All it took was one sentence in President Obama’s last week, and an oft-maligned energy source was back on the map.
“To create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives,” the president said. “And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”
A few days later, the White House budget was released and called for an increase in government loan guarantees for nuclear reactors from $18.5 billion to $54.5 billion.
Opponents of nuclear energy say that the power source is far from clean, and that spending the billions of dollars on renewable sources like wind and solar power would make a much bigger dent in carbon emissions without problematic issues of waste disposal and nuclear weapons proliferation.
Nonetheless, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and the president are making it clear that they intend to move forward. Thus, the question arises: After more than a decade without any new nuclear plants coming online in the U.S., what exactly would new nuclear power look like?
Slowed Momentum, Escalating Costs
The existing U.S. nuclear power industry provides about 20 percent of all electricity generated in the country. Nuclear has been largely quiet in recent years, though — the last nuclear reactor to come online was the Watts Bar plant in Tennessee, which began operation in 1996.
More recently, attempts to build new nuclear reactors have been stymied by skyrocketing cost estimates. In the most visible of those disputes, CPS Energy is suing NRG Energy and Toshiba for misleading officials on the cost of a reactor to be built near San Antonio, Texas. The by about $4 billion from an initial estimate of $5.4 billion.
Such issues certainly call into question whether or not the $54.5 billion in loan guarantees that the Obama budget requests could really support the construction of 7 to 10 new reactors, as Chu asserted in budget discussions this week.
“It’s really hard to tease out what these plants will actually cost from current information,” says , a senior scientist in the Global Security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
In order to maintain the current share of electricity generation into the future, many more than just those 7 to 10 reactors would need to be built, he said.
Are New Plants Really That New?
Mixed in with all the recent discussion of “restarting” the U.S. nuclear program is the assumption — as stated directly in Obama’s speech — that all these new reactors will be a next-generation fleet.
According to Lyman, the reactors currently proposed and those with even mild potential to be built within a decade involve only a few designs that are “just evolutionary variants of the current generation.”
All of the reactor designs still involve pressurized water or boiling water cooling mechanisms, and there have been no major breakthroughs in methods to reduce waste or improve energy output, Lyman said. He said the one major difference from currently active plants is that the proposed reactors will likely be bigger, as the costs of reactors do not scale proportionally with the electricity output. The largest currently operating nuclear power plants peak at less than 1200 megawatts electric output, or enough to power about 750,000 households. Newer plants could exceed that significantly; one such example, the French company Areva’s EPR, could scale up to 1650 MWe.
Lyman says that the only major area for improvements in soon-to-be-built reactors is in their degree of safety. Problematically, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a policy that does not require newer designs to be substantially safer than old designs, Lyman says. This can put reactors that incorporate extra safety features at a competitive disadvantage: They just cost more.
New reactor designs have begun utilizing what is known as passive safety. In the past, if the coolant that protects the nuclear fuel was somehow lost or compromised, various electric pumps would have to kick on in order to provide a huge quantity of water that could prevent a meltdown. In other words, an active power supply was needed in order to stop an accident. With passive safety, all that is needed is gravity. With a total power loss, water will simply flow downwards and stave off the meltdown.
There are differing views, though, on whether or not this is a safety improvement. , a nuclear engineer at the University of Wisconsin and the Idaho National Laboratory, says the passive safety does create a safer plant than active safety designs. “If you eliminate valves, you eliminate cables, you eliminate pumps, that is less things that can break.”