Eclectic Rant: The Future of Nuclear Power In The U.S.

By Ralph Stone
Tuesday May 10, 2011 - 08:48:00 PM

In order to keep the lights on and the motors running while reducing harm to humans and planet Earth, fossil-fuel power has to shrink. While we shouldn't forget Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and the recent disaster at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, we need a rational discussion about the future of nuclear power in this country without misinformation and histrionics. By 2030, power demand will probably double. To meet this demand for power without fossil fuels, we need both nuclear power as well as renewable energy. 

Global Warming 

A clear scientific consensus has emerged that global warming is occurring and it is caused by human activities. In the scientific field of climate studies, which includes many disciplines, a consensus can be demonstrated by the number of scientists who have stopped arguing about what is causing climate change. So a consensus in science is different from a political one. There is no vote. Scientists just give up arguing because the sheer weight of consistent evidence is too compelling, the tide too strong to swim against any longer. “...the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.” In other words, more than 95 percent of scientists working in the disciplines contributing to studies of our climate, accept that climate change is almost certainly caused by human activities. 

And as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2007 case of Massachusetts v. EPA, 127 S.Ct. 1438 (2007), that greenhouse gases endangers the environment and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions are motor vehicles powered by fossil fuels. The Supreme Court further ruled that: "if EPA makes a finding of endangerment, the Clean Air Act requires the agency to regulate emissions." 

Nuclear Power in the U.S. 

Presently, about 20 percent of our power is from nuclear power. The U.S. is the world's largest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30 percent of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), there are 104 nuclear power reactors. Because many plants have more than one reactor, the actual number of nuclear power plants is 65 in 31 states. (This list doesn’t count military and scientific reactors, which are not overseen by the NRC.) 

There are two operating nuclear power plants in California: Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, and San Onofre, about midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Nuclear units at both plants use ocean water for cooling. Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) owns the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, which consists of two units, which began commercial operation in May 1985, while Unit 2 began commercial operation in March 1986. Diablo Canyon's operation license expires in 2024 and PG&E must apply to the NRC for a 20 year license extension. 

Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric own the two operating units at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Unit 2 began commercial operation in August 1983, while Unit 3 began commercial operation in April 1984. San Onofre's operation license expires in 2022 and Southern California Edison must also apply to the NRC for a 20 year license extension. 

Building A Nuclear Power Plant 

The cost of nuclear power includes the construction cost of building the plant, the cost of running the plant and generating electricity, the cost of waste disposal, and the cost of decommissioning a plant. There is a very high capital cost to build a nuclear plant, but once the nuclear power is up and running, it is cost competitive with other forms of electricity generation, except where there is a direct access to low-cost fossil fuels. 

There is a two-step licensing process: one to build a nuclear plant, and another to operate the plant. Unfortunately, every nuclear plant design was different. This compounded the difficulties of obtaining NRC licensing approval since the NRC had to evaluate each individual design. For example, there were significant design flaws with the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, which led to reactor leak and operator confusion. After these flaws were disclosed, the NRC undertook an extensive review of nuclear plant design and in many cases ordered changes. I expect in light of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster, there will be another round of review of existing nuclear plants. 

In 2009, the Obama administration announced that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository would no longer be considered the answer for U.S. civilian nuclear waste. Currently, there is no plan for disposing of the waste and plants will be required to keep the waste on the plant premises indefinitely. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the NRC have overall responsibility for the safe disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent fuel. The safe disposal of nuclear waste is a concern. 

Fukushima Dai-ichi Disaster In Perspective 

Opponents of nuclear power are using a worst-case analysis to scare people by focusing on the nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. By only showing the worst-case consequences, people will tend to believe that this is the norm, while ignoring the fact that worldwide, over twelve thousand cumulative reactor-years have passed safely. Instead of using a worst-case analysis, we should instead ask what is the probability -- and therefore the risk -- of the event. This is called in scientific terms "probabilistic risk assessment" (PRA). (For a full explanation of PRA, see Using PRA, the probability/risk of a nuclear disaster like Japan's or Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl is very low.  

Let's look more closely at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster. Fukushima Dai-ichi is an outmoded 1966 plant, whereas modern nuclear plants have redundant passive-safety features that would likely have ensured Fukushima’s stability. 

In addition, last month, the New York Times reported on the incestuous relationship between Japan's nuclear power industry, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, and politicians. Safety violations at the Dai-Ichi plant were allegedly covered up for years. This raises the possibility that a culture of complicity made the plant especially vulnerable to the natural disaster that struck Japan on March 11. Many experts argue that inconsistent, nonexistent, or unenforced regulations did indeed play a role in the accident. 

Finally, to my knowledge, no U.S. commercial reactor has ever caused a single death and worldwide nuclear power has the lowest accident rate based on the amount of energy generated by any source. In terms of the environment, nuclear power emits about the same carbon-equivalent per kwh as that of wind power, and less than solar. 

Renewable Energy 

Renewable energy is an alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear power, which includes resources that rely on fuel sources that restore themselves over short periods of time and do not diminish. Such fuel sources include the sun, wind, moving water, organic plant and waste material (biomass), and the earth’s heat (geothermal). Although the impacts are small, some renewable energy technologies have an impact on the environment. For example, large hydroelectric resources can have environmental trade-offs associated with issues such as fisheries and land use. 

Renewable energy accounted for 11.14 percent of the domestically produced electricity in the U.S. in the first six months of 2010 with hydroelectricity is the largest producer of renewable power. In 2009, the U.S. was the world's largest producer of electricity from geothermal, solar, and wind power and it trailed only China in the total production of renewable energy. 

In California, 31 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources. Most of this renewable electricity comes from hydropower, but 12 percent comes from "new" renewables, which include wind and geothermal energy. 

If renewable energy is to be developed to its full potential, however, the U.S. will need coordinated, sustained federal and state policies that expand renewable energy markets; promote and deploy new technology; and provide appropriate opportunities to encourage renewable energy use in all critical energy market sectors: wholesale and distributed electricity generation, thermal energy applications, and transportation. 


The U.S. needs energy that is secure, reliable, improves public health, protects the environment, addresses climate change, creates jobs, and provides technological leadership. To replace fossil fuels, we will need both nuclear power and renewable energy. And what we need most is a rational discussion about the future of nuclear power.