Nuclear Reactions

Two positions on nuclear power

Nuclear Reactions

The heads of Exelon Corporation and the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Clean Energy Program weigh in on nuclear power. Plus, an interview with nuclear engineering expert Paul Wilson.

Nuclear power has been a staple of the nation’s energy grid for almost half a century. At present, it supplies roughly 20 percent of the nation’s energy needs. The fleet of plants is aging, however, and plans for new plants are on the table.

As solar, wind and other renewable energy sources are getting on their feet, is a new generation of nuclear power plants what the country needs to jump-start a clean energy revolution?

To find out, Momentum checked in with two widely respected authorities from different sides of this much-debated issue: One heads a major U.S. electric utility and the country’s largest nuclear fleet, while the other represents a major science advocacy group with more than 250,000 members. Consider these excerpts from the experts.

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Exelon Corporation

“What nuclear can really do to help a good energy policy is two things: First, it can supply a very large increment of electricity at a reasonable price with almost no carbon dioxide contributions. And second, it can allow you to have a clean electricity base as you move toward things like plug-in hybrid cars, which allow you to alleviate your oil imports.

Nuclear and wind aren’t particularly good partners because you want to run the nuclear plant all day; the wind happens to blow better at night and that’s when there’s less demand. You have to back up wind with gas, whereas it is much easier to supplement a nuclear base load with natural gas as a peaking fuel. Solar is a more natural counterpart [to nuclear].

It’s pretty clear that the Yucca Mountain permanent spent fuel disposal site that has been national policy for a number of years just isn’t going to get done in the next several decades. So what we really need is a federal policy that says, OK, here’s where you should put the spent fuel in surface storage facilities, and this will be the federally approved solution.

The real issue is whether federal policy is just that you leave it at the existing plant sites, or whether you have a better policy that, after some number of years at a plant site, you start moving it to a federally controlled facility. This is one of the most difficult issues in a resurgence of the nuclear industry because people aren’t exactly standing in line to have these new federal sites.”

Director, Clean Energy Program, Union of Concerned Scientists

“Compared to other potential climate solution technologies, nuclear has some serious inherent risks and it has issues and impacts throughout the fuel cycle. The primary risks are … a serious nuclear accident at the plant site, either from a human or mechanical series of failures, or as a result of sabotage or a potential terrorist attack. There’s also the risk that nuclear materials are diverted at some point in the fuel cycle and become potential nuclear weapons material.

If we’re going to expand the use of nuclear power on a global scale, then we’re going to greatly increase the traffic of nuclear materials throughout the world. We are going to see many countries that don’t have the kind of security we have here in the United States having access to those materials.

Nobody knows [the cost of new nuclear plants] because we haven’t built one in so long … and all of the projections of what it will cost have to be regarded as unreliable. If you look at the history of the nuclear industry, in this country especially, it has experienced enormous cost overruns.

After 2030, our current fleet of nuclear plants retires and the need to replace them with zero emission plants becomes very, very high. So if nuclear can solve some of its current safety and waste storage issues and solve its economic challenges, it could play a very important role. But our view is that nuclear proponents should first focus on solving those challenges, rather than rushing a new generation of plants out into the field before they’re solved.”