NS New Report Review: “The Outlook for Nuclear Energy in the United States: Dark Ages, Renaissance or Age of Enlightenment?”

Combining expert judgment with cold hard facts, Brodman succinctly details the difficulties and drivers confronting new reactor builds.  Though silent on the future prospects of the new small modular nuclear reactors, he convincingly argues that new builds of the 1 GWe variety hinge on

 - By Randy Brich -

“The Outlook for Nuclear Energy in the United States: Dark Ages, Renaissance or Age of Enlightenment?” provides a sobering analysis of the history and future of nuclear power in America. Written by John Brodman (former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy) and published by the Institut francais des relations internationals (ifri), an independent French think tank, this 48 page objective assessment of U.S. nuclear power summarizes the reasons why no new nuclear power plants have been built for over 30 years and scrutinizes the challenges facing new builds. 

Combining expert judgment with cold hard facts, Brodman succinctly details the difficulties and drivers confronting new reactor builds.  Though silent on the future prospects of the new small modular nuclear reactors, he convincingly argues that new builds of the 1 GWe variety hinge on:

• Climate change legislation -- either legislated taxes on carbon emissions or a cap and trade policy;
• Energy independence -- energy security initiatives; and
• Loan guarantees -- federally-funded government loan program.

The first and last drivers constitute the salient parts of the report.  In order to be competitive price-wise, new builds require a level playing field and a de facto carbon tax acts as an economical bulldozer, smoothing out the high spots and filling in the low spots so that capital intensive projects like 1 GWe nuclear reactors can compete against less CI projects like windmills. 

After detailing the obvious pitfalls and the regulatory improvements facing new builds, Brodman estimates that of the 28 units currently undergoing NRC license application review only 2-4 new units will likely be built by 2020.  If the drivers outlined above (i.e., aggressive equivalent carbon tax or uncompromising energy security initiative and federal loan guarantee program) continue, the first few units do not experience cost overruns, and there is no significant worldwide nuclear accident, then the U.S. could carry on building new units to provide clean baseload power. 

Escalating (all in) construction costs ($8,000 to $10,000 per kW or higher depending on location, design, etc.), a worldwide recession, falling dollar and reduced energy demand combine with offshore OEM logistical limitations for major reactor components to create a set of daunting challenges.  Can the nuclear power owners overcome these challenges? 

Based on recent history concerning the expansion of government programs and the upcoming 2010 and 2012 elections, Brodman anticipates increased government involvement in energy matters – both assertive climate legislation and a greatly expanded loan guarantee program.  Realization of these two actions would create a viable future for large nuclear units.  Without these two actions Brodman stresses that one should expect the status quo – a few reactor new builds between now and 2020 followed by another period of stagnated growth. 

Brodman completes the report by focusing on other germane topics, including Yucca Mountain, Obama, NRC Chairman Jaczko, DOE Secretary Chu, electrical output and demand as well as uprates, new license applications and front runners in the loan guarantee program.  Summarizing Yucca Mountain, Brodman compares expenditures to remaining funds and describes the nuances of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, explaining why NRC continues to review the license application submitted by DOE.  He goes on to note that recycling of spent fuel remains a viable option to be explored by the Blue Ribbon Panel promised by Obama. 

His optimistic discussion of President Obama provides comfort for those of us who hope for the best but privately fear the worst.  Similarly, he portrays the new NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, as a former insider/science advisor to Harry Reid, who leans heavily toward the inclusion of all public concerns in any NRC licensing action.  Regarding Chairman Jaczko he assumes a “wait and see” approach.

Interestingly, Brodman views the NRC as a dispassionate regulator ensuring the safety of a potentially dangerous activity and quotes a Nuclear Street interview with Dr. James Mahaffey, author of ATOMIC AWAKENING, regarding the potential hazards of nuclear power.  He further describes the personnel recruiting and training effort ongoing at NRC as the agency gears up for the increased licensing review work associated with the current nuclear renaissance. 

Equally, his portrayal of DOE Secretary Chu should comfort nuclear proponents that the industry’s future resides in good hands.  Finally, Brodman concludes that legislative support for a portfolio approach emphasizing all forms of electrical generation (clean coal, renewables, gas and nuclear) will eventually materialize from the bowels of Congress. 

