President Obama has embarked on an ambitious Carbon Action Plan, which I recently wrote about in a July 2013 Blank Rome energy alert. While there is no “silver bullet” for reducing carbon emissions in the U.S., one thing is for sure: the contribution of nuclear power is critical to achieving carbon emissions reductions. Since long before the first shale gas well was drilled, nuclear power generation has shown its value in reducing America’s carbon footprint. We are currently at our lowest levels of carbon emissions since 1994. Consequently, nuclear power is and must continue to be an important keystone to any viable and realistic U.S. strategy to reduce carbon emissions in the future.
The general public agrees. A February 2013 Bisconti Research Inc. survey reported that 68% of Americans are in favor of using nuclear energy for electricity production. Additionally, more than 80% of Americans believe that nuclear energy will be a key component in meeting our clean energy goals.
We have the safest and most efficient and reliable nuclear generation industry in the world. Nuclear power generation is 100% free of carbon emissions, produces low-cost power 24/7/365, and now supplies about 20% of the United States’ electricity overall—more than any other energy source in seven states. A pellet of nuclear fuel the size of the tip of a pencil eraser produces the same amount of energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal, or 149 gallons of oil. Nuclear plants operate more efficiently than any other type of power generation—as measured by “capacity factor” (actual energy production versus possible energy production during the year)—and have operated on average at about 90% capacity factor for over a decade. Also, because fuel price is quite small for nuclear power—a mere 28% as compared to 80% to 90% for coal and natural gas plants—power from nuclear plants is significantly less subject to price instability.
I previously worked at a generating company with a substantial nuclear fleet, so I know first-hand that the men and women who operate those plants are the cream of the crop. They operate those plants with safety as their number one priority. A member of the Pennsylvania delegation to the U. S. House of Representatives, who was a retired Navy Admiral, had a great line when he was asked a question about nuclear plant safety from a clearly skeptical reporter. He said something to the effect of, “For twenty years I went to sleep every night on ships with kids in their twenties running nuclear reactors downstairs and slept very comfortably and safely. Next question.”
The federal government has to do more on the spent nuclear fuel repository situation. Recently, at least two editorial boards have taken President Obama to task for saying he favors an aggressive carbon emissions reduction policy while simultaneously acting illegally, according to the holding of a federal appeals court, on not moving forward with an important part of that strategy—namely, the Yucca Mountain federal nuclear power plant spent materials disposal site, which has already been deemed safe. We need to move that project ahead. The federal government needs to satisfy its legal obligation to provide for a repository. We need to make sure that there are no unnecessary regulatory bottlenecks to license extensions, uprates, and new nuclear power coming on-line, including new reactor designs and small reactors. We need a regulatory process that is safety-focused and risk-informed.
The bottom line is that we need to keep America’s nuclear fleet humming, especially if we want to accomplish what the President has called our “moral duty” to lower carbon emissions.