long-term costs to consumers,” said Alex Flint, senior vice president for governmental affairs at NEI, during an address June 8 to the Senate Republican Conference.

Senate Opposition to ‘Picking Winners, Losers’

Among those certain to be skeptical of efforts to significantly increase the number of operating nuclear plants in the U.S. is California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Boxer firmly supports efforts to establish a carbon dioxide cap and trade system to drive innovation. She suggested in hearings in mid-July that she was unimpressed by Alexander’s call for 100 plants by 2030.

“I think it’s very important we understand that the approach we’re taking, we don’t pick winners or losers. We put a cap on carbon and let the marketplace do it,” Boxer said in a ClimateWire story published July 17 in The New York Times.

Boxer noted in that column that an EPA analysis of the House bill estimates it could lead to 260 new 1,000 megawatt nuclear plants by 2050 – far exceeding the goal Alexander set in his blueprint.

The ClimateWire story offers a lengthy and interesting analysis of what to expect as the Senate debates an energy plan.

Environmentalists Point to Taxpayer Risks

Meanwhile, critics of nuclear energy such as the Union of Concerned Scientists have argued that loan guarantees, while shielding utilities from the burden of up-front investments, place taxpayers at great risk.

“Neither Wall Street nor the industry is willing to finance an expansion of nuclear power without using taxpayers to shield the industry from the economic risks of this expensive technology,” UCS says in a May position paper. “The history of the nuclear and financial industries, however, shows that shielding investors from risk leads to speculation, asset abandonment, and costly taxpayer bailouts.”

Edwin Lyman, a UCS senior scientist, told the Environmental News Service in a June 17 story that accelerating research into the reprocessing of nuclear fuel also is a bad idea.

“Promoting near-term reprocessing is the wrong thing to do,” Lyman said. “Analyses by the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Agency found that reprocessing increases nuclear waste and the risks of proliferation and terrorism, and that further research and development is not likely to solve these problems.”

Resolving Waste Disposal Quandary … with Yucca Now Off the Table

For nuclear energy to have any real future, many agree that the repository problem will have to be solved eventually.

In one of the Senate’s last actions prior to its summer recess, it made clear that Yucca Mountain in Nevada is off the table. A $34.3 billion energy spending bill, passed by the Senate on July 29, supports President Obama’s campaign promise to close the site.

An Editor’s Advice:
Weigh Full Nuclear Enrichment Cycle
to Avoid Apples/Elephants Comparison

In the rush to want to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, it’s easy to fall into a trap of seeing nuclear energy as a “GHG-free” alternative to combustion of coal and other fossil fuels.

It ain’t necessarily so, veteran writer Roger Witherspoon has counseled journalists in an online blog operated for members by the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ).

“Nuclear power DOES produce GHG – and in large doses,” Witherspoon, contributing editor for U.S. Black Engineer and Information Technology magazine, advises. “One has to be careful to make sure they are not comparing apples and elephants in an effort to make what appears to be a benign point.”

Reporting that nuclear power electric generating plants do not generally release greenhouse gases is “more or less accurate,” according to Witherspoon. “But that does NOT mean that nuclear power is GHG-free.”

Witherspoon points to a full range of GHGs and other pollutants associated with mining, shipping, and burning coal or natural gas, for instance, and says the digging of uranium ore yields just “a lot of rock and dirt which could not power a flashlight.” Enriching that yellow cake to produce uranium oxide and make nuclear fission possible, as is done at the U.S. Enrichment Corporation plant in Paducah, Ky., “requires the sole dedication” of two 1,500-megawatt, 30-year-old coal-fired TVA plants and their attendant CO2 and other pollutant emissions.

In addition, Witherspoon says, with ozone-depleting CFCs banned in the U.S. except for the processing of uranium ore, that process releases some 300,000 pounds of CFCs annually into the air. CFCs’ radiative properties make them 1,500 times more potent than a molecule of CO2, he advised reporters on the SEJ blog. (Witherspoon gave The Yale Forum permission to paraphrase and quote from his posting, a groundrule of the SEJ list serve.)

Enriched uranium fuel stocks next are fashioned into “nice neat pellets and coated with zirconium and assembled into 12-foot fuel rods,” Witherspoon says, with each power reactor using about 100 tons of fuel rods.

“So while the neighborhood power plant is not directly releasing GHGs into the air, it required a lot of GHGs to make those nice neat fuel pellets. You cannot fairly compare the environmental degradation caused by the three types of power sources – coal, natural gas, and nuclear – without looking at the nuclear fuel cycle rather than just the end-use power plant …. It’s simply a recognition that you could not operate a nuclear power plant without its fuel-enrichment cycle,” a cycle the other energy processes do not need.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...