A decade-long U.S. government effort to resuscitate the nation’s moribund nuclear power industry is on the ropes in the wake of the massive earthquake and tsunami that slammed Japan’s northeast coast late last week. The epic disaster has caused major hydrogen gas explosions at two aging nuclear power reactors that spewed radiation and triggered the forced evacuation of thousands of people from the immediate area.
Even as Tokyo Electric Power Company struggled Monday to prevent a third explosion at its Fukushima Daiichi complex, which is about a hundred miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, President Obama and Republicans on Capitol Hill were insisting that nuclear power must continue to play a major role in the nation’s evolving 21st century energy mix.
Nuclear power “remains a part of the president’s overall energy plan,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. House Majority leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told reporters during his weekly briefing that nuclear power is “an essential part of the energy mix of this country.”
Yet leading electric industry officials and nuclear critics said the economic realities have already turned against the construction of new nuclear power plants. And now, with the American public and media fixated on the tragedy unfolding in Japan, the industry may have been dealt a crippling blow.
“Gas is going to be the dominant source of energy for electricity on the margin for at least the next ten and probably 20 years,” Exelon chief executive John Rowe told an American Enterprise Institute forum last week, and that was before the earthquake hit Japan. His utility, which operates in Illinois and Pennsylvania, is the largest operator of nuclear power plants in the nation. “We think natural gas is 50 or 60 percent” of the cost of a new nuclear plant, he said, even with the billions of dollars in new subsidies for nuclear power that were contained in the 2005 energy bill.
that there is no free lunch when it comes to energy.
Those cost differentials are certain to rise as scientists, engineers and regulators struggle to come up with new fail-safe mechanisms that could have prevented the tragic events that are still unfolding in Japan. Nuclear safeguards in earthquake-prone Japan are already the toughest on earth.
The enduring lesson of the Japanese earthquake, said David Lochbaum, director of nuclear safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is that “you can design a plant that is absolutely safe; and you can design a plant that is economical. But you can’t design a plant that can do both.” Lochbaum spent more than two decades working at nuclear plants and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before joining the advocacy group.
The nation will soon have to grapple with the reality that there is no free lunch when it comes to energy and energy policy. Turmoil in the Middle East has left oil prices hovering around $100 a barrel, which is sapping consumer confidence and threatening the economic recovery. The environmental risk of reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil by drilling offshore was brought home in dramatic fashion last year when BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
Coal remains an abundant but carbon-intensive fuel for electricity generation, which, even if climate change weren’t a concern, has significant respiratory health effects on nearby populations and destroys mountains in West Virginia and other coal-mining regions. Natural gas, which is plentiful in the shale that lies beneath much of the surface of the continental U.S., has come under a cloud in recent years because of the hydraulic fracturing technology needed to extract this newly-discovered resource.
“It’s hard to find an ‘everybody loves it’ technology in energy,” said Susan Tierney, a consultant for The Analysis Group after having served in the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration. “There’s the low hanging fruit of energy efficiency, in terms of appliances, light bulbs. But after that . . . there is no silver bullet that doesn’t have real serious challenges associated with it. It’s a tough world out there, as we’re constantly being reminded.”
Rowe of Exelon says that alternative sources like solar and wind power are emerging as increasingly attractive alternatives, even without massive subsidies from the government. “Up until two or three years, I could see no alternative to a major nuclear resurgence,” he said at the AEI forum. “But as we look at a world with relatively slow growth in terms of electricity consumption, you do begin to envision that there may be [alternatives] that may be competitive with nuclear and would be more socially acceptable. . . Wind and solar could become more economic because other things become more expensive.”
The U.S. currently gets about 20 percent of its electricity from 104 nuclear power plants, most of which operate east of the Mississippi River. However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hasn’t issued a new operating permit since 1996, and most of the operating plants are reaching the end of their expected lives.
three helicopters aiding in the Japanese rescue
effort had been exposed to high levels of radiation.
While a dozen new nuclear plants have been put on the drawing boards in recent years as the government poured new subsidies into the sector, only two in South Carolina have reached the stage where the utilities involved have begun contemplating site preparation. ““Just maintaining the 20 percent (of electricity) that nuclear makes will take a significant amount of replacement over the next ten to 15 years,” said William K. Reilly, a former head of the Environmental Protection who now invests in clean water and energy firms.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee will consider some of the roadblocks to expanding nuclear power at hearings later this week where Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a big booster of the technology, and NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko are scheduled to testify. The risks in dealing with out-of-control situations were brought home Monday when the Navy announced that 17 crewmen on three helicopters aiding in the Japanese rescue effort had been exposed to high levels of radiation, which is now estimated to be 10,000 times background levels near the boundaries of the nuclear power plant site. The Navy has moved its ships 100 miles off shore as a safety measure.
There are 23 reactors in the U.S. with boiling water designs similar to the Japanese plants now threatened with core meltdowns. But no plant design could have withstood the triple whammy of losing its primary power from the initial earthquake, its secondary diesel power from the tsunami, and its back-up battery power from the length of the outages. Japan regulators require 8 hours of backup battery power compared to just four hours in the U.S., Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists said.
With major earthquake fault lines on the U.S. west coast and through the Midwest, Americans who think this country is invulnerable to highly improbable events should think twice, he said. “We may not get an earthquake and a tsunami, but how about an earthquake plus a hurricane in the Gulf, or ice storms in the Northeast, or a tree falling in Cleveland that can cause an extensive blackout. So battery capacity is an area where we need to shore up so we’re not as vulnerable as Japan was.”
Nuclear Will Remain Part of US Energy Policy: DOE Official (Platts)
White House Gets an Earful on Power Plant Rules (New York Times)
Japan Nuclear Plant’s Troubles Deepen (Wall Street Journal)