Nuclear is not without its detractors, who have a laundry list of concerns, ranging from the potential for terrorist attacks to safe waste disposal. And recent media commentary has been rife with stories about the end of U.S. nuclear being nigh, often citing the the difficulty of competing with cheap natural gas in electricity generation.
But some would argue that nuclear power will be critical to meeting growing U.S. electricity demand. And “with costs for natural-gas-fired generation rising in the Reference case and uncertainty about future regulation of GHG emissions, the economics of keeping existing nuclear power plants in operation are favorable,” according to the EIA’s 2013 Annual Energy Outlook.
The Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (also known as CASEnergy Coalition) is an advocacy group that aims to disseminate information about nuclear in hopes that an educated public will embrace it as a necessary component of the U.S. energy mix. This includes efforts to address common concerns and critiques that nuclear is costly, dangerous, and lacks a long-term solution for waste disposal.
“We try to answer those questions and let people make a determination on their own as to whether this is good, bad or indifferent,” Christine Todd Whitman, CASEnergy Coalition Co-Chair and former New Jersey Governor, said.
From an environmental standpoint, Whitman pointed out nuclear’s advantage as a zero-emissions source of baseload electricity. “Nuclear is the only form of base power that releases no greenhouse gases while it’s producing power,” she said.
"It’s 19 percent of our overall energy mix, but almost 70 percent of our clean energy. We’re not going to replace that overnight. Renewables are great, but they’re not base power."
And newly built nuclear plants are comparable on a cost basis with new coal plants, she said. "They’re expensive, but no more expensive than bringing a new coal-fired plant on-line. Once they’re running, on a kilowatt-hour basis, they’re the least expensive form of generation we have.” That effect could be amplified if and when the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon pollution standards kick in.
On the question of safety, Whitman indicated that fears of nuclear elicited by disasters such as those at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi are either not applicable in the U.S. context, or are being proactively addressed by the nuclear industry (though it is worth noting that reports suggest operators of California's San Onofre facility ignored warnings about a safety threat that ultimately led to the plant’s closure).
“Chernobyl would never have been allowed in this country,” Whitman said, referring to stark differences between Soviet and U.S. safety requirements. “Even at Three Mile Island, when there was a partial meltdown, even workers in the reactor were not exposed to high levels of radiation,” she said. “Everything in place at the time to protect the public worked.”
“This is the most highly regulated industry we have in this country,” Whitman said.
On the issue of waste disposal, CASEnergy Coalition has not taken a position on the proposed Yucca Mountain storage facility. But Whitman stressed that nuclear has generated a limited amount of waste this far, noting, “All the spent nuclear rods in the U.S. would fill up one football field to the height of a goal post.” She added that a serious commitment to reprocessing could allow for the reuse of 95 percent to 97 percent of the material left in those rods. “It’s a political problem, not a scientific one,” she said.
Advancing a National Energy Policy
Another of CASEnergy’s goals is advocating for a coherent national energy policy that can spur more productive investment in energy. The large capital needs and long lead-times required to build new, large-scale power generation -- nuclear and otherwise -- make transparency in energy policy critical to investment. Developers and their financiers must have reasonable assurance that regulatory changes will not dramatically alter costs.
“What it does is send signals to the industry as to where they need to start planning,” Whitman said. “Even if it’s just ten to twelve years to bring a new nuclear plant on-line, it takes time, and developers have to plan.”
“Without an energy policy that spells out what this country wants to see -- and I believe it should be 'clean, green, safe, affordable and reliable' -- you don’t have a clear sense of where to make the investment.”