By Bill Theobald, Gannett Washington Bureau
Since Sen. Lamar Alexander first began pushing the idea last spring of building 100 nuclear plants over the next 20 years, the proposal has increasingly become part of the national debate about the best way to generate electricity while lowering emissions that contribute to climate change.
President Barack Obama and some congressional Democrats have proposed new loan guarantees and tax breaks for nuclear plants as a way to attract Republican support for climate-change legislation. Late last year, Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, was able to get Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia to sign on to his idea as part of legislation to promote clean energy.
But Alexander's push also has prompted a pushback from environmental groups and others who say that its apparent simplicity belies a host of obstacles, ranging from financing to what to do with the waste left over from nuclear power generation.
Using nuclear power to lower carbon emissions is "the last thing that should be in the toolbox, not the first thing," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
A total of 104 nuclear reactors are operating in the United States, but no new reactors have been ordered in more than 30 years. Eighteen license applications for 28 plants are pending before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including one by the Tennessee Valley Authority for two additional units at its Bellefonte site near Scottsboro in Jackson County, Ala. TVA also is constructing a second reactor at its Watts Bar site in East Tennessee.
Here are some of the obstacles to Alexander's proposal and his responses.
Estimates for new reactors range from $5 billion to $10 billion per unit, but one Catch-22 of the current debate is that estimates are difficult. "Reliably projecting construction costs of new U.S. nuclear plants is impossible because the nation has no recent experience to draw on," a 2009 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists states. Estimates of construction costs have quadrupled in recent years, said Ellen Vancko, nuclear energy and climate change project manager for the group.
In the 1970s and 1980s, cost overruns for nuclear plants averaged more than 200 percent. A study the group commissioned estimated that these overruns, combined with plant cancellations, cost taxpayers, customers and shareholders more than $300 billion.
Critics argue there are cheaper alternatives than nuclear, starting with conservation. Mark Cooper with the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School concluded in a report released last summer that it would cost about $1.9 trillion to $4.1 trillion more over the life of 100 new nuclear reactors than it would for a combination of more efficiency and renewable power generation.
Alexander agrees construction costs are high, but he points out that once a reactor is up and running, it lasts 60 to 80 years and produces cheap, clean energy.
Several credit-rating agencies and investment analysts, including Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service, have concluded that building nuclear plants is a risky business. "The risks of building new nuclear generation are hard to ignore ... with construction risk, huge capital costs, and continual shifts in national energy policy," a Moody's report last year concluded.
Alexander calls financing a "legitimate concern." He said nuclear power is made less attractive, in part, because of large subsidies for wind energy.
The demise of the proposed Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada leaves the country with no plan for storing spent nuclear fuel.
"Authorizing construction of new nuclear reactors without first constructing a radioactive waste disposal facility is like authorizing construction of a new Sears Tower without bathrooms," said Dave Kraft, director of Nuclear Energy Information Service. Smith, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said adding 100 new plants while extending the life of current plants would require two more sites with the capacity of the defunct Yucca proposal.
Alexander says that spent fuel can be stored at plants safely for 60 to 80 years and that aggressive research will allow for development of storage and reprocessing methods.
Safety and security
Few people believe that another nuclear plant disaster like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island is likely, but concerns remain that terrorists could bomb a plant and release radioactive material. Building 100 more plants would create that many more targets to protect.
Also, last October the Nuclear Regulatory Commission informed Westinghouse of concerns about whether the shield building that is part of a proposed revision to its plant design would be strong enough to protect a reactor in a hurricane, earthquake or other natural disaster.
Alexander called the NRC warning to Westinghouse a normal part of the license review process. He said the U.S. Navy has shown that nuclear power can be used safely on submarines and surface ships.