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Face-Off: The Nuclear Non-Starter

Persistent economic and political issues continue to prevent the expansion of nuclear power.
Fortnightly Magazine - June 15 2003

ready in this decade for construction," Vine says.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) estimates that "overnight" costs for ALWR-based plants will total $1,000 to $1,200 per installed kilowatt, which, not counting financing costs and construction times, would be competitive with pulverized coal-fired capacity.

But whether such estimates would be borne out in the real world remains uncertain. Because an ALWR plant has never been built in the United States, the true costs of licensing, financing, and building an ALWR-based plant are unknown, and not everyone agrees with the NEI's estimates.

"The nuclear industry tends to be somewhat optimistic with its economic forecasts," says Dave Lochbaum, nuclear safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C. The true cost of building an ALWR plant, he says, will prove to be prohibitively expensive. "As the NRC moves through its review, the costs of the reactor go up. I don't expect any to go from blueprint to backyard," Lochbaum says.

One of the best candidates for a new-technology nuclear power plant, the so-called "pebble-bed," high-temperature gas reactor, has been demonstrated in Japan and China, and a project in South Africa would demonstrate a small, commercial-scale plant. However, the pebble-bed design has not been scaled up successfully yet, and fuel issues could hamper development.

The design uses tiny particles of uranium encased in small carbon spheres that serve to prevent chain reactions. Such an exotic fuel could complicate the technology's path to economic viability. And, giving rise to further speculation about the design's viability, last year Exelon Generation withdrew from the South African consortium that is developing the project.

"There is potential there, but they are fooling themselves if they think it will be ready within 20 years," says Allison Macfarlane, a senior research associate with the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Thus economic issues continue to limit the industry's expansion. Research continues, though, and the latest omnibus energy legislation includes more than $1.1 billion in R&D funding for a new advanced reactor for cogeneration of electricity and hydrogen fuel. To the degree research results in more cost-effective designs, the economic picture for new nuclear plants might begin to improve. But another key issue might limit the industry's long-term future: fuel supply.

"There is only enough uranium oxide available, at less than $30 a pound, to keep the global fleet of 352 GW running for another 45 years," says Henry Linden, the Max McGraw Professor of energy and power engineering and management, and director of the IIT Energy + Power Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. "I am a big advocate of resuming the development of breeder reactors."

Linden acknowledges, however, that the political climate in the United States remains hostile to breeder reactor development. The Argonne National Laboratory recently discontinued its development program, but not all research has stopped.

"Breeder reactors eventually will come back," Vine says. "The utility industry is not interested in pushing this solution at the current time, other than a clear recognition in policy that it is an important option for