A hundred new nukes?

I was on vacation, last week, so I didn’t hear Sen. Lamar Alexander (Rep.-Tenn.) deliver an address at the National Press Club outlining his blueprint for bringing 100 new nuclear power plants online within 20 years. But over the weekend (while in Alexander’s home state — and no longer on vacation), I did highlight his bold new proposal to double the nation’s nuclear capacity within a generation.

It was at a McCormick Foundation program on media and nuclear power issues hosted by the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism and Electronic Media.

Currently, the combined output of the United States’ 104 nuclear power plants — a little under one-quarter of the power reactors operating worldwide — accounts for one-fifth of America’s electricity. Unlike many of their foreign counterparts, however, U.S. reactors are graying and getting creaky. Indeed, there have been no new orders for a U.S. nuclear plant in 30 years.

So could we — should we — welcome a nuclear renaissance? I argued that with unlimited time and money, America should be able to develop safe, reliable nuclear plants to provide those streams of electrons to which modern society has become addicted.

Unfortunately, money is a very limited resource. In this economy, saving it has become a defining goal.

Moreover, time has also become a pressing issue. Old King Coal is popular not only from North America’s sea to shining sea but also throughout Europe, Russia, India and China. Wherever industry and urban modernization take hold, “cheap” coal-generated electrons have been sure to follow. But that coal is cheap, of course, only on paper.

Its life-cycle — cradle to grave — costs fill plenty of graves. They start at coal’s extraction, a remarkably dirty business that triggers black lung disease among underground miners. Mountaintop mining will spare workers’ lungs, but often at the expense of defiling and potentially poisoning their water supplies (due to leaks from poisonous ponds of liquid mining wastes) and the destruction of woodland ecosystems.

We also have to contend with the dirty emissions spewed in abundance once that coal is burned. The carbon that’s released has been contributing to a worrisome warming of Earth’s atmosphere. But even if that wasn’t a problem — although it is — there are also the air pollutants each of us ends up breathing. Like those nano-scale particles. The print issue of Science News with last Saturday’s cover date carries a feature pointing to some of the significant but largely ignored impacts that we all face from being forced to inhale such respirable motes.

So the choking dirt and Godzilla-scale carbon footprint associated with fossil-fuel burning has finally built up globally to a point that nuclear is starting to look like “our best source for large amounts of cheap, reliable, clean energy,” Alexander says.

Wait. Did he say cheap? Or clean? Nuclear is neither.

The reason utilities haven’t been installing new nuclear generation is because they find it too expensive. Citing unacceptably high projected installation costs, the government of Ontario, Canada, halted the competitive bidding process on two replacement nuclear plants around three weeks ago. A day later, Exelon — one of the nation’s oldest and biggest nuclear utilities — postponed plans to build a pair of reactors in Texas for up to 2 decades; the company cited “economic woes” as a contributing factor. And on June 23, Moody’s Investor Service announced that it will consider “taking a more negative view for those issuers seeking to build new nuclear power plants … Rationale is premised on a material increase in business and operating risk.”

Mark Cooper of Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment attempted to forecast nuclear’s promise in the context of the national energy picture. In a June 18 report, he argued that estimates of what it will cost to bring new plants on line in the United States amount to a bait and switch. Electric utilities are looking to lure the public into signing on for competitively priced power; in fact, those utilities can’t rule out eventually producing exorbitantly priced power — at up to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour. He pointed out that this could be more than quadruple the cost for achieving the same ends through renewable, cogeneration or conservation investments.

Bottom line, Cooper said, “The additional cost of building 100 new nuclear reactors instead of pursuing a least cost efficiency-renewable strategy would be in the range of $1.9 billion to $4.4 billion over the life of the reactors.”

And the fact that nuclear power isn’t associated with a big carbon footprint, Sen. Alexander, doesn’t make nuclear “clean.”

In fact, one point I tried to emphasize at the McCormick Institute, a couple days ago, is that there is no such thing as clean or cheap energy. Whether it’s hydro, large-scale solar, geothermal, tar sands, natural gas, hydrogen, or coal, reliably delivering gazillions of btu’s to feed the world’s power gluttony will cost us. Big time. And choosing which suite of technologies — and in which proportion — to generate the transformative heat and electricity we crave will require tough choices and trade-offs.

To portray what’s before us as anything less is hubris.

Unless we’re prepared to give up our air-conditioned/centrally heated homes and endlessly plugged in lifestyle, we better be prepared to pay what it takes to provide truly cleaner, safer sources of power.

Even without a nuclear renaissance, we also had better be prepared to pay lots more to boost the quality and quantity of inspections at existing reactors. Many of America’s aging plants have lingering safety problems that could lead to extensive, expensive accidents, according to the new director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in his inaugural address on July 7. For instance, Gregory Jaczko noted, existing reactors were never built with fire protection standards in mind. And even 34 years after a worker accidentally ignited the flammable sheathing in cabling at a Browns Ferry nuclear plant — leading to the Alabama reactor’s year-long shutdown — Jaczko says that fire protection remains one of the “longstanding safety issues needing final resolution.”

If a nuclear renaissance is in our cards, we had better be ready to invest substantially in safer, next-generation technologies, too. We’ll also have to solve the tough policy issues about what to do with all of the nuclear wastes that have been generated by existing plants, not to mention those from any new ones.

If President Kennedy’s 1961 rhetoric could galvanize America to land a man on the moon within a mere eight years, a landmark feat of engineering and safety, certainly U.S. resolve can deliver cleaner, safer nuclear-plant designs that will be ready for commercialization in a similar time frame. So too, developments to capture coal’s carbon emissions.

The question before us: Are we willing to make the development of safe, plentiful energy a defining priority?

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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