MIAMI—Financial, regulatory and communications challenges are among those that still must be met to bring the emerging “nuclear energy renaissance” to fruition, Nuclear Energy Institute leaders told hundreds of industry executives assembled at NEI’s three-day annual conference here.
“The outlook for nuclear energy is bright and growing brighter. But that is not the whole story,” said NEI board Chairman John Rowe, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Exelon Corp., the nation’s largest operator of nuclear power plants.
The industry has proven its ability to operate nuclear power plants on a sustained basis at high levels of safety and efficiency at a time when demand for reliable electricity from clean-energy technologies is increasing. Despite this favorable situation, “significant regulatory, financial and infrastructure challenges stand between where we are and where we need to be,” Rowe said.
He cited used nuclear fuel management, financing of capital-intensive projects, and future work force needs as among the key challenges facing the industry. In separate remarks during the conference’s opening session, NEI President and CEO Frank L. “Skip” Bowman identified a need for improved communications to solidify political and public support among people and entities who are increasingly – but sometimes tenuously – embracing nuclear energy.
“Yes, we see growing support for nuclear energy because it is a carbon-free technology, but it is not unqualified or unambiguous support,” Bowman said. “There are solid steps we can take – must take – to shore up that support, to make it less ambiguous, more solid, more sustainable.”
More than 100 nuclear power plants operating in 31 states provide electricity to one of every five U.S. homes and businesses. They provide more than 70 percent of the electricity that comes from sources that do not emit greenhouse gases or other pollutants into the atmosphere, including renewable technologies and hydroelectric power plants.
As the nation looks to strengthen its energy security, meet future electricity needs and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, 16 energy companies and consortia over the past 18 months have announced their intention to file license applications with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build as many as 30 new nuclear power plants.
“We are at long last moving to a time when generating companies will make business decisions to build new nuclear plants. I firmly believe that we will need 20 to 30 new plants by 2030 if we have any hope of addressing climate change and enhancing our energy security,” Rowe said.
Against this backdrop, the federal government should develop an interim storage alternative for used nuclear fuel pending licensing and construction of the long-delayed geologic repository planned for Yucca Mountain, Nev.
“We must accept that the operation of a permanent disposal facility will not happen soon. We must establish a process under which the federal government takes title to spent fuel and moves it from reactor sites to one or more federal locations for consolidated interim storage,” Rowe said.
On new nuclear plant financing, Rowe cautioned that “capital projects of this magnitude” typically are undertaken by companies with market values many times larger than even the largest U.S. electric power company.
The industry will have to summon the courage both to tell federal officials that the investment incentives contained in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 are not sufficient and to admit to itself that, in the long run, “the federal government cannot and will not be the financier of first or even last resort,” he said.
“While the federal government must play a role in providing the initial incentives to jump-start the industry, including most particularly a robust and workable loan guarantee program, over the long term both state regulators and the industry will have to step up if we are to successfully build the nuclear capacity the nation needs.”
Bowman noted that states like Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia just this year have passed legislation encouraging new plant construction by providing higher assurance of investment recovery.
Nonetheless, he said, the industry must do a better job answering questions – in areas like safety, used fuel management and economics – that skeptics often raise when discussing increased reliance on nuclear energy.
“We must do a better job at engaging thoughtful people in a factual discussion. We must train and empower our people as ambassadors for nuclear energy,” he said.
The theme for this year’s conference, “The Changing Climate for Nuclear Energy,” reflects the need to better manage shifting political and policy environments, Bowman said.
“Growing numbers of people want to believe that nuclear power should be a larger part of our nation’s energy portfolio. It’s up to us to give them reasons to believe. That’s our biggest challenge.”
The theme also reflects increasing concerns about the scientific phenomenon of global warming, said Bowman, a retired Navy admiral who recently served on a Military Advisory Board that examined the national security implications of climate change. The panel concluded that, even if the likelihood of catastrophic climate change is low, the potential consequences are immense and have negative implications on national security.
“We can add energy security impacts to the national security and military impacts, because we’re dangerously dependent for energy on parts of the world most likely to experience political instability and social collapse, and whose values do not coincide with our own,” Bowman said.
He lamented the findings of a Government Accountability Office study that revealed federal support for renewable, fossil and nuclear energy research and development has fallen by more than 85 percent in real terms from 1978 through 2005.
“We are deluding ourselves if we believe we have taken even the first steps necessary to address our energy and environmental challenges,” Bowman said. “Only aggressive deployment of a portfolio of technologies – energy efficiency, renewables, advanced coal with carbon capture and sequestration and nuclear energy – will reduce the upward trend in carbon dioxide emissions.”
Nuclear energy “has the smallest environmental footprint of any major source of energy available today or likely to be available in the next 100 years,” he noted.
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.