Turning to electrical demand, Brodman cites several sources showing decreasing electrical demand following the economic recession noting an expected demand decrease of 2.9% in 2009 with a projected slow increase in demand as the economy recovers in 2010.  More importantly, Brodman’s sources now predict a modest 0.9% annual growth rate in electrical demand through 2030. 

Regarding electrical output, Brodman quotes the Energy Information Agency stating that coal has taken the biggest hit from the reduced electricity demand dropping to 46% for the 12 month period ending May 2009.  During that same period modest increases in output occurred across the board with the remaining technologies: nuclear (21%) natural gas (21%), conventional hydro (7.5%) and renewables (4.1%).  Interestingly, Brodman highlights nuclear’s 21% contribution while emphasizing that it only accounts for 10% of the total electrical generating capacity.  No other technology comes close to matching that feat.

Brodman briefly touches on some of the environmental difficulties facing all large energy generation projects – solar, wind, coal and nuclear -- in the U.S.  Acronyms capture the essence of the green challenges these undertakings routinely face, including NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody) and NOPE (Not On Planet Earth). 

Similarly, a former colleague of mine suggested, “Wouldn’t it be cool if nuclear advocates concocted sound bites heralding the underlying reasons supporting nuclear power?”  For example, he suggested the following:

• NOW (Nuclear Or War)
• Energy Security. Economic Stimulus. Clean Air:  Know Nukes”

Meanwhile I prefer a simple declarative sentence like, ‘It’s the atom, stupid!’

The list could go on and on.  I invite you to suggest your own slogans via the comment option below.  Who knows where this might lead.  But in this country, where soundbites like ‘too big to fail’ take precedence over rational discourse of pros and cons on things like banks and automobile factories, maybe it’s time for discussions that involve essential infrastructure like nuclear to embrace simplicity and give America what it wants and needs – a catchy slogan that captures the real need for nuclear power.

In closing Brodman balances out the nuclear outlook discussion addressing new NRC license applications, uprates, license extensions and the front runners for the DOE loan guarantees.  This report contains the information essential to understanding the current status of large nuclear power generating units, their future as well as their past, and should be a valuable resource for anyone following the new nuclear renaissance.

LAST BOOK REVIEW: 

 NS Book Review: NUCLEAR POWER: VILLAIN OR VICTIM? OUR MOST MISUNDERSTOOD SOURCE OF ELECTRICITY

 - A Nuclear Street Book Review by Randy Brich – This review is of a free book. It was written by a retired nuclear engineer who happened to be the graduate school advisor of a friend of mine - who is also a retired nuclear engineer.  Since the book is free there is no good reason for anyone interested in the subject of nuclear ...

 About Randy Brich
Randy graduated from South Dakota State University in 1978 with a M.S. in Biology.  Following graduation he switched gears and began a lifelong study of ionizing radiation and its beneficial applications to humanity.  During the course of his study he worked as a staff Health Physicist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission specializing in the licensing and inspection of uranium recovery facilities.  He transferred to the Department of Energy where he worked as a Health Physicist at the Randy BrichNevada Operations Office and later to the Richland Operations Office specializing in environmental monitoring, dose reconstruction, worker protection, waste cleanup and systems biology.

Since then he has retired from the federal government and, after taking time out to build an energy efficient house near the Missouri River, has formed Diamond B Communications LLC.  Diamond B Communications LLC uses a multimedia approach to explain complex energy resource issues to technical and non-technical audiences.  He also guides for Dakota Bike Tours, the Relaxed Adventure Company, offering tours of the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Devils Tower National Monument.

If you have questions, comments, or know of a book that you think Randy should review E-mail Randy Brich>> randy@nuclearstreet.com

frenchonusnuclear.pdf

Anonymous comments will be moderated. Join for free and post now! 

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    It is apalling that the U.S. Congress has shied away from the used nuclear fuel management issue for more than 11 years.  It won't go away and it is only going to get worse.  If we want the Nuclear Renaissance to happen and the NRC's nuclear wste confidence rule to survive, we need to have a reasonably plausible solution for the safe management of the nation's used nuclear fuel for at least another 50 years.  If the Obama Administration doesn't think that the Yucca Mountain is a safe solution and takes political action to that effect, we need to promptly look at other national repository programs, rather than going back to the sites, areas, and regions that were abandoned in or before 1987.  It may be a hard pill to swallow for a nation that prides itself of being the world leader in nuclear applications but the world has not stood still during the past 22 years awaitng US solutions.  On the contrary, it has been confounded by the single track strategy pursued in the USA since 1987 and pursued other strategies and solutions, several of the solutions already being safely operated for more than two decades.   The immediate band aid to support the survival of the nuclear waste confidence rule and, in turn, the Nuclear Renaissance, and to reduce the breach-of-contract reimbursements due to the nuclear utilities is to follow the Finnish, French, Netherland, Spanish, and Swedish examples and build a long term storage facility for the utilities used nuclear fuel.  Furthermore, if we want a repository to open in less time than perpetuity, we need to transfer the responsibility for finding, developing, and safely operaying a long-lived radioactive waste repository site to the utilities because they have already been holding the bag for the used nuclear fuel on behalf of the government for more than 11 years and know how to site and safely operate nuclear facilities.  It woud also make the program less susceptible to short-lived political and pertinacious/ingrown ideological agendasand  the related financially-driven weather vanes currently feeding off the OCRWM program.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    We need to have a solution for the nuclear waste management problem for a longer  period than 50 years. If not, we will be enjoying the use of electricity produced by nuclear reactors while passing on the problem and expense of managing nuclear waste to future generations. This is not fair. We need to give much higher priority to spent fuel management problems. Susanne E. Vandenbosch

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    I'm not sure why nobody mentions Gen IV reactors, which essentially eliminate the spent fuel problem, and by many accounts, since they are fast breeders, can actually reap the remaining energy out of the  existing "spent" fuel.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Clearly, long-term storage is a band-aid to buy more time for the development of a final solution; disposal.   It would also allow for other technologies to be developed that would better utilize a limited natural resource and result in less HLW requiring deep geological disposal because "essentially" is not totally.  Furthermore, we already have more than 13,000 metric tons of government-generated spent nuclear fuel and other HLW that cannot be treated and reduced in volume that we need to dispose of.  Furthermore, the Gen IV reactor concept remains to be licensed and put into operation and it will probably not see operational daylight in the next two decades so the bottom line is technically very simple, both the Gen IV and reprocessing will reduce the amount requiring deep geological disposal but we would still need a safe disposal system for the nation's long-lived highly radioactive waste.  To find a final resting place for the nation's HLW  has been and will continue to be huge socio-economic and political issues.  The science and technology issues ar far less challenging  but we need to improve our ability to convey very complex information in simple terms if we want the general public to better understand what it is all about.  Scientific jargon, intellectual snobbery, and political steam rolling will only cause and sustain fears and opposition.  In contrast, transparency and credibility feed trust.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    i think that nuclear energy is bad

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    Utilities have been "holding the bag for the used nuclear fuel on behalf of the government" - ??  What kind of convoluted thinking is this?  The UTILITIES made that waste and need to be held accountable for it and made to pay for keeping it safe - oh, but wait, they will just pass the cost on to consumers as many do already, making nuclear even more expensive than ever.

    Nuclear is a bad deal all around.

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous

    The assumption that a former DOE secretary posses an "expert opinion" is a classic example of the familiar saying "you make an a__ of you and me". The DOE is a legacy bureacracy from the Cold War that has long outlived its usefullness. Myself and others have long written that DOE's sole mission in life is to justify its continued existence. They do have a proven track record in one regard - massive expenditures with no deliverables. They have been and continue to be sued by the nuclear utilities for failing in their obligations to receive spent nuclear fuel in the 90s while taxing nuclear generated electricty for foutry years to fund this acquisition. They are currently blackmailing these same utilities viaing for new build loan guarantees by requiring the applicants to sign a letter releasing DOE from future spent fuel obligations. If maintaining the status qou becomes a mission, then blocking progress becomes a bureacratic necessity. So going to a former DOE Secretary for advice is an obvious fool's errand. The DOE should be replaced with an organization similar to its predecessor the Automic Energy Commission that WAS actually effective in starting a commercial nuclear industry. The DOE, and former Secretary Bodeman's opinion, should then fade into just an embarassing memory.