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New Life for Nuclear Power

The licensing process is underway for 30 new nuclear power plants in the U.S. Photo: Petr Nad/Shutterstock

Skyrocketing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have begun to bake our planet, triggering heated debates about our heavy reliance on fossil fuels and the need to diversify our power sources.

Exactly what the United States’ future energy portfolio will look like is not yet clear, but one of the beneficiaries of growing concerns over carbon dioxide emissions has been the nuclear power industry. After hovering at the bottom of the list of popular energy sources for decades, atomic power is in vogue again with many utilities across the nation.

Last fall, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) received the first applications for new reactors in almost three decades. Some 17 companies and consortia are now pursuing licenses for more than 30 nuclear power plants, and the NRC has begun reviewing the first wave of applications.

Several factors have lead to the revival of the industry, whose image hit rock bottom after accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in the 1970s and 80s.

The most important boost has been the public’s growing unease over greenhouse gas emissions, says Deborah Luchsinger (PhD ’98), principal consultant at Enercon Services, an engineering, environmental, technical and management services firm. Unlike their fossil fuel-powered counterparts, nuclear energy plants don’t emit carbon dioxide. “The fact that it’s a clean energy source is a big seller for people and has led to a much greater public acceptance of nuclear energy,” she says, adding that even some environmental organizations have declared their support for the technology they once decried.

Both government and the public also realize that additional capacity is needed to satisfy the almost 50 percent increase in the country’s electricity demand that the Energy Information Administration expects by 2030, says nuclear energy consultant Douglas Croucher (MEPM ’98), vice president of The Croucher Group.

Another factor that helped spark the race to build new nuclear plants is the fact that operators have optimized the 103 reactors that are currently producing about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity to reach their maximum productivity. Over the last two decades, the operating efficiency of these plants has gone from about 70 percent up to 90 percent or more, Croucher says. “That played a big role in not having to build new plants because we got substantially more power generation out of the existing facilities,” he says. “But now we can’t get much better, which means that we have to build new plants.”

None of the proposed new units will be located in Colorado, and Xcel Energy has no plans to pursue nuclear energy in the state, says company spokesperson Mary Sandok. However, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association-Colorado’s second largest utility-announced it is exploring the nuclear option for a site in Prowers County in southeast Colorado.

Western states are already feeling the impact of the new momentum in the form of a surge in uranium mining activities.

Sitting at the heart of the Uravan Mineral Belt — historically one of the world’s most productive areas for uranium and vanadium mining — Colorado holds the third-largest uranium reserves in the United States, trailing only Wyoming and New Mexico. Uranium prices have risen almost 14 times over the last seven years, and the increase in mining is likely to continue, Luchsinger says.

“The area across the Colorado Plateau, over into Utah and down into Arizona, is particularly hot for uranium mining at the moment,” she explains. “We are seeing a dramatic increase in expansion of existing mines, milling operations and new mine applications.” Several abandoned mines have been reopened and 32 uranium prospects across the state are currently permitted and active, according to the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.

But the West may also play an important role in the as-of-yet unresolved nuclear waste issue. The U.S Department of Energy recently submitted an application for an NRC license to proceed with construction of the proposed spent fuel repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. However, the political future of the site is still in question-the state’s congressional delegation, as well as many of its residents, are not interested in hosting a nuclear repository site.

“It’s not clear yet how that’s going to get settled,” Croucher says.

“People have and always will have concerns over the waste issue,” Luchsinger adds, “but improvements in on-site storage methodologies and potential for waste reprocessing may eventually alleviate a number of these concerns.”

In an increasingly carbon-conscious world, fears over emissions may eventually trump any lingering waste worries. “Handling nuclear waste is seen as a surmountable problem, while greenhouse gas emissions, due to their global nature, are more difficult to contend with,” Luchsinger says.

The public perception of nuclear power and its related issues isn’t the only aspect of the nuclear industry that’s begun to change in recent years. Companies that are planning to build new nuclear reactors are working in a much friendlier regulatory environment as well.

One example is a streamlined licensing process for new nuclear reactors. The NRC used to require companies to apply for two separate licenses, one to build a plant and a second one to operate it. That posed a significant risk because a company could obtain a license to build a reactor but then not receive one to operate it after construction.

A new combined license application process eliminates that risk. Though the NRC introduced the new licensing procedure in 1989, it is now being tested for the first time-the agency had not received any applications since the late 1970s. The new process also shaves about five years off the time that it takes to move from application submission to power production.

The NRC now requires about 3 to 4 years to review an application and, once approved, construction will take another 3 to 5 years, which means that the first new reactors could be in production halfway through the next decade. That’s not a minute too soon, Luchsinger says. With the projected increase in electricity demand, she says, “We are going to be out of capacity in some parts of the country by 2015.”

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