This article is from the In-Depth Report The Future of Nuclear Power

Can Nuclear Power Compete?

Newly approved reactor designs could reduce global warming and fossil-fuel dependence, but utilities are grappling with whether better nukes make market sense

The possibility of a series of new reactors is a stunning turnaround for the industry, which bankrupted some of its customers in the 1980s because of huge cost overruns and which looked so bad in the early 1990s that some completed plants were shut down after only a few years of operation. Proponents say that today energy utilities find greater benefit in a technology that puts the financial risk up front, in the construction cost, and has little vulnerability to later swings in the price of fuel, as natural gas does, or to changes in emissions regulations, as coal faces. Consequently, companies around the country are spending tens of millions of dollars to explore their nuclear options, conducting engineering studies and preparing license applications, even if no one has ponied up the billions of dollars that an actual reactor would require. “There’s a huge sense of déjà vu for me personally,” Wallace says.

More Viable Than Clean Coal
To no one’s surprise, cost will loom large in any decision to plan on a reactor. The first installation of UniStar’s standardized model, known as a European Pressurized Reactor, or EPR, is under way in Olkiluoto, Finland. The project is now behind schedule and over budget, after quality-control problems early in the construction period.

Other reasons to be skeptical of nuclear’s price persist as well. Estimates submitted by utilities to regulators in Florida predicted $8,000 per kilowatt of capacity when transmission and loan interest costs are included. The cost of steel, concrete and labor have all risen, and the recent financial crisis may mean higher interest rates for construction loans, although that would affect the building of any kind of power plant.

Whether a reactor would be cost-effective depends on how it compares with other environmentally sound generation options. Coal plants that capture their own carbon emissions are one choice, but the leading demonstration plant that was being built in the U.S., known as FutureGen, has been scrapped.

FutureGen, originally planned for Mattoon, Ill., was overseen by a public-private consortium. The coal would have been cooked in a low-oxygen environment, creating a fuel gas made of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen would be burned for electricity and the carbon converted to carbon dioxide and pumped underground. The only emission would have been water vapor. But as the price of materials rose internationally, the plant’s cost went up even more. In early 2008 the U.S. Department of Energy pulled out. That move left China with the leading project, equally uncertain, which it calls GreenGen.

The Energy Department continues low-level work on so-called Gen IV nuclear reactors, fourth-generation technologies that use altered fuels or produce a more manageable waste stream. Other low-carbon coal technologies are being attempted, too. In Pleasant Prairie, Wis., the Electric Power Research Institute and Wisconsin Electric are testing a process that uses an ammonia-based chemical to bind carbon dioxide in a smokestack so it can be sequestered. But the test deals with only a little more than 1 percent of the plant’s emissions.

“We’re maybe 15 or 20 years behind where we should be for burning coal in an environmentally sound manner,” says Marsha H. Smith, president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. The bottom line is that although nuclear energy has obvious drawbacks such as cost and poisonously radioactive waste, it is far better demonstrated than coal with carbon capture.

More Dependable Than Wind or Solar
At the moment, the fastest-growing source of clean energy is wind. The American Wind Energy Association said in September that installations had reached 20,000 megawatts, double the capacity of 2006, with growth driven by generous tax incentives and state renewable energy quotas. But wind plants run far fewer hours of the year than nuclear plants do; 10,000-megawatt wind machines produce the energy equivalent of only two or three big 1,000-megawatt reactors. Because wind is not “dispatchable”—meaning the generators run only when nature allows, not when operators might order them to—the extent to which it can replace around-the-clock technologies such as nuclear is unclear.

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