Sometimes the decisions we make are less decisive than they seem. Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its first license for a new plant in forty years. But that decision, significant though it is, doesn’t do anything to settle the major questions we face on energy. Here’s three points to consider when you think about what this means for nuclear power’s future:
Can we really finish nuclear plants on time and on budget?
The Vogtle plants licensed last week are projected to come on line in 2016 or 2017 and cost about $14 billion. That puts them in a race with the Watts Bar 2 plant in Tennessee, which is expected to come on line in 2013 – nearly forty years after it was first approved. Any bold promises of a nuclear renaissance in the United States (or fears, depending on your point of view) have to deal with this reality: community opposition and cost overruns have plagued the U.S. nuclear industry. That’s one reason why most utilities are choosing to go with natural gas for new plants. Yes, natural gas plants produce greenhouse gases, but as a business proposition, they’re cheaper and much less aggravating to build. And unlike wind and solar, they work around the clock.
If the Vogtle plants really do come in on schedule, however, a lot of utility companies may rethink that equation.
We haven’t made any progress on the biggest downside of nuclear power: disposing of the waste.
Amazingly, we still have no real plan for getting rid of the 72,000 tons of spent fuel we’ve already got, much less what we’re going to produce in the future. The proposed Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada has effectively been cancelled. We’ve chosen not to reprocess spent fuel, as they do in France. So we’re storing the spent fuel at the reactor sites themselves – at best a solution that will last decades, when we’re dealing with a problem that will be around for 10,000 years.
A blue-ribbon federal commission on the nuclear waste problem released a report last month concluding that reprocessing isn’t the answer, and we still need an actual waste depository, run by a special agency set up for that purpose. But in that case, the real question is where. All the commission could say is that our previous strategy of having Congress pick a depository site won’t work. The panel argued for “consent-based” process, similar to that used in Finland, France, Spain and Sweden, in which the government offers major incentives and engages communities to get them to accept a facility rather than trying to force it upon them.
Full disclosure: we’re strong believers in public engagement. Communities, and nations, should take full ownership of these fundamental decisions. Having a community accept a nuclear waste facility isn’t impossible – as the commission pointed out, it’s been done elsewhere. But let’s not kid ourselves: it’s a tough sell, and requires real public trust in government, which is in short supply right now.
What’s the real implication if we shift away from nuclear power?
Japan, not surprisingly, said it would stop building new reactors after the Fukushima disaster, and Germany has said it will phase out nuclear power. On the other hand, electricity hungry China and India show no signs of turning away from their huge investments in nuclear construction.
Nuclear energy still remains the source of about 20 percent of all U.S. electricity, and doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. As part of its annual World Energy Outlook report, the International Energy Agency examined the implications of a major reversal on nuclear energy, cutting investment in half. The IEA concluded that pulling back on nuclear would give a boost to renewables – but it would also increase the use of coal worldwide. So dropping nuclear only helps on climate change and energy supply if we’re also shifting that money to new investments in renewable energy. Even then, we’d still need to face the crucial challenge of developing renewables that can run 24/7 and produce “baseload” power, the way nuclear, coal and natural gas plants do.
The real problem on U.S. energy policy is that we can’t seem to make fundamental decisions. There is no perfect energy source. Bureaucrats may issue licenses, but the Congress, the Administration, and the public at large will make the choices. Until they’re all making choices that recognize and accept the real-world consequences, we’ll barely make a dent in the problem.