For the first time in 30 years, the United States has licensed the construction of new nuclear reactors. Given a price tag of $10 billion per plant, the comparatively cheap cost of alternatives such as natural gas, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the decision is fraught with controversy. Aside from these new reactors, the country must also decide what to do with its fleet of 104 aging nuclear facilities. Licenses for about 70 of them have been renewed and the others are pending or expected. If any one plant is taken off line, how would that electricity be replaced?
Marv Fertel, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), believes that building new nuclear plants is necessary to assure an adequate, reliable, and clean electricity supply. “Right now, nuclear is the only baseload source that produces electricity 24/7 and produces no greenhouse gasses or other air pollutants,” he said. “Nuclear is an important part of the mix. Not the only thing, but a very important part of it.”
According to Jim Boyd, former commissioner on the California Energy Commission, what’s at stake is public safety. Plants were licensed for a period of 40 years, including the expected lifetime of plant components. “With nuclear,” he said, “it has very high rewards alleged, but incredibly high risks associated with anything that goes wrong.” He pointed to the Fukushima nuclear disaster as a potential risk, particularly for seismically active areas. “We in California, and I as a commissioner—those are the types of things you think about and worry about and want investigated before policymakers make a decision to move forward.”
Joe Rubin, reporter for Capitol Public Radio and Center for Investigative Reporting, stated, “We’re a nation divided when it comes to nuclear energy.” He pointed to the split within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) itself, where Chairman Gregory Jaczko “is behind a go-fast approach, and the other commissioners are on a go-slow approach, consulting more with industry.” He concluded, “There are so many advancements in the area of renewables, there’s a lot of question marks around nuclear power.”
“Clearly, safety is number one,” Fertel responded, “but it’s not a troubled industry.” Everything in a nuclear plant that’s moving—every valve, every pump, every motor—is changed out in a predictive, preventive, or corrective maintenance program. “You’ve got to make sure it’s safe, and you’ve got to make sure it’s economic,” he said, adding that when you get a 20-year renewal, “it does not say you can now operate 20 years and do whatever you want.”
Boyd spoke of the nuclear waste problem. When the nation embarked on nuclear power, the promise of the federal government was to come up with a facility or facilities to house the nuclear waste. “We’re still keeping it onsite at the plants. Some of us are uncomfortable with that.” The other thing is cost. “The cost of these plants is horrendous. So you have to do cost amortization. Does that really give you cheap power? Does it really provide the environmental protection that you need?”
“Nuclear is an impressive technology,” said Rubin. Putting aside the nuclear waste issue, it doesn’t create air pollution, it is carbon-free. “What I’m about is making sure the public is informed so they can make good decisions.” He referred to the coming debate about renewing licenses for California’s San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants, and he pointed to the example of the Rancho Saco nuclear facility in Sacramento, which voters in the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) shut down in 1989. “Their rates are 20% lower than PG&E’s,” he said. They exceeded their level of renewables 23% in 2010 and are on track to have 38% renewables by 2020 for the AB32 goals. “It’s about what’s smart, what makes economic sense, what are the real stakes and issues are involved.”