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Five Nuclear Challenges

Building reactors requires new federal commitment.

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2009

needed because the embedded issues are large, complex, and contentious, and because they aren’t widely appreciated by policymakers or the public. It should also be recognized that some of the proposed responses might face significant resistance among competing stakeholders.

While the industry waits for the NRC to issue design certifications, policymakers and the public can focus on the remaining four challenges and seek appropriate solutions. Four initiatives are offered below that would provide opportunities aimed at updating and balancing the incentives needed for an independent energy supply.

The first initiative is to enact public policy that addresses three important national goals, not just two. From a public policy and public perception point of view, it’s widely understood that the United States needs to move towards energy independence and away from greenhouse gases. As emphasized above, the piece that is not generally understood is that the United States also needs reliable sources of energy available to our economy 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The United States economy operates on a 24-hour basis with a base load of power consumption that is always present. This base load of power is required by our traffic lights, internet, communications, heating systems, hospitals, rail systems, government, banking, manufacturing, airports, and our homes. In New England, for example, the base load is approximately 16 GW. 23

Recognition of this round-the-clock load is essential. Ensuring the availability of these energy resources is almost as important as achieving energy independence and avoiding greenhouse gases. Consider the developing emergency in the United Kingdom:

“Britain is ‘quite simply running out of power’ and blackouts are almost inevitable within the next few years.” This is the stark warning from the head of an energy think-tank who believes power cuts could be serious enough to spark civil disorder. Campbell Dunford of the respected Renewable Energy Foundation [REF] said: ”It’s almost too late to do anything about it. Nothing will stop us having to pay very high prices for power in future. ... The retirement of a string of nuclear and coal-fired power stations will see 37 percent of the UK’s generation disappear by 2015, partly because of EU environmental directives.” 24

“The [REF] report concludes: ‘A near fatal preoccupation with politically attractive but marginal forms of renewables seems to have caused a blindness towards the weakening of the UK’s power stations and a dangerous and helpless vulnerability to natural gas.’” 25

The situation in the United States ominously parallels the United Kingdom. While wind, solar, and hydro are important components of future energy supplies, they do not currently offer the round-the-clock power availability needed by our economy. Until efficient methods of storing massive amounts of energy are developed, renewable resources only contribute to the goals of achieving energy independence and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, but they fail to address the need for round-the-clock availability. 26

The energy-policy debate must include considerations of availability. It’s clear from the New England example ( see Figure 1 ) and the current situation facing the United Kingdom, that base-load power plants are a critical element