Nuclear Energy at a Crossroads

 

November 2013

NSPE TODAY: POLICY PERSPECTIVES
Nuclear Energy at a Crossroads

BY ARIELLE EISER

Nuclear Power PlantNSPE strongly believes that the United States must have a flexible and comprehensive energy policy that provides long-term, reliable, secure, and environmentally responsible energy supplies at predictable and affordable costs. NSPE also strongly believes that professional engineers have a pivotal role to play in determining the most appropriate energy source for a community. Engineering analysis is used in site-specific applications to weigh the trade-offs of performance, cost, and environmental considerations of an energy source.

The U.S. must leverage a mix of traditional and new energy sources in order to reduce its reliance on foreign oil. While most of the recent media attention in the energy sector has focused on coal, oil, and natural gas, all of which NSPE supports, nuclear energy is perhaps in the most difficult position as it charts its path forward.

Nuclear energy's future is complicated by two concerns: the potential for catastrophic disaster and the lack of a permanent repository for nuclear waste. The U.S., in which 100 commercial nuclear reactors provide 20% of the nation's electrical power, is the world's largest producer of nuclear electric power. The Department of Energy estimates that by 2040, the national demand for electricity will increase by 28%. This means that for nuclear power to continue to provide one-fifth of the nation's electricity, at least dozens of new nuclear power plants will need to be built. Yet the number of operational nuclear plants in recent years has actually declined. Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, set to shut down at the end of 2014, is one of the latest.

As stated in NSPE Position Statement No. 1757 on nuclear electric power, NSPE believes that the U.S. should lead the world in the advancement and use of nuclear power. Unlike other sources of electricity, such as coal and natural gas, which can release environmental pollutants, nuclear power is a clean, renewable energy. Other clean, renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, while valuable, account for only a fraction of the total electricity generation market and are unlikely to be able to replace shortfalls in nuclear power production.

However, NSPE also recognizes that nuclear power presents an inherent risk to public health and safety. Though the nuclear energy industry has an excellent safety record—thanks in part to strict regulation, comprehensive safety planning, and rigorous training and qualifications standards for employees—the fact remains that an accident at a nuclear facility could cause serious harm to people, their livelihoods, and the environment. The March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, reminded the American nuclear power industry as well as the American public of the grave consequences of a nuclear malfunction. The tremendous risks associated with nuclear power make it very difficult for nuclear electric power to ever reach its full production potential.

Yet this is not the only challenge that the nuclear energy industry must grapple with. Even if the public and market forces encourage increased nuclear electric power output, the issue of permanent storage of nuclear waste remains unresolved. In 1987, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was selected as the nation's sole permanent nuclear waste repository. For more than 25 years, intense political opposition has kept the project at a standstill. In 2010, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suspended work on the safety review of the site after the Obama administration took formal steps to abandon the project.

This year, the U.S. Court of Appeals issued a ruling directing the NRC to resume its safety review. However, in testimony to a House subcommittee, NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane indicated that the regulatory agency is still trying to determine if it even has sufficient funding to recommence the safety review. In brief, even in a best-case scenario, we are still many years away from a permanent solution to nuclear waste disposal.

In the meantime, spent nuclear fuel is stored at 75 sites in 33 states and consists of approximately 70,000 metric tons from commercial nuclear power generation. This inventory increases by about 2,000 metric tons per year. Increased demand for nuclear electric power would only compound the difficult and dangerous temporary storage capacity for nuclear waste.

NSPE recognizes the importance of nuclear power as a source of energy as we seek to implement a flexible and comprehensive energy policy that provides long-term, reliable, secure, environmentally responsible, and cost-effective supplies. However, NSPE also recognizes the risks and challenges associated with nuclear power. The Energy Task Force of NSPE's Legislative and Government Affairs Committee is currently updating its position statement on nuclear electric power to address changes in the nuclear industry. NSPE's foremost priority is to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. Therefore, NSPE believes that requiring licensed PEs to have direct supervision over all engineering design, operation, and maintenance decisions at nuclear power plants will help the nuclear energy industry preserve its strong safety record while minimizing the potential for disaster.

Arielle Eiser is NSPE's government relations manager.