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Five Nuclear Challenges

Building reactors requires new federal commitment.

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2009

With growing demand for electricity and shrinking sources for fuel, U.S. power producers are faced with a limited set of choices for replacing America’s aging power plants. While renewable energy sources will help offset future energy requirements, there is a need to provide a fleet of base-load power plants that can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Realistically, only nuclear energy and coal offer viable choices as long-term energy sources for these new base-load plants.

Although natural gas is a generally cleaner fuel than coal or petroleum, wholesale prices are volatile and subject to seasonal demands. In spite of these drawbacks, natural gas power plants remain one of the best choices for addressing daily peak periods.

In contrast, most nuclear power plants are designed to operate continuously and are ideal base-load energy sources. Over the next decade many of the nation’s 104 operating nuclear power plants will begin to be taken offline for retirement, leaving America with a significant deficit in answering current base-load needs. In addition to replacing the retiring nuclear and coal plants, growing demand from a new electric economy will serve only to increase needs for expanded base-load power production.

Figure 1

Nevertheless, before a new fleet of nuclear power plants is built, there are five challenges that need to be addressed. These challenges are a matter of national policy and need clear understanding before any corporation can begin building new nuclear power facilities.

The arguments presented below address these challenges from the perspective of national and regional policy makers. In addition, many local organizations should consider these same arguments while deciding how to replace their aging base-load power plants.

The Five Challenges

There are a number of challenges that will need to be met before the private sector will invest in the construction of new nuclear power plants. An absence of resolution on these issues could explain why no U.S. utility irrevocably has committed to building a single new nuclear power plant in the United States. 1

Two or More Certified Nuclear Plants are Needed : There is not a single new nuclear plant that can be built in the United States today because the certification processes for proposed designs aren’t complete. Without full and non-contingent certified nuclear power technologies to review and analyze, utilities are unable to make performance comparisons, economic assessments, or prudent “build/no-build” decisions. Therefore, until the federal licensing process is completed and two or more non-contingent nuclear power designs available, decisions by the private-sector to move forward likely will be delayed.

The federal licensing process for five utility-grade designs

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