Hold the obits on nu­clear power

The Washington Times Daily - - Politics -

This week marks the first an­niver­sary of the dis­as­ter at Ja­pan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nu­clear plants. Pre­dictably, some pun­dits have used the oc­ca­sion to write nu­clear en­ergy’s obit­u­ary. But we’ve seen this movie be­fore.

In the 1970s, nu­clear power was just be­gin­ning to es­tab­lish it­self as a ma­jor en­ergy source in Amer­ica. Then came an en­ergy cri­sis, cost in­creases, an eco­nomic down­turn and an ac­ci­dent at Three Mile Is­land (TMI) in Penn­syl­va­nia. Amer­ica’s nu­clear en­ergy in­dus­try was de­clared all but dead.

Yet, three decades later, it lives. Some might say it thrives.

True, no new nu­clear plants were per­mit­ted af­ter the 1979 ac­ci­dent — un­til this year. But nu­clear en­ergy never went away. At the time of the TMI in­ci­dent, the U.S. had 72 nu­clear power plants up and run­ning. To­day we have 104.

And nu­clear power isn’t just about num­bers. It’s about ef­fi­ciency, too. In 1979, Amer­ica’s re­ac­tors op­er­ated at an av­er­age ca­pac­ity fac­tor of less than 60 per­cent. That means the av­er­age nu­clear plant spent 40 per­cent of that year not pro­duc­ing electricity.

Since then, the nu­clear in­dus­try has fig­ured out how to make its tech­nol­ogy much more ef­fi­cient. To­day, nu­clear plants rou­tinely ex­ceed ca­pac­ity fac­tors of more than 90 per­cent, mak­ing them among the most ef­fi­cient en­ergy sources avail­able.

In the wake of TMI, en­ergy pro­duc­tion be­gan shift­ing to­ward nat­u­ral gas. Nat­u­ral gas plants were less ex­pen­sive, didn’t carry the po­lit­i­cal risk of nu­clear power and were fu­eled by low-cost nat­u­ral gas.

But as de­mand grew for nat­u­ral gas, so did its price. By the early 2000s, en­ergy pro­duc­ers be­gan seek­ing cheaper al­ter­na­tives. And a nu­clear power in­dus­try that had spent the past 30 years re­fin­ing its prod­uct was ready to be that al­ter­na­tive.

This re­newed in­ter­est sparked ma­jor in­vest­ment in nu­clear power. Since 2007, the in­dus­try has filed 18 ap­pli­ca­tions to build al­most 30 new re­ac­tors. One of those per­mits has been is­sued al­ready, and the Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion (NRC) is re­view­ing 11 more. (Oth­ers were with­drawn.) In ad­di­tion to plant per­mits, the NRC also is re­view­ing cer­ti­fi­ca­tion ap­pli­ca­tions for new re­ac­tor designs, and a mul­ti­tude of com­pa­nies are work­ing on new small mod­u­lar re­ac­tor designs.

Now, once again, with cost es­ti­mates ris­ing, nat­u­ral gas prices drop­ping and public anx­i­ety fu­eled by a ma­jor ac­ci­dent, some ques­tion whether nu­clear power has a fu­ture.

The an­swer is a re­sound­ing “Yes,” if we learn the right lessons from Fukushima and im­ple­ment the right pol­icy re­forms.

For starters, we should not as­sume that the mis­takes made in Ja­pan ap­ply di­rectly to the U.S. nu­clear in­dus­try. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that the United States has had no nu­clear en­ergy in­ci­dent in more than 30 years and has never had one that re­sulted in deaths or other dis­as­ters.

Af­ter TMI, the U.S. nu­clear com­mu­nity em­barked upon a ma­jor re­form ef­fort. Gov­ern­ment pro­duced far-reach­ing new rules. Within the plants them­selves emerged what has be­come known as a safety cul­ture.

The Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks also sparked sig­nif­i­cant reg­u­la­tory re­forms. Now, the ac­ci­dent at Fukushima has pro­duced new lessons that will lead to ad­di­tional changes in U.S. safety reg­u­la­tions. For ex­am­ple, the NRC is call­ing for new reg­u­la­tions to en­sure the in­tegrity of spent-fuel pools and the avail­abil­ity of ad­e­quate backup power.

We also will need re­forms that al­low for greater com­pe­ti­tion in en­ergy mar­kets. Though safety is crit­i­cal, a ma­jor prob­lem for nu­clear power is cost. Costs have been driven ar­ti­fi­cially high by the gov­ern­ment’s at­tempts to mi­cro­man­age the nu­clear en­ergy in­dus­try. So long as politi­cians and bu­reau­crats trump mar­ket forces, nu­clear power will never fully re­al­ize its po­ten­tial.

This re­form ef­fort should con­cen­trate on two ar­eas: ex­pand­ing the NRC’S tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise to reg­u­late new tech­nolo­gies and in­tro­duc­ing mar­ket forces to nu­clear waste man­age­ment.

Though there are no guar­an­tees, nu­clear power — de­spite much ad­ver­sity — has proved to be much more than a sur­vivor. The right re­forms will open up mar­kets to more abun­dant, more af­ford­able and even safer nu­clear en­ergy.

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