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Larry Coben Headshot

Nuclear Renaissance? Not in the U.S.A.

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There is no nuclear renaissance in the United States--at most a faint glimmer of hope for the end of a long nuclear dark age. President Obama, in his recent energy policy speech at MIT, cited nuclear power as an important part of America's energy future from both a security and carbon emission reduction perspective. The President declared "creating safe nuclear power, sustainable" to be a critical part of the creation of a more efficient, cleaner energy system and American energy independence. Yet almost nothing is happening on the nuclear front.

Under existing legislation, the Department of Energy has about $18.5 billion of loan guarantees to support proposed new nuclear plants. Additional support and guarantees from equipment supplying countries such as Japan and France might amount to another $9-10 billion. Yet the four nuclear power plants "selected" for fast tracking by the DOE require approximately $37 billion--a shortfall of $10 billion!

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's budget was not increased this year-indeed the commission has never been granted adequate additional funding to prepare for a significant increase in nuclear license applications. Until 2007 almost 30 years had passed before it received an application for a new plant. The Commission has capacity to review only a limited number of new license applications and has decided to focus on the four plants on the DOE shortlist and perhaps one other.

So at best only three or perhaps four new plants will come on line in the United States in the next decade (the licensing period and construction time for a nuclear plant is close to ten years). There is no guarantee that even this small number of plants will be completed. And the following decade will be lost as well unless new loan guarantees or other sources of financing become available and the NRC's budget is increased. In the absence of new funding and guarantees no private entity will risk commencing a new plant, at least until the successful completion of the first 3-4 plants on time and on budget.

Initial drafts of climate change and energy legislation do little or nothing to promote or accelerate nuclear development. Only now, in an effort to gain Republican support and avoid a Senate filibuster, have the Administration and Senate Democrats proposed additional though not robust support for nuclear facilities. Even if enacted, most of these proposals will only modestly if at all increase the pace of nuclear development.

Nuclear rhetoric is not matching the reality of nuclear policy. Perhaps Democrats have not dropped their long-standing opposition to nuclear power, yet don't wish to be perceived as against its development. They claim to be pro-nuclear, yet ensure that nuclear power is not a significant factor in our future energy mix.

The United States needs to decide what role nuclear power should play in our energy future. Even with no new plants, numerous licenses will be up for renewal in the next twenty-five years. The lack of carbon emissions from nuclear power is well known, as are its other benefits, costs and risks. We need a serious discussion about our nuclear future, not talk that doesn't match reality.

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