Future glows for U.S. nuclear power

With rising oil prices, Middle East violence and pollution concerns, the U.S. is looking to invest in other energy resources besides fossil fuels. Nuclear power is primed to make a huge comeback.

By Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief

In his State of the Union address Feb. 2, President George W. Bush mentioned the need for a U.S. future that includes more “safe, clean nuclear energy.”

The International Energy Agency’s energy outlook, issued in October, projects a 1.6% annual increase in global oil consumption -- from today’s 82 million to about 121 million barrels a day by 2030. It also estimates a 1.5% annual increase for coal, and that natural gas use will double during the same period of time.

“If oil prices stay high, if people worry about carbon dioxide causing global warming, if the Middle East stays violent, nuclear power stands a good chance of making a huge comeback in this country,” Forbes magazine reported on Jan. 31. “Over the past five years, fans of atomic power have quietly lined up the support of federal and municipal governments and have cozied up to General Electric and Westinghouse Electric in service to an ambitious agenda: building perhaps five new reactors by 2015, a dozen by 2020 and 50 by mid-century.”

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has undertaken a number of initiatives to improve nuclear power safety, cost-effectiveness and reliability. The Generation IV International Forum is developing advanced nuclear technology, including plants that produce hydrogen along with electricity.

Nuclear Power 2010 rallies government and the private sector to resume nuclear plant construction by the end of the decade. It’s working on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) “one-step” licensing process, designed to reduce the risks of investing in new nuclear power plants.

The NRC is qualifying three sites in the United States as places to build the next plants, and the agency recently selected two large industry consortia to proceed with regulatory steps that could lead to the construction of the first new U.S. nuclear plants in more than 30 years.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a nuclear industry consortium, says the costs for new plants are more competitive than many people think. Marvin Fertel, NEI’s senior vice president, said in a Feb. 3 report to the U.S. Senate that the government’s Energy Information Agency erroneously assumes new nuclear plants would have an overnight capital cost of $1,928 per kilowatt of capacity.

But during the past 30 years, there have been technological advances in construction techniques, and simplified, standardized, pre-approved designs can clearly result in cost savings.

For example, Westinghouse’s AP1000 1,117-megawatt advanced light water reactor offers an estimated overnight capital cost of less than $1,400 per kilowatt for the first two reactors at one site. Its capital cost drops to about $1,000 per kilowatt for later reactors, which is competitive with other sources of baseload electricity.

In another example, a single Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) by GE Nuclear Energy could be built in the United States for $1,445 per kilowatt. GE also is developing a passively safe design it expects to have a first cost about 20% lower than the ABWR.
In 2002, the Electric Power Research Institute forecast the amount of new nuclear capacity that would be built as a function of cost per kilowatt capacity: At $1,250 per kilowatt, 23,000 MW of new nuclear capacity would be built by 2020. At $1,125 per kilowatt, it rises to 62,000 MW.

That’s a lot of new nukes.

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