The whispering is becoming a roar. In the six months since the first “For the Rest of Us” column, there have been hundreds of news stories indicating that the “N” (nuclear) word is no longer taboo. Of course, it would be unrealistic to think that there is any cause and effect relationship between my rosy predictions for the future of nuclear energy and the growing political acceptability of frank statements supporting new nuclear plants.
Instead, the lion’s share of the credit has to be given to Vice President Dick Cheney who started a rush of articles and commentary in March when he stated, “If you want to do something about carbon dioxide emissions, then you ought to build nuclear power plants, because they donât emit any carbon dioxide. And they don’t emit greenhouse gases.” It was certainly nice to hear someone in a position of power state that rather obvious fact in a public forum.
In subsequent interviews and public statements, the Vice President has mentioned support for renewing the licenses of existing plants, for extending the Price-Anderson Act that limits liability for nuclear plant owners, for resolving the Yucca Mountain impasse and for investigating the possibility of building new nuclear power stations. He has stated that meeting predicted energy demands over the next decade will require the construction of approximately 1300 new power stations and that some of those should be fueled with uranium.
Objective news stories stimulated by these comments have been balanced, recognizing the economic benefit of uranium fueled machines at a time when natural gas prices are soaring and frankly discussing the environmental benefits of a fuel source that creates heat and controllable power without releasing any greenhouse gases. Of course, there have been plenty of quotes from familiar anti-nuclear spokesmen like Ralph Nader, David Lochbaum, Paul Gunter and Hunter Gunter, who have not changed their tune in almost 30 years.
All this positive news should make a self-described “nuke” overjoyed, but I have a few warnings for nuclear industry people before they get too excited. (There are plenty of readers that are not nuclear industry people, but I these thoughts may be of interest to them as well.) I do not want to be a killjoy, but healthy skepticism is often warranted when politicians get involved in big money issues.
First of all, higher natural gas and gasoline prices have provided a wonderful opportunity for nuclear industry spokesmen to get the attention of people not normally interested in energy issues, but current prices cannot be the main justification for new power stations. The somewhat surprising result of the oil crisis of 1973-74 was that nuclear plant orders came to a screeching halt as electric demand dropped in the subsequent recession. (As an aside, please understand that the nuclear construction business was already nearly moribund by 1979 when the Three Mile Island accident occurred.) One thing that can be predicted about energy prices is that they are rarely stable over the decades that power plants will operate.
Next, a close look at the proposed budget figures for Department of Energy fission research programs like the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative show that the Bush Administration is actually recommending a significant reduction in funding compared to last year’s budget. I freely admit that government funds are often wasted in research efforts, but this decision provides an indication that positive words are not always backed up with positive actions.
Be aware that other energy producers will seek to obtain research funds at the expense of fission; one of the problems with relying on public dollars for such an effort is that political clout can be more important than technical merit when bureaucrats craft a budget. There are a lot of coal, oil, and gas people being assigned key roles in the Bush Administration; as far as I can tell there have not been any strong nuclear supporters invited to the centers of power. It is easy to say nice things about nuclear power and still work to push the technology to the fringes.
Other energy producers have to recognize that any hurdle that slows the deployment of new nuclear power plants or prevents existing plants from producing more power will have a positive impact on their market share. Key decision makers in companies that produce commodities are well versed in the fact that their prosperity increases whenever they sell more of their product, especially if they can sell it at a higher price because they have fewer competitors.
One comment that frequently surfaces in discussions about a resurgent nuclear building program is the assertion that there must be an agreement regarding a final solution to nuclear waste. Every nuke I know recognizes that it will be difficult ö or impossible in some states ö to build a new nuclear plant without addressing the waste storage plan.
Nuclear competitors are fully aware of this fact; I predict that the issue will remain contentious for quite some time. The industry should tell Americans that there is no need to rush into a final solution since there is no foreseeable danger from our current methods of storing spent fuel.
Unfortunately, the nuclear industry seems locked into the idea of making fuel byproduct storage a crisis that must be quickly solved. Even under the current system of paying twice for spent fuel storage – once to the government and once to the manufacturers of dry storage containers – waste storage represents about 10% of the total production cost of the average nuclear plant. It is much less than 5% of the average price of electricity sold in the United States.
In the last couple of decades, political leaders have passed at least three bills that purported to include a reasonable solution to nuclear waste disposal. In each case, a change in the government policy prevented the solution from being implemented. Perhaps it would be best to work to get the government out of the business of providing waste storage services; there are too many powerful competing interests for a lasting political decision to ever be reached.
I am encouraged by the fact that politicians have realized that favoring nuclear power can benefit their career. I am also cheered by the fact that there are now several companies that have decided to focus on uranium fueled power plants. With fewer internal conflicts of interest between supporters of various fuels, perhaps their marketing departments will be able to more aggressively tout the virtues of nuclear power. If they decide to put more effort into informing the American people that uranium is a superior replacement for fossil fuel, I would be ecstatic.