A clear and present need for nuclear energy expansion.
C.E. (Gene) Carpenter Jr. is a staff member with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, leading the aging management issues group within the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research. He is a graduate student at George Washington University. Views expressed in this article are solely the author’s. Email him at Gene.Carpenter@nrc.gov.
The new U.S. presidential administration represents what may prove to be the last, best hope for recapturing and maintaining America’s technological and economic superiority, as well as its moral authority to influence—and lead—the world community, particularly with respect to environmental and energy issues. However, in order to do so, we need to accept hard truths about the current state of affairs in these areas and to acknowledge explicitly that, under a business-as-usual (BAU) model, our national situation will not improve magically, but rather quickly will become markedly worse.
If we are to regain American leadership in energy and environmental issues, we need to institute an “Apollo Project” level of effort to convert the nation, and ultimately all nations, to a carbon-free energy infrastructure. This will require replacing the vast majority of carbon-based fuels with energy generated by nuclear power, which is the single best energy source for the coming decades.
The need to convert our energy infrastructure from carbon-based fossil fuels to clean and renewable nuclear—including rapidly weaning our transportation infrastructure off oil and onto energy from nuclear sources—is evident in the hard truths we need to acknowledge about continuing the present BAU path.
First, the world’s population will grow by some 50 percent over the next 30 years, mostly in the developing nations, and the corresponding energy demand will match and exceed that growth (see Figure 1). As a direct consequence of this population growth, the demand for all resources—including energy, minerals, foodstuffs, and most especially water—will reach unprecedented levels, and access to these resources increasingly will be contested, as China is demonstrating in its rush to secure contractual control of African resources.
Second, our national and economic security is (and under a BAU model will continue to be) placed at risk by our ongoing reliance on non-domestic resources and goods. For example, in the first quarter of 2008, the U.S. imported about two-thirds of its petroleum needs 1—about 13.75 million barrels of oil a day. At $100/barrel, this equates to over $500 billion a year of U.S. economic wealth that goes to enrich those who are not necessarily friends of the United States.2 Further, as the cost of oil continues to increase, all facets of the domestic economy—from the microcosmic examples of almost daily increases in the cost of commuting, to sharp increases in the price of food and everyday products, to the macrocosmic negative impacts on jobs and the devalued dollar—are suffering.
Third, under a BAU model, the continued converting of fossil fuels into greenhouse gases (GHGs) is found to be exacerbating the now obvious global climate changes (GCC).3 Assuming the predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)4 are correct, GCC’s anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) consequences might include: significant extremes in regional weather events, including droughts and flooding; rising sea levels due to polar ice caps and glaciers melting from the ocean warming; and habitat shifts leading to increased introduction and dispersal of serious diseases5 and the damaging of foreign species beyond their present-day ranges. (See Sidebar: “Critical Facts for the President-Elect.”)
This administration will need to assume a significant leadership role in order to manage and mitigate consequences to the nation of the BAU future—one where we very well might see increases in both numbers and severity of epidemics, wars over rapidly diminishing resources, weather disasters of biblical proportions, and our citizens choking in the heat and pollution while struggling to find sufficient food and clean water.6 This is the future of BAU resource depletion from an economy based on irreplaceable fossil fuels, one where we are reacting only to maintain some semblance of the status quo. However, if one agrees that creating a brighter future for America is preferable to the BAU scenario, then the following recommendations offer a roadmap for achieving the first steps.
National Energy Policy
The U.S. needs to develop and implement an integrated National Energy and Environmental Policy (NEEP) to address energy security7 and environmental degradation arising from energy acquisition and consumption.
The NEEP should focus not just narrowly on ensuring domestic energy requirements are securely and economically met, but should appropriately consider the full range of related factors and issues—including national defense, climate change and other environmental concerns, transportation and its infrastructure, health care, housing and urban planning, agriculture, commerce and international trade. It will need to ensure that all available energy sources are used appropriately in the short-term, including improving domestic energy efficiency, even as the nation transitions to zero-emissions energy supplies.
The NEEP actively should support creating a more flexible, diverse, robust, reliable and higher capacity energy infrastructure. Further, this policy should give due consideration to our international allies and competitors, and serve as a blueprint for the world as a whole to emulate.
Finally, this policy needs to combine holistically the disparate, and often competing, domestic and international priorities into a comprehensive approach, and charge a single entity with carrying this out. As was done with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a single organization needs the authority and resources needed to develop and implement the NEEP.
An integral part of the NEEP should be a clear and strong commitment to using nuclear power, similar to the commitments of France and Japan, as the backbone of our power generation grid. Today, 104 commercial nuclear power plants supply about one-fifth of our electricity, while fossil fuels (e.g., coal, natural gas and oil) are burned to produce about 70-percent of supplies (see Figure 2). With some 5-percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes about one-quarter of all global energy resources, and produces about 22 percent of the global GHG total.8 Committing to replacing existing and potential future fossil-fueled power plants with nuclear plants would create well-paying, high technology jobs involved with modernizing and rebuilding the nation’s manufacturing infrastructure. This commitment also would help the United States retain money it now spends on energy imports—i.e., by replacing the transportation fleet with vehicles that don’t need imported oil, and by reducing the need for imported natural gas.
It also would help the United States regain its position as the leading supplier of components for the nuclear plants that are needed worldwide—such as the roughly 300 now planned for construction. The new administration can support all of this explicitly by encouraging greater reliance on nuclear energy across all sectors of the economy, by reiterating that this is an energy security and environmental protection concern—as well as providing an economic benefit to the nation—and by using the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to support nuclear energy.
