Energy Expert Calls for More Nuclear Power in the U.S. Energy Portfolio

As images documenting the devastation caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill appear around the globe, an energy expert speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing organized by AAAS said modest investments could soon make nuclear power a more affordable and reliable piece of the nation’s energy portfolio.

With federal initiatives to bring down the cost of building the first new nuclear reactors, Clifford Singer, professor of nuclear, plasma, and radiological engineering and of political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that nuclear power could become a reliable alternative to fossil fuels—including for transportation—after the current U.S. nuclear reactor fleet is replaced starting in about 20 years.

Benn Tannenbaum and Clifford Singer

Benn Tannenbaum and Clifford Singer

“The current energy mix relying heavily on fossil fuels and underutilizing nuclear power for transportation energy will prolong heavy use of petroleum fuels,” says Singer, who co-directs his university’s College of Engineering Initiative on Energy and Sustainability Engineering.

Singer spoke 28 May in the Rayburn House Office Building as part of a briefing series on nuclear energy organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP). Singer also spoke November 2009 on Capitol Hill on potential strategies for storing spent nuclear fuel from nuclear reactors.

Benn Tannenbaum, program director at CSTSP, said that many experts believe that “nuclear power will be a critical component of a less carbon-intensive energy portfolio,” especially as the potential consequences of climate change are felt.

“AAAS and the scientists it represents know full well the potential consequences of climate change, and understand that everything, including a hard look at our current energy portfolio, must be brought to bear if we’re to solve this problem,” said Tannenbaum.

Singer said that among the largest barriers to increasing the use of nuclear energy is the significant cost required to build nuclear reactors. Plans to build new reactors or upgrade old ones have been put on hold due to the global recession and a sharp increase in the price of commodities such as steel and cement used to build reactors.

This is compounded by the fact that the United States has not built a nuclear reactor in the past 20 years, he said, reducing the supply chain for parts that meet U.S. standards.

By renewing efforts to replace the roughly 100 nuclear power plants whose 60 to 80-year operating licenses will expire in the coming decades, the United States can benefit from the economies of scale by purchasing large orders of parts for nuclear power. This would drop the capital costs of building nuclear power plants by around 2030, he said.

Beyond the cost of concrete and steel, some critics of increasing nuclear power in the nation’s energy portfolio claim that the uranium used in reactors is in short supply – which would drive up the cost for the resource. Sharply disagreeing, Singer said that the price of uranium would not double unless the amount used globally increased 32 times – a scenario that is unlikely to happen in the present century.

And even if the price of uranium doubles, Singer said, the effect on the price of nuclear power would be minimal, with the cost of obtaining the element representing 1/30th of the energy production costs. Beyond mining, uranium might also eventually be obtained from seawater, he said.

“The answer to the question of, ‘Is there enough uranium to support more nuclear power?’ is yes,” Singer said.

A second obstacle to increasing the production of nuclear power is storing the radioactive spent fuel. The U.S. Department of Energy currently stores spent, or used, nuclear material in 34 sites around the country, with the largest amounts in Washington, Idaho, and South Carolina. Without a comprehensive plan to remove the material from the sites, the Department of Energy will be forced to pay fines to the states.

For example, if the Department of Energy is unable to transport spent nuclear materials from the Idaho National Laboratory to another site by 2035, the U.S. government will be fined $50,000 per day. Without a single depository such as the now-cancelled Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository program in Nevada, the government will be forced to renegotiate deals with individual states to reduce the fines or consolidate all nuclear materials at fewer sites.

Singer said that one potentially promising application for nuclear power is the reduction of fossil fuels in transportation—decreasing the United States’ use of imported petroleum products.

Singer noted U.S. President Barack Obama’s call to have one million electric and hybrid cars on the road by 2015. The largest barrier to increasing electric car use in the United States, said Singer, is the price of their batteries and the limits on how far the cars can be driven on a single charge. Widely affordable cars can be driven about 40 miles on a single charge, he said.

To increase the use of electric cars, Singer proposed that large companies and public institutions in a small- to medium-sized towns, like Champaign-Urbana, could buy electric cars and lease them to their employees. Since most people in medium-sized towns or suburbs drive well under 40 miles a day, employees could use the car to travel between home and work as well as run local errands. If workers had a pure electric vehicle and needed a car for a longer trip, they could obtain one from a smaller fleet of extended range vehicles stationed at their work.

The cars could be charged with electricity from solar, natural gas, or wind-driven sources during the day and nuclear electric energy at night, he added.

“If it is properly managed, the addition of more nuclear power into the nation’s energy portfolio opens the door to solutions for many of the problems we face in the age of global climate change,” says Singer.