conference report

Window of opportunity

27 July 2005

While the globe is warming and oil is peaking, a window of opportunity might just be opening for nuclear in the USA. By Thecla Fabian

Speaker after speaker at the Nuclear Energy Institute’s (NEI’s) Nuclear Energy Assembly, held on 16-18 May in Washington DC, weighed in with variations on a single theme: over the next 20 to 50 years, nuclear power is one of the few options, if not the only option, capable of providing reliable baseload electricity to meet increasing global demand without exacerbating global warming.

US energy secretary Samuel Bodman reminded the gathered nuclear industry executives that worldwide energy demand is rising sharply, citing International Energy Agency (IEA) predictions that global energy demand will grow by about 60% over the next 25 years.

Two-thirds of the demand increase will come from developing countries such as China and India. Economic expansion in these counties is accelerating the need for additional energy to fuel their booming industrial and transportation sectors, and to electrify vast rural regions.

The IEA’s energy outlook forecasts that worldwide demand for oil will increase from the current 82 million barrels a day to about 121 million barrels a day by 2030, and the use of natural gas and coal will both double over this same time period.

While the increased use of oil will go largely to fuel the transportation sector, much of the natural gas – and even more of the coal – will go into electricity production. The Department of Energy’s (DoE’s) own Energy Information Administration (EIA) sees world electricity demand increasing by some 75% by 2025.

Skip Bowman, president and CEO of the NEI, the leading US nuclear industry association, pointed out that the EIA also predicted a 50% increase in US electricity demand over the same time period.

This rapid rise will place mounting pressure on the ageing US electricity infrastructure, said Bowman. One third of the US generating capacity, 300GWe, is more than 30 years old. Of this, some 100GWe is between 40 and 50 years old.

Even with advances in efficiency, the USA “will need hundreds of new power plants of all types to meet new demand and to replace older, less efficient power plants,” Bowman said.


Also, as demand continues to climb, “we must keep in mind that the fossil fuels upon which we increasingly depend are finite resources that will not last forever,” Bodman warned. “As time goes on, they will become more and more expensive to find and produce. In addition, our traditional ways of using fossil fuels – burning them in power-plant boilers and in vehicle engines – causes pollution.”

Oil represents an “unsustainable path” for the USA, said South Carolina Representative John Spratt, the ranking Democrat on the House budget committee. The USA has only 2% of the world’s remaining proven oil reserves. It already is importing 20 million barrels of oil per day – two thirds of the oil it consumes. This oil will only become more expensive with every passing year as demand pressure from China and other rapidly developing nations continues to push up oil prices.


To Bodman, the way forward was clear: “We need to develop new sources of energy to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and help protect the environment.” These new energy sources and new technologies include hydrogen fuel cells to power vehicles, more effective ways to produce wind and solar power, techniques for removing pollutants and greenhouse emissions from coal, and improved fuel efficiency.

However, “there is one technology already in place that can reliably generate large amounts of electricity with no dependence on fossil fuels, no pollution, and no greenhouse emissions. That technology is nuclear power.”

Although these advantages would seem to make nuclear power a leading choice for much of the new electric generating capacity planned for coming years, Bodman pointed out that recent world energy forecasts predict large increases in the use of oil, coal and natural gas over the 25 years, but estimate only a very slight increase in the growth of nuclear power in comparison with other energy sources.

In the USA, this would translate to a declining role for nuclear power from its current 20% of generation to about 14% by 2025. Bodman called the possibility “economically and environmentally irresponsible.” He said: “Nuclear power should instead be among our foremost options for ensuring that we have safe, secure, affordable, and environmentally responsible supplies of energy.”

All of the speakers acknowledged that major challenges still lie ahead before the USA can build a new nuclear plant, but they agreed with Robert McGehee, chair and CEO of Progress Energy, that now is a “time of tremendous opportunity” for the nuclear industry. “It’s far too soon to celebrate a rebirth but the time has never been better to seize the opportunity to make it happen.”


Most of the speakers identified the same set of challenges facing the industry: regulatory change for existing and new reactors; security; management of spent nuclear fuel; and public and policymaker support.

Regulatory stability has been a long-running theme of the NEI and the US nuclear industry. Almost all the speakers acknowledged changes within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in recent years, but stressed that there is still more to be done.

Bowman quoted NRC chairman Nils Diaz as calling for 21st century nuclear regulation to be anchored in “realistic conservatism or conservative realism.” The concept embodies “conservative defence-in-depth informed by science, engineering and nearly 10,000 reactor years of experience worldwide,” he explained.

