The nuclear power industry, only recently embraced by some environmentalists as a potential replacement for carbon-belching coal-fired plants, is once again on the ropes, and not just due to heightened safety concerns in the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster.
Experts say the heavy subsidies needed to build new nuclear plants and the increased costs from tougher safety standards are a nonstarter given the nation’s fiscal crisis. As a result, nuclear is a less competitive option for producing electricity than a mix of cheap natural gas, wind and even solar power, which is rapidly declining in cost. Although prospects for a revival seemed bright only a few years ago, the steep price tag, coupled with the festering problem of disposing of spent nuclear fuel, creates a hostile environment for investing in nuclear power.
All of these forces came into play last week at the first congressional oversight hearing for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in more than a decade. In an unusual display of bipartisan rancor, House members from both political parties berated NRC chair Gregory Jaczko for two-and-a-half hours, accusing him of a multiplicity of sins that cut across political, ideological and geographical lines.
Representatives from states with operating plants near major cities and seismic faults wanted them shut down. Representatives from states with new plants on the drawing boards wanted faster reviews. Democrats and Republicans from states with large quantities of nuclear wastes wanted a long-term storage facility. In addition, some legislators even demanded the agency reconsider the shutdown of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada, which was cancelled by the Obama administration last year. On top of it all, Republicans vowed to pursue an investigation into the agency decision-making process, with one lawmaker calling the five-member commission “the most secretive agency in Washington.”
The unflappable Jaczko, a skilled bureaucratic infighter, took the grilling in stride. He previously served on the staff of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who led the bipartisan charge by Nevada politicians to cancel plans for nuclear waste storage beneath Yucca Mountain.
Instead of focusing on that controversial issue, he stressed that the NRC currently has 12 licence applications under review, and this summer will hold its first hearing on a new reactor application since the mid-1970s. The Southern Company has applied for $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees for a $14 billion expansion of its Vogtle nuclear power station in eastern Georgia.
The crosscutting demands on the NRC reflect the escalating troubles facing the U.S. nuclear power industry, whose long-term prospects suffered a severe blow from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors on Japan’s northeast coast.
But its problems preceded that disaster. Among conventional technologies for generating electricity, nuclear power has become just about the most expensive to build and run. A recent Energy Information Agency survey showed the combined capital and fuel costs of nuclear power exceeded every available technology except advanced coal-burning facilities that use carbon sequestration , an unproven technology, and solar, whose price is falling rapidly. Land-based wind, geothermal and biomass facilities are already cheaper than nuclear, and natural gas-driven turbines can produce power at a little over half of nuclear power’s cost.
Even the $54.5 billion in government loan guarantees that have been allocated or requested since 2005 have not turned the tide. Some top-ranking utility executives – like Jonathan Rowe, the chief executive officer of Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear operator – are now calling into question the financial viability of new nuclear power plants, which only a few years ago were seen as crucial to any long-term plan for curbing carbon emissions and global warming.
Power complexes that combine increasingly plentiful and cheap natural gas with renewable sources like wind and solar power are now seen as a financially viable, safer and cleaner alternative. In late March, NRG Energy Inc. delayed plans for building two new reactors in South Texas after CPS Energy cancelled its pledge to buy power from the facility. The San Antonio utility recently became the nation’s largest purchaser of wind power.
The Pacific Gas & Electric Co. nuclear plant at Diablo Canyon, which applied for a licence extension in late 2009, has become the flashpoint. The latest seismic testing near the site discovered new fault lines that if taken into account would make its existing earthquake protections obsolete, according to Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., whose Santa Barbara district contains the plant. “This information must be considered in the relicensing process,” she told Jaczko. “We do want clean energy that nuclear can give us, but we’re asking for answers to these questions before this relicensing goes forward.”
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who represents a district north of New York City that includes Indian Point nuclear power station, noted that facility also lies on a fault and the entire city was within a 50-mile radius, which is the distance the U.S. recommended for evacuation in Japan. He complained to Jaczko that “none of these factors can be considered in a relicensing application.” Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also come out against the relicensing of Indian Point.
“Our relicensing focuses on the ageing of the components,” Jaczko told Engel. “It’s unlikely we’ll be changing those rules in the near future.” NRC officials have repeatedly said that Indian Point earthquake safeguards, like all nuclear plants in the U.S., “are capable of withstanding the strongest earthquakes that can be expected at any given site.”
The spent fuel rods and nuclear waste materials stored at nuclear power plants and the federal government’s nuclear complex, which produces fissile material for bombs and the nation’s nuclear submarine fleet, remains a sore point for local officials around the country. There’s already an estimated 62,000 metric tons stored at various civilian facilities, and another 13,000 metric tons stored at five federal sites. The Yucca Mountain project, had it been allowed to go forward, could have stored about 70,000 metric tons.
“If nuclear is going to be part of our long-term energy future, we are really going to have some clear idea what we’re going to do with the waste,” said Rep. Diane DeGette, D-Colo. Responded Jaczko, “There would certainly be a shortage of storage, even with” Yucca Mountain.
That drew an angry retort from Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat from Washington State, where the Hanford nuclear complex houses a significant portion of the government’s nuclear waste, much of which has already been put into dry storage and readied for shipment to a long-term facility. “We have over 100 temporary sites,” he said. “The only conclusion I can draw is that there was a decision made politically [by the Department of Energy] without statutory authority.”
The administration has appointed a blue ribbon commission headed by Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic House member from Indiana, and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to come up with a long-term solution to the nuclear waste issue. It will hold its first public meeting May 13th in Washington.