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What's Holding Back the Nuclear Renaissance?

A compelling spokesperson, and a plan for Yucca Mountain.
Fortnightly Magazine - April 2006

The stars would seem to be aligned for a renaissance of nuclear power in the United States. Fossil-fuel prices are historically high, political uncertainty plagues the Middle East, Russia, and other oil-producing regions, new reactor technology looks promising, and President Bush is promoting nuclear among the alternatives for electric power. Indeed, opinion polls suggest the public has an increasingly positive attitude towards nuclear power.

But the next surge of nuclear construction will not gain momentum unless two things occur. The first is to resolve the problem of long-term disposal of spent nuclear fuel waste storage by completing the Yucca Mountain repository. The second is to find an executive in the industry who will step up and champion nuclear power, as Lee Iacocca did for the ailing U.S. auto manufacturing industry during the late 1970s.

Cart Before the Horse

Nuclear reactor technology has made a lot of progress in recent years, and the next generation of technology, such as the Westinghouse AP1000, whose design was recently certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), promises to be safer and more reliable than previous designs. It’s likely that a consortium of utilities will ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license, and several other utilities are considering filing for licenses.

Because the NRC will have to staff up to handle license applications, some executives have expressed concern that simultaneous filings could create a logjam that would slow the process and make it more costly and inefficient. Yet this may be putting the cart before the horse. The more complicated and longer-term problem is that a resurgence of nuclear power hinges on a resolution of the Yucca Mountain depository.

Some background: To obtain a license for a new nuclear plant, the licensee must demonstrate that it has a plan for the storage of spent fuel, just as existing plants do. More new plants thus aggravate the long-term problem of what to do with waste once these plants run out of on-site storage capacity.

One option being discussed is to harness the significant amount of energy remaining in spent fuel rods through reprocessing. There is no existing reprocessing facility in this country, so we could ship the spent fuel overseas for reprocessing, or we could build a facility to the tune of more than $20 billion. Either alternative would be controversial because of the public funding and national policy considerations involved, as well as the technology challenges.

While it is not cost-effective for U.S. nuclear operators to replace fuel supplies with reprocessed fuel, technology advances over the next 50 years might make reprocessing an excellent alternative. It makes sense, therefore, to modify the depository at Yucca Mountain to permit retrieval of the spent fuel for reprocessing in the future. As a side benefit, this could help shift the debate away from the question of how many thousands

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