We Need Nuclear Energy For Electrical Reliability

By Phil Kent

When walking into a room and flipping the switch to turn on a light, it is taken for granted in this country that there is electrical reliability and that the light will come on. Yet a challenge lies ahead: Forecasters including the Energy Information Agency predict the United States will need 50 percent more electricity by 2025.

How will this challenge be met?

The nuclear power option is again on the table, and for good reason. No new nuclear power plant has been licensed since 1979, the high costs of building such plants having been a top concern. In recent years, however, a more streamlined permitting process for such plants, new, cheaper and more efficient plant designs and the specter of caps on greenhouses gases emitted by the large number of coal-fired electrical generating plants have revived interest in nuclear power.

In fact, one of the nation’s first new nuclear plants will sit on the present Plant Vogtle site near Augusta, Ga., since the Atlanta-based Southern Company is making all the necessary moves to forge ahead and build one.

Three other power companies along with Southern are also expected to split $18.5 billion in federal financing to build the next generation of U.S. nuclear reactors. According to The Wall Street Journal, UniStar Nuclear Energy, NRG Energy, Scana and Southern are expected to share the loan guarantees to be awarded by the Energy Department, thus enabling reactor construction to start as early as 2011. The plants would likely come online by 2015.

Even though funding was recently cut for a federal nuclear waste depository under Nevada’s remote Yucca Mountain, this decision shouldn’t affect the reactor construction plan. The industry’s trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, says waste can stay securely stored at the plants that create it. “We can safely store it for a century plus moré,” NEI spokesman Mitchell Singer says.

With electrical demand growing, utilities and their customers cannot afford to depend just on natural gas as the main fuel source. In Georgia alone, according to Georgia Power Vice President Ron Hinson, customers will require a new large capacity plant in the 2015 time frame— thus the need for two new reactors at Plant Vogtle.

There are 104 U.S. nuclear reactors in operation– most of them brought on-line in the 1970s and ‘80s– and the country has just recently developed an infrastructure and incentives to spur a nuclear rebirth. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 passed by Congress, for example, includes a generous incentives package which reduces the cost to customers and risks to investors for the first new plants of the 21st century.

The Washington-based Heritage Foundation, in a 2008 nuclear power essay by researcher Jack Spencer, concluded:

“It would be extremely bad policy for the administration or Congress to create mandates meant to curb CO2 emissions that do not recognize the contribution of nuclear power. The federal government should not choose nuclear power over other carbon-free energy sources, but it should not discriminate against it either. The purpose of public policy should be to protect Americans’ freedom to choose courses of action that best suit them as individuals; it is not to engineer an America that is consistent with a specific political agenda.”

Indeed, Congress and the Obama administration should allow the market to find the most efficient and cost-effective solution to our growing energy demand. Remember that European and Asian countries dominate the commercial reactor business, and the U.S. has to step up and compete by rebuilding its own nuclear industry. If we don’t rebuild, it will place a further financial burden on American ratepayers who will likely begin paying a CO2 premium, and inaction also cripples attempts to open foreign markets to U.S. companies.

In its goal to foster energy independence and electrical reliability, the Obama administration should look kindly on a nuclear renaissance— especially since the president is committed to placing the nation on a path to CO2 and greenhouse gas reductions. The best chance that the U.S. has to help with such reductions – and in the most economical way— is through nuclear energy.

# # # #