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Nuclear Option

What’s the future of this controversial source of electricity?

With coal and natural gas fueling most electricity in Kentucky, and renewable energy proponents pushing wind and solar power, yet another form of electric generation quietly continues to keep the lights on.

About one in every five electrons running through the wires in American homes comes from a nuclear power plant.

Regulation of nuclear power

Highly advanced physics and engineering were needed to build the first nuclear plants in the 1950s. And the dangers of radioactivity called for extreme safety measures. Regulating the technically complex industry falls to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), an independent agency of the federal government, and its nearly 4,000 employees and $1 billion budget.

In the U.S., 60 nuclear power plants operate 100 nuclear reactors (some plant sites have more than one reactor) in 30 states. Though Kentucky has had a ban on nuclear power plants since 1984, just to our south, the Tennessee Valley Authority operates three nuclear plants, generating enough energy to power about a third of its customers, more than 4.5 million homes and businesses.

In addition to regulation by the NRC, those plants operate under a variety of agreements with groups as varied as the Department of Homeland Security, state and local governments, emergency responders, and academic researchers.

The regulation and cooperative agreements are called for because of the high-stakes concerns with nuclear power. In addition to the health and safety concerns, cybersecurity and safeguards against possible terrorism are regularly reviewed.

On March 1, the Kentucky Senate approved a bill that would lift the state’s effective ban on nuclear power.

Electric co-ops support nuclear power

As a national group, electric co-ops see nuclear power as a valuable part of the mix of fuels that make our electricity. An official membership resolution of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) calls for “legislative and regulatory initiatives to support the continuation and expansion of nuclear power.”
Dale Bradshaw describes why electric co-ops see nuclear power as a good way to generate electricity. Bradshaw is the CEO of Electrivation LLC, a firm that consults on power generation and delivery with groups that include NRECA.

“Nuclear power is safe and emits no carbon dioxide,” he says, noting the industry’s safety and security systems and the lack of greenhouse gas.

Bradshaw also sees advantages of nuclear power over the increasingly popular renewable energies of wind and solar, since solar doesn’t produce energy at night and wind doesn’t work in calm weather.

“We need nuclear for reliability; it runs around the clock,” he says, adding, “Existing nuclear reactors are basically cost-competitive—it’s a   low-cost resource.”

Electricity market forces

So if nuclear power is so great, why isn’t it used for more than 20 percent of our electricity?

The need for fuel diversity is one reason, but Bradshaw says growth in nuclear power use is being restricted by a unique combination of forces. The drilling boom of the past several years has dramatically lowered natural gas prices, and various government subsidies have reduced the costs of wind and solar. Electricity markets base energy prices on the lowest cost producers, and because of the recent low cost of natural gas and continued subsidies for renewables, prices are too low to support the building of new nuclear units. When utilities make their buying decisions, nuclear power is often not the preferred choice these days.

But Bradshaw sees a potentially bright future for nuclear power, referring to today’s market forces as “a short-term problem.” He notes that natural gas prices have started rising, and that the tax breaks keeping wind and solar costs low will expire in a few years. He adds that researchers are developing nuclear plant designs that will be even safer, lower in cost, and will extend the life of existing nuclear fuel.

“There are advanced reactor technologies in the early stages of development that might allow us in the next 20 years to build these technologies for 25 percent of the cost of existing nuclear plants,” says Bradshaw.

“Advanced nuclear will more efficiently use the fuel and become essentially sustainable with thousands of years of fuel supply, and be more price-competitive in the market.”

PAUL WESSLUND writes on cooperative issues for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

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