WASHINGTON—Capping a year-long evaluation of nuclear energy by a diverse group of experts, The Keystone Center today issued a report that details the group’s consensus that U.S. nuclear power plants are safer today with an improved safety culture; that climate change policies will improve nuclear energy’s relative economics, and that options are available today to safely manage used fuel.
The report, a “joint fact-finding on nuclear power,” was undertaken to provide an “assessment” of nuclear energy amid growing discussion – in policy circles and among the general public – of the technology’s appropriate role in the nation’s energy future.
“Nuclear technology is re-emerging as a power generation option in the face of concerns about climate change, energy demand growth, and the relative cost of competing technologies,” the report states.
One hundred and four nuclear power plants operating in 31 states provide electricity to one of every five U.S. homes and businesses. Nuclear energy supplies more than 70 percent of the electricity that comes from sources that do not emit greenhouse gases or other pollutants into the atmosphere.
Following a five-year refurbishment, the Brown Ferry Unit 1 reactor in northern Alabama returned to commercial operation last month, and 16 companies and consortia have announced their intent to file new nuclear plant license applications for as many as 30 new reactors with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission beginning this fall.
Paul Genoa, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s director of policy development and a participant in the Keystone discussions, said the experts identified areas of agreement in many, though not all, areas.
“For such a disparate and credible group of stakeholders to find common ground on nuclear issues for which there had once been a seemingly irreconcilable divide gives me added confidence that nuclear power will continue to play a significant role in meeting our energy needs, especially in a carbon-constrained world,” Genoa said.
The fact-finding group was comprised of 29 individuals, including representatives from environmental groups, state regulators, electric utility industry and consumer advocates. The group was brought together by The Keystone Center, a non-profit organization that facilitates cross-sector dialogues on pressing environment, energy and public health issues.
The group broadly agreed on issues detailed in the report that included:
Safety : The participants reviewed many factors, including improvements in plant equipment and human performance, organizational and risk insights gained through experience, the implications of aging materials and components, and institutional changes in safety oversight. They found that “on balance, commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S. are safer today,” that “increased centralization among utilities and plant operators has improved the ‘safety culture’ at nuclear power plants,” and that new reactors are likely to be advanced light-water reactors, “incorporating features that improve both safety and security.”
Climate Change: A number of different approaches have been debated or proposed, including an economy-wide cap and trade program for greenhouse (GHG) emissions, a sector-specific cap and trade approach and a carbon tax. Each confers different economic advantages to nuclear power in comparison to other electricity sources. The specific provisions of U.S. climate policy will affect exactly how much of an advantage nuclear power receives. Most importantly, the more stringent the policy (the greater the reductions required or the higher the tax), the greater the relative advantage bestowed on low-GHG generation sources like nuclear energy.
Used Nuclear Fuel Management: The group also broadly agreed on issues surrounding the ultimate disposal of used nuclear fuel. They agreed that:
Ultimate disposal of the byproducts from nuclear fuel should take place in a deep underground geologic repository;
desirable geologic repository characteristics are well understood; and
Suitable geological environments for disposal exist throughout the world, including locations in the United States.
Furthermore, the group voiced its belief that until the federal government’s geologic repository is licensed for operation, older used nuclear fuel “can be stored safely and securely” on nuclear plant sites in either spent fuel pools or steel and concrete containers for extended periods of time. They also agreed that centralized interim storage is a reasonable alternative for managing used fuel from decommissioned plant sites and “could become cost-effective for operating reactors in the future.”
Recognizing that used fuel must be transported from the plant sites to centralized interim storage facilities and/or a geologic repository, the fact-finding group looked at the safety and security of used fuel transportation and found: “There is wide agreement among the group participants that transport of spent fuel and other high-level radioactive waste is highly regulated, and that it has been safely shipped in the past.” The group also noted that although transport security requires continued vigilance, “security requirements during transport have been enhanced in response to 9/11.”
“Clearly, any used fuel repository licensed in the United States must withstand critical public scrutiny and this process will take time,” Genoa said. “For me, as a participant, the most important result from the Keystone process is the recognition that we have the time to ensure this process is done right and that we have safe and secure interim options to manage used fuel.”
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s web site at http://www.nei.org.