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Beyond Fossil Fuels: Alan Hanson on Nuclear Power

The executive vice president of AREVA, Inc., weighs in on the hurdles facing his industry
nuclear power, energy, alternative energy, AREVA, ADAGE



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Editor's note: This Q&A is a part of a survey conducted by Scientific American of executives at companies engaged in developing and implementing non–fossil fuel energy technologies.

What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of nuclear fission? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?
In fact, no serious technical obstacles exist that would hamper the expansion of nuclear energy in the U.S. The newest generation of nuclear power plants builds on a foundation of excellence spanning decades and supported by significant improvement in plant efficiency. While the average U.S. nuclear plant in 1980 had a capacity factor of less than 60 percent, today's average is over 90 percent. Generation III+ reactors include safety and efficiency improvements over current models.

Despite the lack of technical obstacles to the expansion of nuclear power, some regulatory and political challenges exist. Allow me to cite two examples. First, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission likely will struggle to review all of the license applications and design certifications according to its current schedule. Second, the federal government still has not awarded any loan guarantees for proposed nuclear facilities, and the program is not funded adequately to provide guarantees to all of the proposed projects.

Although some have argued that current methods of managing nuclear waste present problems, I would affirm that safe, effective management of used fuel and other radioactive material have been consistently demonstrated over several decades. This includes the storage and transportation of used fuel and the recycling and reuse of nuclear fuel in some countries. There is no technical obstacle to managing nuclear waste—we do it safely and effectively today. In fact, the new energy secretary Steven Chu said during in his Senate confirmation hearing that he did not view used fuel management as an issue that should hamper the growth of nuclear power. Of course, there remain political obstacles to the siting and implementation of a repository.

Are there obstacles to scaling up nuclear power to serve an even larger national or global customer base?
In the U.S., the two principal challenges to scaling up production are a weak manufacturing base and the need for a trained workforce. AREVA is taking significant steps to address both challenges. We are investing in several new projects to rebuild the U.S. nuclear industry, including a multibillion-dollar uranium enrichment facility in Idaho. We are also building a facility in Newport News, Va., to manufacture heavy reactor components through a partnership with Northrop Grumman.

We know that finding the right workers to meet the growing demand will be a challenge. The industry predicts that we could face a shortage of qualified employees, especially among certain craft workers, in the coming years. AREVA hired some 600 new workers in the U.S. last year and expects to hire the same number this year. We are also training workers to meet our precise needs. For example, our Lynchburg, Va., facilities have formed a partnership with the Central Virginia Community College to train new technicians that will work at the facilities in the region.

Can the existing energy infrastructure handle growth in nuclear? Or does that, too, need further modification?
The U.S. electricity infrastructure is sorely in need of modernization; whatever our choice for generation, we must invest in a newer, more efficient electricity grid. In fact, AREVA's transmission and distribution (T&D) division produces much of the equipment and integrated solutions necessary for this modernization. The use of smart grids delivers electricity more efficiently and at the same time helps reduce the environmental impact of the system. Even based on the current grid, however, nuclear power plants are a good choice, because they provide reliable, dispatchable base-load electricity.

Given the current economic crisis, can your industry get the necessary capital (from public or private sources) to adequately finance its growth?
So far, the nuclear energy industry has been less affected by the economic crisis than most. Financing the construction of a capital-intensive nuclear facility such as a commercial reactor or enrichment plant, however, is a challenging enterprise even in good economic times. The current environment has made initiatives, such as the federal loan guarantee program, even more critical to the successful development of nuclear facilities.

We must bear in mind that nuclear energy is not the only industry that receives federal financial support. In reality, the government provides support for all energy sources, including coal, oil and gas, and all types of renewables, in addition to nuclear. As the nation considers investment in new electricity infrastructure, we should maintain a long-range perspective. Although nuclear power plants require large up-front investments, their operational and fuel costs are competitive and predictable.

From a strategic standpoint, which is the bigger competitor for nuclear: incumbent coal, oil and gas technologies or other alternative energy technologies?
Over the past two decades some 90 percent of the new plants built in the U.S. have been natural gas–fired power plants. Thus, natural gas has become the de facto competitor of nuclear energy; both now produce roughly 20 percent of the nation's electricity.  However, one of nuclear power's strengths is its stable and predictable fuel costs. Once the construction costs of a nuclear plant are amortized, its operating costs are less than those of any fossil fuel–fired plant, including coal. Should the government impose a price on carbon emissions, whether it is a tax or cap-and-trade system, CO2-free sources, such as nuclear energy, will become even more competitive.

AREVA actively supports the expansion of alternative energy technologies. The company formed a joint venture with Duke Energy, ADAGE, to build and operate biomass power plants in the U.S. We manufacture offshore wind turbines in Europe. We recognize that, although we anticipate significant growth in this sector, these sources are complements to large-scale sources such as nuclear rather than competitors.

Is there a cost target that you and others in your industry are aiming to achieve in, say, five years?
After completing a first-of-a-kind facility, such as the EPR reactor, we expect to achieve significant cost savings in building subsequent reactors in a series. Until we achieve series production, it is too early to predict what the actual cost will be. Our goal is to deliver nuclear power plants and fuel at costs that will make them competitive with other sources of electricity generation.

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