Saturday, December 27, 2014

Nuclear:  Carbon Free, but Not Free of Unease

Workers building a nuclear reactor in Waynesboro, Ga., one of just five under construction in the United States, where nuclear energy is waning. (Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press) Click to Enlarge.
To its advocates, nuclear power is a potent force for fighting climate change, combining the near-zero emissions of wind and solar energy with the reliability of coal and gas.  And nuclear power, which provides about 19 percent of all electricity in the United States and 11 percent worldwide, could be a greater source.

But as Vermont Yankee illustrates, the nuclear industry in the United States is having trouble maintaining the status quo, much less expanding.  “It’s going nowhere quickly,” said Sharon Squassoni, who studies energy and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.  Overseas, the outlook is not much better.

In addition to market forces, enormous design and construction costs, questions about new federal emissions rules, uncertainty about the long-term storage of waste fuel, and public perceptions about safety after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan have all had an effect on the American nuclear industry.

Of the roughly 100 reactors in operation in the United States, four others have been permanently shut since 2012 because of market economics or the costs of repairs or safety improvements, and half a dozen or more are in jeopardy, industry analysts say. Safety concerns may eventually scuttle others close to large populations, including Indian Point.

Beyond five reactors under construction, few if any others are likely to be built anytime soon.  And progress on a new generation of smaller, less expensive and potentially safer reactors has been slow.

Given that most of the still-profitable plants will reach the end of their useful lives by midcentury or sooner, it appears likely that nuclear power will play a diminishing role in the United States.  “We’re going to be hard pressed just to replace those,” Ms. Squassoni said.

All of this is encouraging to opponents of nuclear power, who are concerned about the costs, the potential for a major accident — despite the industry’s relatively good safety record — and the hazards of storing spent fuel.

“These things are extremely expensive and prone to cost overruns,” said Grant Smith, the senior energy policy analyst with the Civil Society Institute, a Massachusetts research group that advocates solutions to climate change.  “The high-level nuclear waste issue has never been addressed.  You’re talking about indefinite costs into the future.”  But the outlook for nuclear power dismays the industry and its supporters, including some environmentalists, who point out that replacing the lost electricity from Vermont Yankee and the other recently closed reactors with power from natural gas could result in the release of as much carbon dioxide as is produced yearly by two million cars or more.

“We can’t take a carbon-free source of energy off the table,” said Carol M. Browner, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency who is now with Nuclear Matters, an industry-backed group.

Read more at Nuclear:  Carbon Free, but Not Free of Unease

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