Jack Spencer at the Heritage Foundation is one of the more thoughtful analysts that I know when it comes to nuclear power’s place in the world’s energy mix. He recently wrote a must read piece titled Nuclear Power Needed to Minimize Lieberman-Warner’s Economic Impact that dug deep into the numbers and assumptions used in recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Energy Information Agency (EIA) reports about the projected costs of the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill to the American economy.
Both of the reports use scenario based projections to arrive at a range of values for the cost of implementing the bill. Each agency produced a “core scenario” that resulted in a relatively low overall cost to the economy of implementing the bill. Those results got noticed; several groups campaigning for implementation of Lieberman-Warner produced press releases drawing attention to the notion that the bill would not be the money pit that some fossil fuel supporters predict. Here is a quote from the Environmental Defense Fund press release:
A new Environmental Protection Agency analysis of leading climate change legislation shows that the U.S. economy can grow substantially with an ambitious cap on global warming pollution, given that the bill will continue to speed the development of advanced energy technologies.
“EPA’s results for the scenario that most resembles the bill confirm what we have seen in every reputable analysis. We can grow our economy and tackle global warming at the same time,” said Nathaniel Keohane, PhD, director of economic policy and analysis at Environmental Defense Fund. “The up-front costs EPA identifies are a sound investment for a strong economy down the road. For clean air, less imported oil, and avoiding the damage of climate change, they are a bargain.”
The low cost, high return scenario that the EDF is promoting depends on significant reductions in emissions by the electrical power sector of the economy. The two largest contributors to that reduction are carbon capture and storage and nuclear power. Based on the numbers provided in the study, and a reasonable assumption about the size of new nuclear plants, Spencer computed that the EPA scenario assumed that the US would complete about 50 new nuclear power plants between now and 2050.
When he turned to a separate analysis conducted by the Energy Information Agency, he realized that its core scenario put an even higher reliance on new nuclear power plants. In the EIA’s core scenario, nuclear generated electricity increases from 787 billion kilowatt-hours each year in 2006 to 2877 billion kilowatt-hours in 2050. The nuclear power industry would have to complete about 200 new nuclear plants with average capacity of 1300 MWe in order to achieve that production level.
History shows that it is certainly possible to build 200 nuclear power plants in 40 years – during the first Atomic Age we completed well over 100 new plants in about 30 years even though we started with little industry, little knowledge and ran into a lot of resistance. During the final ten years of that first Age, there were many abandoned projects and a declining industry; if the Second Atomic Age is better implemented the industry should be growing and increasing its production capacity as it learns, refines its designs and gains experience.
Spencer concludes his post with a list of ten items that he believes will help achieve the growth in nuclear power needed at the lowest possible cost to the nation. One thing I like about the list is that it does not include any new subsidies – which is not surprising since Spencer writes for the Heritage Foundation. Most of the items on the list make a good deal of sense; I particularly like the following quote:
Supporting nuclear power does not mean simply acknowledging that it has a role to play or that it could be part of the mix, as many CO2 cap supporters sometimes halfheartedly admit when faced with the facts. It means supporting the policies that are required to allow a massive expansion of nuclear power in this country.
On the other hand, I disagree with one major tenet of his final step, which includes an expansion of plans for Yucca Mountain into an industry operated repository and potential location for additional fuel cycle facilities. Here is what he wrote:
Reengage Nevada on Yucca Mountain. Yucca Mountain should not be viewed as America’s nuclear waste dump. It should be viewed as a spent fuel repository that could coexist with other nuclear fuel management services. An expansion of nuclear power will require more than just a place to store waste. It will require interim storage facilities, recycling facilities, research and development complexes, and other capabilities. There is no reason that these facilities could not be located with Yucca in Nevada. Indeed, spent fuel should be viewed as an asset rather than as a liability.
Though I agree that used fuel should be viewed as an asset, not a liability, but Spencer has apparently never seen Yucca photos. It is a dry, barren and ugly place. It is also about as far from currently operating nuclear power plants as possible while still being inside the US borders. It made sense only when the plan was to find the most remote place possible so that used fuel materials could be buried and forgotten with as little impact on humans as possible. It does not make sense as a location for a new industry.
It would be outrageously expensive to build and support the required infrastructure and perhaps nearly impossible to attract the kind of people needed to achieve the fuel cycle management system that Spencer advocates. Speaking as a nuke, I can tell you that we are somewhat spoiled people who like to live in pleasant surroundings and who know that our skills are in demand.
We do not have to go just anywhere to find a job. I can think of dozens of more appropriate locations to build or expand facilities associated with the nuclear fuel cycle. It is time for the US to admit that the money spent on characterizing Yucca Mountain has been sunk. It is now time to come up with a better plan for the future that does not include shipping valuable raw material as far as possible to a place where no one wants to live.