In recent years, the NRC has refined its oversight of plants to be more performance-based and safety-focused, said McGehee, adding that, so far, this approach rests largely on NRC management directives. “Now is the time to give this approach the more stable foundation of rulemaking.”

The NRC has begun to do this, he agreed, citing a rule issued last year that will enable the commission and the industry to align their resources more closely with the relative safety importance of nuclear plant equipment. “In other words, focus most attention on what matters most to safety.”

While the rule is final, implementation has yet to begin on a broad scale. Therefore, “the NEI and several pilot plants are working with the NRC to ensure there is clear guidance for plants to implement the risk-based rule – and for NRC staff to inspect against it.” However, effective implementation of the rule will require “the industry and the NRC to give up some deeply ingrained ideas about risk significance.”

While the speakers agreed that, in the post-9/11 world, security continues to remain a challenge, they also sent a clear message that enough is enough. Bowman pointed to the $1.2 billion that the nuclear industry has spent on enhanced security since 9/11 and called for a “strategic pause inside the fences” that will allow the industry to fully integrate security measures with plant operations and ensure that they are not interfering with safety.

“The industry believes it has reached the limit of what can reasonably be expected of private security forces,” McGehee said.


Management of spent nuclear fuel and the proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, were clearly still on the US nuclear industry’s agenda – along with the possibility of a new generation of US reprocessing technology.

“Putting Yucca Mountain on the path to success” is one of the key challenges for the nuclear industry, Bowman said, calling the project “one of the most complex public works projects in the world.” It continues to face a spectrum of challenges. Among these, Bowman identified resolving the Environmental Protection Agency’s radiation protection standard voided by a federal court in 2004, addressing quality assurance issues and “countering the strong political and legal team representing the state of Nevada.” He also called on the nuclear industry to do a better job of explaining and selling the repository programme to the public and to policymakers.

The DoE never planned to “throw spent fuel in a cave, seal it up and walk away,” Bowman said in answer to critics who call the proposed repository a ‘dump’. He noted that the latest plans call for keeping scientists and engineers at the site “for perhaps hundreds of years,” to monitor, and if necessary, retrieve the fuel. On the other hand, his response to scientists who have called for extending models to the period of peak dose – estimated at somewhere between 480,000 and a million years from closure – was: “Give me a break.”

Bowman stopped just short of saying that the repository would serve as a supply station for future US reprocessing plants, but was emphatic in stressing that the DoE is “putting enormous wealth into the mountain on a temporary basis.” He explained that congressional leaders “are investigating options such as used nuclear fuel treatment and conditioning, reprocessing, and other advanced technologies.”

Bodman also carefully left the door open for future reprocessing technologies. “Someday science may develop new ways to deal with nuclear waste.” He pointed to the DoE’s Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, which is tasked with developing proliferation-resistant fuel treatments and transmutation technologies that will enable a transition from the current once through fuel cycle to a future sustainable closed fuel cycle.

Only Spratt issued a note of caution, warning that, from a non-proliferation standpoint, “reprocessing is not the way to go.” A once through fuel cycle assures that the material is not available for weapons, he emphasised.


The need to win friends and influence people among both the general public and decision makers formed a strong undercurrent throughout the two-day meeting. Bowman called on the nuclear industry to speak “with one clear voice.” He was both cautionary and optimistic: warning his colleagues about “unrealistic expectations,” and at the same time, stressing that the industry and the USA were “moving down the road” toward new opportunities and new plants. “We aren’t there yet, but the time for action is now.”

Now is the nuclear industry’s window of opportunity on a national energy policy, Bowman said. The White House, Bodman, both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, and “the heartland of America” all support new nuclear plant construction, he said.

Included in Bowman’s window of opportunity is the possibility of legislation that calls for federal government cost sharing for first-of-a-kind engineering and licensing, investment incentives and risk insurance protection against crippling licensing delays for a limited number of new nuclear plants.

President Bush has proposed further streamlining the licensing process to reduce the prospect for unnecessary delays in bringing new plants online, Bodman said. The president wants to reform NRC’s licensing process to significantly reduce the possibility of additional public hearings after construction has been completed. Bodman said: “Significantly raising the bar for post-construction hearings introduces more certainty into the licensing process.”

Another element of the president’s proposal would provide government-sponsored risk insurance to cover half of the interest costs, operating and maintenance costs, and newly acquired construction costs accumulated during the second, third and fourth years of a serious regulatory delay – up to a total of $500 million per reactor for the first two plants of each of two new designs. Utilities would pay a premium of about 10% of the total coverage, Bodman said. However, premiums would be waived for utilities that place firm orders by 31 December 2008.

Samuel Bodman Samuel Bodman

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