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What’s New With Nuclear Power

Questions about energy prices and supplies have revived national policy discussions about nuclear power.

Generating electricity by splitting atoms is not a new technology. Since the first commercial American nuclear plant came online in 1957 in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, the nation’s nuclear generating capacity has grown to include 103 nuclear power plants operating today. They provide about 15 percent of America’s electricity.

While that makes nuclear power a small but significant factor in describing the nation’s energy use, the direct effects on Kentucky are less than for many other states. With relatively inexpensive fuel from nearby mines, nearly all of Kentucky’s electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants, supplemented by smaller natural gas plants for times of peak electricity use.

Outside the United States, 338 nuclear power plants account for about 17 percent of electric generation worldwide. Twenty-eight new nuclear plants are under construction in 12 countries.

Such statistics paint a global picture of a widely accepted, growing, even commonplace form of electric generation. But the prospects for adding more nuclear generation in the United States are not easy to predict.

Until recently, the nuclear power plants at 64 sites in 31 states have provided electricity without much fanfare. Ten years have passed since America’s newest nuclear power plant began producing electricity in Tennessee in 1996. But the number of news stories about nuclear power has taken a big jump during this past year.

Several factors are making nuclear power newsworthy again.

One of those factors results from the financial incentives for nuclear power included in new federal laws, including the Energy Policy Act of 2005. These legislative changes offer a variety of encouragements, including generous production tax credits to nuclear providers, loan guarantees, and insurance against regulatory delays, as well as setting ceilings on liability damages.

During the 1970s, financial problems at several nuclear power plants under construction led to huge cost overruns. Investors lost enormous amounts of money, and began shying away from new projects. Then, in 1979, the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania stopped plans for any new construction. During the 1980s, several nuclear plants already under construction were halted, never to be completed. Any nuclear plant proposed these days will receive especially close scrutiny from state public service commissions.

Another factor comes from an old rule about the lifespan of nuclear plants.

Nuclear power plants are licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate for a period of 40 years. The oldest nuclear plant still operating in America, at New Jersey’s Oyster Creek facility, began producing electricity in 1969, almost 40 years ago. Many other American nuclear facilities began power production in the 1970s—and as their license expiration dates get closer this decade, they will be seeking permission to either continue operation or to be decommissioned. Evaluating these aging facilities will take time and money before decisions can be made about their continued operation. Some have already been granted 20-year license extensions. But that cannot continue indefinitely. If any of these nuclear power plants must be shut down, their generating capacity will have to be replaced.

As existing nuclear power plants age, the question of what to do with their spent fuel is still unresolved. Temporary storage facilities are just that, a makeshift solution. Various plans have been proposed for storing radioactive waste underground, yet state and federal legislatures continue to wrangle over the details to keep such dangerous substances isolated over the centuries to come.

The third consideration moves beyond the maze of regulations and financing options into the realm of social awareness and reaching a public consensus about the value of nuclear power.

The concept that all forms of energy production have pluses and minuses has been a well-understood part of the electric utility industry for decades. Engineers and other technical experts work hard every day behind the scenes to figure out ways to shrink the minuses and enlarge the pluses, whether it’s inventing ways to lower emissions at coal-fired power plants or figuring out how to capture the remaining energy in waste products.

But weighing the pluses and minuses of nuclear power is not just a job for scientists and energy experts. Within the next three years, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman expects as many as 12 utility companies to file papers to begin the process of building 18 new nuclear reactors—and public comment is sure to be a part of this process.

Analyzing the true cost to build and generate electricity at a nuclear power plant, what to do about security and safety, and how to handle radioactive waste are complicated issues with many variables. To get yourself familiar with some of those details, try these Web sites:
www.nei.org/documents/Top_10_Reasons_To_Support_Nuclear.pdf, and
www.citizen.org/documents/FatalFlawsSummary.pdf.

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