A Nuclear Future
Nuclear power offers affordable, environmentally benign, secure, and dense energy for the nation. Costs to operate and maintain commercial nuclear power stations have been dropping for almost 20 years as capacity factors have increased and fuel costs have decreased. Emissions from these plants are tightly controlled, and are lower than any other fuel source, with the possible exceptions of solar and hydro. While nuclear power plants are not cheap to build, they are cost-competitive to operate and could become the primary indigenous power source of the 21st century. And the power they generate is available every day, every hour, regardless of whether the sun is shining, the wind is blowing, or the dam has water behind it. In 2007, the 439 nuclear power plants operating worldwide produced 2,658 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, which was about 16 percent of electricity generated globally.9 Domestically, the 104 operating plants supplied about one-fifth of the U.S. electric demand, with a capacity factor exceeding 90 percent.
Nuclear power is not normally included in a listing of renewable energy sources; however, while some studies estimate today’s uranium fuel stocks only will last through the middle of the 21st century for presently operating plants,10 they don’t take into account fuels other than uranium (e.g., plutonium, thorium), innovative programs to reuse existing stocks of used fuel (which still contain some 95-percent of their initial energy), military stockpiles, or breeder reactors (which create more fuel than they use, but were abandoned for political reasons in the 1970s11).
Commercial nuclear power originated with President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1953.12 The U.S. nuclear industry appears to be entering a nuclear renaissance, with a renewed interest in building new nuclear power plants in America. Nuclear utilities have cooperated in improving their capacity factors and safety records, and the industry has gone through a significant period of consolidation, allowing for economies of scope and scale that significantly have lowered operating costs to the point where nuclear is easily competitive with other energy sources. Further, with concerns about climate change and vocal support of such notable environmentalists as James Lovelock (developer of the Gaia theory) and Patrick Moore (co-founder of Greenpeace), who now advocate the expanded use of nuclear energy to address environmental concerns, the general public appears to have become receptive to nuclear energy use. As such, some 30 applications have been, or will be, submitted to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for new plant construction—the first to be considered in this country since the building boom of the 1970s.
The new president can help America take the next steps, and lay the groundwork for an expansion of nuclear energy use in the United States.
Editor’s Note: Continues in Part II, in Public Utilities Fortnightly’s December 2008 issue.
1. U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Energy Information Administration (EIA), 2008; "Weekly Imports and Exports," http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/pet_move_wkly_dc_NUS-Z00_mbblpd_w.htm.
2. Of the world’s 14 top net oil exporters listed on the U.S. Department of Energy website (www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/topworldtables1_2.html), two are listed as state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. Department of State (www.state.gov/s/ct/c14151.htm). The State Department lists Iran, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia as areas of concern for breeding terrorists. Further, Venezuela, which is the third largest supplier of oil to the United States, has a regime that is actively hostile to U.S. interests.
3. Naturally occurring greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (NOX), and ozone, with CO2 being the most important anthropogenic (i.e., man-made) GHG. The global atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased from a value of about 180 to 300 parts per million (ppm) in the pre-industrial era (i.e., the 650,000 years before 1750) to 379 ppm in 2005. The annual CO2 concentration growth rate was larger during the last 10 years (e.g., 1995-2005 average: 1.9 ppm/year), than it has been since the beginning of continuous direct atmospheric measurements (e.g., 1960-2005 average: 1.4 ppm/year) although there is year-to-year variability in growth rates. The global increases in CO2 concentration are due primarily to fossil-fuel use and land-use change, while those of NH4 and NOX are primarily due to agriculture. Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, Vol. 1, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC; http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/assessments-reports.htm.
4. The IPCC (http://www.ipcc.ch/) was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to provide independent scientific advice on the climate-change issue. The IPCC does not carry out research nor does it monitor climate-related data or other relevant parameters. It bases its assessment mainly on peer reviewed and published scientific/technical literature.
5. Patz, J. A. , P. R. Epstein, T. A. Burke and J. M. Balbus; 1996; “Global Climate Change and Emerging Infectious Diseases;” Journal of the American Medical Association; Vol. 275 No. 3, January 17, 1996.
6. Developed nations will not be immune to the impacts of GCC, as demonstrated by the ongoing aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the Gulf coast, weather extremes like the flooding and tornados in the American Midwest and the recent disastrous heat waves throughout Europe, as well as the impact of El Niño and La Niña weather events (http://www.elnino.noaa.gov/).
7. Energy security means both physical protection of the existing and future infrastructure (as discussed in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) Plan), and also ensuring that there is an adequate and diverse supply of necessary fuels to power the American economy over the near- and long-terms.
8. U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Energy Information Administration (EIA), 2008; U.S. Emissions in a Global Perspective; http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggrpt/. In EIA’s 2005 emissions inventory report, total U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2004 (including nonfuel uses of fossil fuels) were estimated at 5,923.2 MMT. With the 2004 world total for energy-related carbon dioxide emissions estimated at 26,922 MMT, U.S. emissions were about 22 percent of the world's total.
9. World Nuclear Association, 2008; World Nuclear Power Reactors 2006-08 and Uranium Requirements, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/reactors.html.
10. World Nuclear Association, 2005; “Supply of Uranium;” http://www.world- nuclear.org/info.
11. Glenn Seaborg, “Nuclear Reaction, Why Do Americans Fear Nuclear Power?” Frontline Show #1511, aired 22 April 1997.
12. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Atoms for Peace” Speech, Dec. 8, 1953.