Trade group has a mixed outlook for the future of nuclear energy in the U.S.
The plenary session of the winter meeting of the American Nuclear Society held in Las Vegas earlier this month is a place where luminaries of the industry can be assured of an attentive audience. So it comes as no surprise that these speeches are often frank as well as informative.
For instance, in 2009l NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko bluntly told the session in his view the nuclear industry was laying down on the job when it comes to safety. Also, he complained about the quality of reactor certification submissions and license applications.
Readers are reminded that regulatory agencies don’t worry about making friends. Safety is their top agenda item. Was Jaczko right? He certainly chose the right forum to air his complaints.
However, a nuclear energy trade group, that relies on the industry for it existence, sings its tune with a different melody. NEI CEO Marvin Fertel (right) is an entertaining and informative speaker. He didn’t disappoint this year’s conference with his ‘realpolitic” views of where the industry is headed in the midst of a major economic downturn.
American’s don’t think about electricity except when it’s off
Fertel told the more than 2,000 members of the American Nuclear Society attending the group’s winter meeting in sunny Las Vegas, NV, Nov 8 that Americans don’t think much about energy except when they don’t have it. The nuclear renaissance in the U.S. has been taking a beating lately with Constellation’s pullout from the Calvert Cliffs III reactor project, but the American public may not care.
Fertel said that despite record high approval ratings for nuclear energy in polls taken by trade group that just 28% of those polled think new reactors will have a significant impact on global climate change. That may be due to the fact they don’t have a good grip on the scale of new reactor construction that would be needed, which Fertel says is in the range of 150-200 new 1,000 MW reactors by 2050.
One would think these numbers would spin green groups into a frenzy. However, Fertel noted that anti-nuclear groups “are not a major force.”
They’re loud, but not influential,” he said.
Progress in re-licensing reactors, but not for new construction
The good news in the U.S. is that relicensing of the current fleet of reactors is going well. Fertel noted that more than half have had their licenses renewed by the NRC another 18 are in process for renewal.
The gorilla in the room is the Obama administration’s high credit subsidy fees for loan guarantees for new nuclear facilities, which was one of the factors which caused Constellation to walk away from Calvert Cliffs. Fertel told an appreciative audience, “we’re going to fix this. We will meet with the White House soon.”
If the Obama Democrats don’t fix it, House Republicans may take action next year Fertel said.
Political difficulties aren’t the only barrier to building new reactors. Fertel said the recession has “shoved demand down for electricity across the U.S.”
Another factor that could have stimulated new construction has also gone by the wayside. Fertel said with the new Republican controlled House, there will be no price on carbon or cap-and-trade program for the next two years.
Looking into his crystal ball, Fertel predicted the courts will rule DOE cannot withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application. Whether the NRC will be funded to review it remains uncertain.
European anti-nuclear groups louder voice
The issue of low public support for nuclear energy is more pronounced in Europe. Jean-pol Poncelet, a senior VP at Areva, told the ANS the European Nuclear Energy Forum has data that show less than 50% of European Union country populations support expansion of nuclear energy. The reason he said is that they equate nuclear waste from reactors with the threat of nuclear weapons.
New proliferation resistant fuels may not make a difference for a long time. Russian nuclear expert Evgeny Velikhov told ANS that the long-term prospects for thorium fuels are that they won’t start to make inroads on uranium oxide fuels until 2040. The Kurchatov Institute, where Velikhov works, is testing thorium fuels for an American firm.
ANS answers the mail in Vermont
For years the American Nuclear Society has represented itself as a traditional scientific society, but has not gotten involved in dueling press releases over the future of specific nuclear plants. That changed last week when ANS issued a press release to news media outlets in Vermont over the future of the Vermont Yankee reactor.
The ANS press statement was a reaction to one from anti-nuclear groups who rolled out a list of experts Monday Nov 8 to advance their political agenda to close the plant in 2012 when its current NRC license expires.
ANS fielded a press release less than 24 hours later which listed its own nuclear energy experts in the fields of licensing, workforce continuity, and radiation protection. The news media took notice. ANS told FCW Vermont Public Radio interviewed its experts the following week.
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Portions of this blog post also appeared in Fuel Cycle Week v9:N402, 11/18/10 published by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC.