Slow, measured nuclear energy growth is already happening

By Alan Hanson, October 31, 2008

The extent to which Miles Pomper and I agree is greater than he realizes, as my underlying assumption is not that nuclear power is certain to undergo a “rapid” global expansion. While I’m certain that there will be an expansion and that it will be global–because it has already started–I’m equally certain that it won’t be rapid.

Miles has pointed out some of the impediments to nuclear power growth, foremost of which is financing–especially given the ongoing financial crisis. Probably the biggest impediment for developing countries, after financing, is their lack of regulatory infrastructure and an adequate safety and quality culture. These impediments will conspire to slow the growth of nuclear power. This isn’t so bad. While I’m a strong advocate for nuclear energy, there’s obvious merit in having growth occur in a slow, careful, and deliberate fashion.

Where Miles and I do disagree, however, is where the United States stands in the nuclear supply arena. As Stephen Goldberg’s contribution makes clear, the world isn’t waiting for the United States to lead it into a nuclear renaissance. Long ago, leadership was ceded to France, Japan, Russia, and increasingly South Korea. Rather than facilitating a renaissance, it appears that the Bush administration woke up one day to see the nuclear train leaving the station and has been running to jump on ever since. I agree with Stephen that Washington must do what it can to reassert leadership; this will require a new domestic commitment to nuclear energy and concomitant investment in research.

I don’t want to diminish Miles’ and Jill Parillo’s concerns regarding nuclear waste. Obviously, this waste must be stored, protected, and disposed in an environmentally acceptable manner. Miles correctly points out that this has largely been a political problem in the United States. While the nuclear industry has awaited a U.S. geological repository, it’s been safely storing used fuel in dry casks for almost 25 years. Such interim storage can be extended for many more decades.

Often overlooked is good news concerning waste disposal. In New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, an underground repository for the country’s defense-related radioactive waste, has received and disposed low- and intermediate-level material since 1999. A similar facility is in operation in Sweden. Only the disposal of used fuel and vitrified waste from recycling facilities remains to be demonstrated. But that too will come. Once accomplished, the prospects for an international repository and/or a nuclear fuel leasing regime with used fuel take back become more viable. This would be a positive step for countries with small nuclear programs and developing countries.

With regard to research on fast reactors and advanced recycling technologies, Tom Cochran proves to be the eternal pessimist to counter Stephen’s eternal optimism. I share some of Tom’s skepticism about fast reactors. But I also think it’s too early to end such research as long as it requires only modest expenditures. I also part company with Tom on recycling; France has demonstrated that it can be done reliably and economically. (By economical I mean that for a small increase in fuel-cycle cost, gains can be made in reducing the volume of high-level waste and its radiotoxicity while recovering fissile material from the used fuel.) Research in this area could improve efficiency and economics of recycling.

Energy is the biggest challenge of the twenty-first century. We must lift much of the world out of poverty, which will require large increases in energy production while simultaneously curbing greenhouse gas emissions. In order to accomplish this, we must stop pitting one form of energy against another and adopt solutions that are based on “all of the above”–including efficiency, renewables, nuclear energy, and if it can be demonstrated, carbon sequestration. That said, an energy future without a significant contribution from nuclear energy simply isn’t an option.


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