Nuclear power is like the black sheep of the clean energy family. It gets some acknowledgement but not a warm embrace in public discussions about building fewer coal-fired power plants and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
But supporters are making a big push to get nuclear power into center of the family portrait. Just yesterday, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander renewed his call for doubling the number of nuclear reactors – or building about 100 of them – over the next 20 years.
Does that sound like a realistic goal? Former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman thinks so.
"The industry has done that. It built four to five reactors a year in the '60s and '70s," said Whitman during an interview with Greentech Media this morning. Whitman now co-chairs of a nuclear power advocacy group CASEnergy Coalition in Washington, D.C.
"People shouldn't base their information on nuclear on Bart Simpson. That's just not reality," said Whitman, referring to the popular cartoon character, whose father works as a safety inspector at a nuclear power plant.
Whitman said nuclear power could replace coal as the main source of electricity. It already produces about 20 percent of the electricity in the country. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that the nation's electricity demand would grow 26 percent between 2007 and 2030, and that means 259 gigawatts of new generation capacities need to come online during that time.
"Solar and wind aren't going to solve all the problems," she said. "We haven't cracked the problem about storage and how to make [solar and wind] our base power."
There are, of course, well-known hurdles for why nuclear power gets no respect. It's expensive, takes a long time to build and there is that sticky issue about where to store the wastes. Well publicized nuclear plant disasters haven't helped either.
President Obama has said he is fine with nuclear power, but have you seen him holding a press event at a nuclear power plant to discuss clean energy and green jobs? Many democratic lawmakers in Congress also have blocked Republican efforts to put nuclear power in the "low emission" category and provide more incentives to nuclear power projects in pending energy bills in the House and Senate (see WSJ's Environmental Capital blog).
"The challenge here has been the costs in that it's hard for utilities to get financial backers if they think the government might pull the rug from under them any minute. Getting people comfortable with the idea is a push as well," Whitman said.
A nuclear reactor would cost about $6 billion to $8 billion to build, and nuclear power pricing is "competitive with wind," she said. It could take 10 years from the time a permit application is filed to when the power plant is turned on. The industry would like to see that process cut down to around seven to eight years, she added.
Providing more federal loan guarantees to nuclear power developers would help in a big way, Whitman said. So will finding an underground repository for the spent nuclear fuel. The federal government had settled on Yucca Mountain at on point, but that site is out of favor now because of objections raised by Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who also happens to be the Senate majority leader.
"Yucca is history," Reid said earlier this month when he announced that Obama has severely cut the 2010 funding to prepare the site for storing nuclear wastes.
Whitman said the idea isn't as dead as Reid would like to believe.
"I bet it'll come back. The government has spent too much money on it, and Harry Reid won't last forever," Whitman said.
Currently the wastes are being stored in holding ponds and above-ground facilities. So far, no other alternative sites have emerged to replace Yucca as strong candidates for underground storage.
Like Alexander, Whitman is advocating for re-processing spent nuclear fuel, which still contains uranium that can be used again. France and Japan are among the countries doing that. The approach could cut down on the amount of wastes that need to go underground.
A recent MIT report, however, said the benefits of reprocessing the wastes aren't likely to outweigh the safety and other concerns.