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Commit to and Expand Nuclear Energy Use

Nuclear power is currently an emissions-free source of 20% of America’s electricity supply, despite our not having licensed the construction of a nuclear power facility in nearly 30 years.

Expansion of new nuclear power assets is essential to meet our projected growing demand while mitigating our emissions of CO2. As required by law, the federal government must provide authorized fiscal incentives for new nuclear power plants. We must solve our long-term nuclear waste challenges and aggressively expand efforts to recycle used nuclear fuel.

Nuclear power is the nation’s largest emissions-free source of electricity. From a life-cycle perspective—including the impacts of uranium mining, uranium enrichment, fuel fabrication, plant construction, and fuel disposal—nuclear power offers a huge emissions advantage over any other large-scale method of baseload power generation and is on par with renewable sources.

Nuclear power currently supplies about 20% of America’s electricity supply. America’s 104 operating nuclear power reactors are also the cheapest source of baseload electricity on a per-kilowatt-hour basis because operational and fuel costs are comparatively low.

Although the existing nuclear units are successfully renewing their operating licenses for an additional 20 years, new nuclear power plants are essential to meet growing demand while avoiding GHG emissions.

New nuclear power plants are capital-intensive, requiring an estimated $6–8 billion (2008 dollars) per plant. The U.S. electric power sector consists of many relatively small companies that do not have the size, financing capability, or financial strength to fund power projects of this scale on their own, in the numbers required. Outside financial support is necessary.

The loan guarantee program authorized by EPAct2005 is a crucial tool to enable utilities to finance the construction of new reactors by increasing access to capital and enabling a higher share of leveraged debt. DOE estimates that by enabling a utility to rely more heavily on private debt than more expensive equity, a federal loan guarantee may save the ratepayers nearly 40% in the cost of power from a new nuclear plant.

A well-managed loan guarantee program will be funded by project applicants and not require any expenditure of government funds. Unfortunately, the loan guarantee program has not been implemented effectively by the DOE, and the $18.5 billion in loan volume authorized by Congress for nuclear power projects is inadequate, given the estimated cost of a new nuclear power plant. That loan volume will support, at best, two, or three new projects.

The current program should be expanded, and at the appropriate time merged with the Clean Energy Bank of the United States discussed earlier. The time it takes to license and build a nuclear power plant—now estimated at a minimum of eight years—is one reason the financing costs are high. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) estimates it will take three and one-half years to review the first wave of new license applications for new designs. This period must be reduced for subsequent applications without compromising safety, and Congress must ensure the NRC has adequate resources to process license applications as expeditiously as possible. The regulatory and licensing framework has improved significantly since the 1980s, when we saw completed plants sit idle while awaiting issuance of operating licenses, but the NRC has yet to issue a Construction and Operating License under the new process. Project sponsors and investors have significant questions about whether the new process will deliver timely approvals. Delays in starting up a completed plant will subject its owners to substantial financial costs. The standby support program, established in EPAct2005, could be an effective insurance policy for nuclear plant owners against delays in the regulatory process or from litigation outside of the plant owner’s control. While this is a potentially useful tool to encourage first-movers to test the process, several changes are necessary to broaden the scope of the coverage. As currently structured, the statutory liability cap is now too low and does not reflect today’s market costs.

We must revive and promote the expansion of the domestic uranium mining and uranium enrichment industries that produce fuel for nuclear power plants and ensure deployment of advanced, more efficient technologies. The federal inventory of excess uranium must be managed judiciously so it does not jeopardize the domestic expansion of mining and enrichment. The government should create a reserve of enriched fuel from its existing inventory to guard against supply interruptions.

Since the last nuclear power plants were built in the United States, the domestic manufacturing base, which is necessary to produce nuclear grade equipment, has significantly diminished. U.S. electric companies must rely on foreign manufacturers, waiting in line with the rest of the world.

Rebuilding the domestic manufacturing base will create tens of thousands of new jobs and ensure that the supply chain does not become a constraint on the deployment of new nuclear power plants.

More advanced nuclear generating technologies, like high-temperature reactors that can produce process heat as well as electricity, are necessary to prepare for the long-term viability of nuclear energy and must continue to be developed. Additionally, NRC must continue to work with industry to study the effects of aging on our existing fleet of reactors to determine if they can be safely operated beyond 60 years.

Our nuclear waste policy was crafted at a time when we believed there would be no additions to our fleet of nuclear reactors, and the current fleet would be phased out, leaving us with a finite amount of used nuclear fuel to manage. However, if we are to ensure electricity supply keeps pace with demand, while avoiding hazardous air emissions and GHG emissions, nuclear power must be significantly expanded.

Our nuclear waste policy must be updated to foster this expansion, and we recommend establishing a government corporation to manage the entire back end of the nuclear fuel cycle.

Such an entity would more efficiently meld used fuel recycling with ultimate disposal of nuclear waste, and more readily integrate industry into the recycling and disposal enterprise through long-term contracting authority.

Under any scenario, the country will require a high-level nuclear waste repository. In 2002, Congress authorized the construction and operation of a federal repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. This year, DOE submitted a license application, which the NRC has accepted for review; that approval could take three to four years, and perhaps longer. Even as the application is being reviewed by the NRC, DOE needs to move ahead with site and transportation infrastructure development. However, Congress has consistently underfunded this effort, forcing schedule delays.

Our nation’s leaders must commit to the creation and operation of a permanent waste repository. Yucca Mountain has been designated in law by both the executive and legislative branches as our nation’s nuclear waste repository. The facility design is before the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission for licensing. It follows, both the President and the Congress are required to do everything in their collective power to ensure the licensing, construction, and operation of Yucca Mountain. If the President or the Congress will not fully commit to this path, they owe it to the American public and the utilities that have paid fees and interest in excess of $27 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund, to pursue a parallel path of centralized interim storage, industrial deployment of advanced recycling technology and continued governmental research and development to more quickly place the U.S. government in compliance with U.S. law. This is a high priority for our nation.

New used fuel recycling technologies and advanced reactors must be developed such that the volume, thermal load, and radiotoxicity of used fuel are reduced. These new technologies will help safely manage nuclear waste while utilizing our nuclear fuel resources more efficiently. We must move with urgency to establish a program to develop and demonstrate advanced fuel cycle technologies of tomorrow while empowering the government corporation to pursue the proper course for spent fuel management in the near term.

Interim spent fuel storage is a proven and safe method of storing used fuel, and we have the means to manage used fuel until the repository at Yucca Mountain is licensed by NRC or until acceptable new methods of used fuel treatment, waste disposal, or recycling technology are available. Additionally, interim storage must be a component utilized to manage the nation’s used nuclear fuel, and the federal government must work with private industry, local communities, and states to foster private, central interim storage facilities. Perhaps most important, the Nuclear Waste Fund must be readily usable to finance any and all of these back-end options that will safely and effectively manage the country’s civilian nuclear waste.