Nuclear power takes forum spotlight

Nuclear power batted last but not least this week in a pair of clean energy conferences that focused on ways to wean the nation off its dependence on foreign oil.

Nevada’s potential for developing renewable energy from solar, wind and geothermal sources took center stage at Tuesday’s National Clean Energy Summit 3.0 and Wednesday’s Clean Energy Forum at UNLV, but the final word on clean and affordable energy came in a discussion about nuclear energy in the forum’s last session.

“From the standpoint of nuclear energy, it’s part of the solution,” said Angelina Howard, a consultant and retired vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry’s lobbying arm.

“There is no one silver bullet. We have to really look at and invest in and develop all of these technologies.”

Nuclear reactors have been putting power on the grid for more than 50 years.

Today, 104 nuclear reactors generate about 20 percent of the United State’s electricity “safely, reliably, competitively and without emitting greenhouse gases,” Howard said.

Another panelist, Brookings Institution energy expert Charles Ebinger, predicted only modest growth in the U.S. demand for electricity, at least until large numbers of electric cars, with batteries that need recharging, hit the roads.

He questioned the nuclear industry’s dream of doubling its share of the nation’s electrical production to 40 percent.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Ebinger said. “I think personally it’s going to be a struggle with the licensing process that we have to keep our contribution from nuclear power even, staying roughly equal to perhaps 3 or 4 percent more.”

The big demand for nuclear power is going to be in the international market, “where the so-called nuclear renaissance is well under way. It’s going to be a highly competitive market,” he said, citing nuclear power markets in Russia, China, Brazil and the Middle East.

There are 17 license applications for 26 nuclear reactor units in the United States. Many of those are needed to replace some of the oldest reactors.

If the United States wants to stay competitive in the international market, Howard said, it needs to maintain its nuclear reactor manufacturing capability “and also maintain United States leadership on a world playing front . The Russians particularly are very aggressively marketing their reactor design, as are … Koreans.”

With a federal loan guarantee of more than $8 billion offered by President Barack Obama in February, work is under way in Georgia to build the first new U.S. nuclear power reactors in more than 30 years.

Units 3 and 4 at the Plant Vogtle site in eastern Georgia are expected to go online in 2016 and 2017, if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves a combined license next year to build and operate them.

Nuclear plants are so vital to meet the nation’s electrical power needs that regulators are considering extending 40 year licenses of the aging fleet another 20 years and possibly longer.

This is happening despite the Obama administration’s effort to eliminate funding and abandon the Department of Energy’s long-sought plans to build a repository for highly radioactive, used nuclear fuel assemblies at Yucca Mountain, 100 miles north of Las Vegas.

Wednesday’s discussion came as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is mulling a licensing board’s decision against letting the Energy Department withdraw its license application for constructing the Yucca Mountain repository.

At odds for more than 25 years, the state of Nevada and the federal energy agency are now on the same side of the Yucca Mountain licensing issue. Both argue that the Energy Department can terminate the license review while a commission charts a new course for dealing with nuclear waste without disposing of it in a maze of tunnels within Yucca Mountain.

Panelist James Conca, director and chief scientist of a New Mexico State University monitoring program for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., said nuclear energy suffers from a perception problem because it is commonly but incorrectly linked to nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, Conca said, nuclear power ranks among the three cheapest sources of producing electricity, along with hydroelectric power and wind energy.

Nuclear industry scientists believe that until a better way of dealing with highly radioactive waste is developed, perhaps through reprocessing and a technique known in research circles as transmutation, spent fuel can be stored safely and securely for a century at reactor sites in pools and above-ground dry casks.

“Wine, cheese and spent fuel are probably the only things that get better with age,” Conca said.

Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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