THE RECENT RISE IN NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS IN AMERICA
In order to judge the recent developments in the rate of new nuclear power plants being built, it is useful to have a knowledge of the history of the industry. This will serve as a baseline for making the comparisons, and it will also explain some of the reasons why there have been times of little progress in this area.
Breif history of nuclear power plants in America
Nuclear power was hailed as the power source of the future in the 1950s. The US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was instrumental in the fostering of nuclear power plants for use in the generation of electricity for infrastructure purposes in the US.
The first American commercial reactor was installed at Shippingsport, PA and was commissioned in 1957. (The UK had started a commercial plant in 1956 ). Capacities were low, but quickly the designs of plants had risen to 4 to 6 times the original plant sizes.
Historical cost comparisons with other energy sources
Before the Iraq/Iran war, and the rise of terrorism (9/11) and higher levels of instability in OPEC countries, the costs of developing nuclear power were high when compared to costs of oil, natural gas, coal. When the price of oil spikes, nuclear power becomes more attractive. The chart shown is not quite up to date, and as of this writing (November 2007), the cost of oil is approaching 100 dollars per barrel.
History of environmental Concerns
Naturally, there are serious environmental and ecological concerns associated with nuclear power generation. Infrastructures had to be developed regarding the storage and transportation of nuclear waste. The public sentiment has played a role in the decisions made by government officials regarding policy decisions involving nuclear power.
The Impact of Famous Accidents at Commercial Reactors
There were two famous nuclear accidents, the first at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, and the second at Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, USSR. Each accident fueled fears that nuclear energy was not safe, and nuclear energy became very unpopular. These were the top stories on the news, and activist groups sprang up to protest any new developments, and to shut down the existing facilities.
Obviously, the timing of these two accidents immediately precedes the leveling off of the growth of the nuclear power available in the world. In other words, orders for new plants were not occurring as they had been.
See the graph that shows the correlation.
Current Environmental Views of Nuclear Power
In reality, nuclear power generates no emissions, except for steam.
Recently this was summarized by U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), when testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, October 31, 2007:
“Thirty years ago due in part to fear, in part to a lack of information, [American] politicians enacted policies that placed numerous road blocks in front of the nuclear energy industry. … Yet, at the same time Europe embraced nuclear energy even more. Today, Europeans have almost twice as many nuclear reactors than the United States. And they slashed dependence on coal by more than 30 percent—while we increased our use of coal by more than 60 percent.”
Even the Co-Founder of of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, now weighs in on nuclear power generation differently. From the kiplinger's business resource Center, September 2007:
“A more diverse mix of voices are taking a positive second look at nuclear energy—environmentalists, scientists, the media, prominent Republicans and Democrats and progressive think tanks. They are all coming to a similar conclusion: If we are to meet the growing electricity needs in this country and also address global climate change, nuclear energy has a crucial role to play.”
The Future of Nuclear Power
The world's power demands are increasing every year. In an article written in 2004, John Rice, President and CEO of General Electric Corporation wrote:
Electricity demand will increase by about 30 perceent in Europe and the United States by 2020, and will more than double in Asia and the rest of the world.
With the price of oil currently skyrocketing towards 100 dollars per barrel, efforts are underway to use more coal in the production of oil and gasoline. Therefore this demand increases the price of coal, and coal-powered electricity. Add to this the chronic volatility in natural gas prices. As a result, nuclear power becomes even more competitive. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration - because there have been no new nuclear power plants built in this country recently, accurate costs of new plants are not available, but these plants are expected to be more competitive than ever. See http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/electricity.html specifically.
The U.S. government has been proactive in getting the ball rolling by providing tax incentives for the construction of nuclear power plants here. The EIA estimated 9 gigwatts of new nuclear-based electricity online in the next 20 years due strictly to the EPACT2005 Tax Credits.
In a report that he delivered to the Southern Legislative Conference, Michael McGarey, Manager of State Programs, Nuclear Energy Institute, Washington, D.C., there are licenses for over 30 new nuclear power plants in the United States.
A huge challenge for the future is know-how. There is a lack of qualified people in the nuclear industry at this time.
For example, the authors know that Westinghouse laid off many engineering personnel during slow times and closed much of its facilities in the Pittsburgh area. They are now desparately trying to hire staff now, but the experience base formed in the heyday of the industry has all retired or is very close to retirement. Demand will be great for personnel to deign, install, operate, and regulate the new wave of power plants.
ME 1065 Wiki page
Nuclear Regulatory Comission
International Atomic Energy Association
Energy Information Administration - U.S. Government
U.S. Department of Energy
Nuclear Energy Institute
Southern legislative Conference, Chairs Report, July 14, 2007