The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) approval of a construction and operating license for two new reactors in Georgia last month was excellent news for the future of nuclear energy. After all, it was the first approval of its kind since 1978. Experts and pundits heralded the announcement as a sign of the revival of nuclear energy in the United States.
But while the NRC approval was good news for nuclear energy, enormous financial and political challenges remain. The licensing process takes years to complete and costs hundreds of millions of dollars, and we are still without a long-term solution to nuclear waste disposal.
There are also challenges raised by anti-nuclear activists, who have spread misinformation about nuclear safety for decades, spawned unheeded fears and premature calls for the closure of nuclear facilities, and opposed any new proposed facilities.
Following the Fukushima-Daiichi tragedy last March, anti-nuclear activists have ramped up their crusade against nuclear power. In California, a handful of environmental activists have set their sights on the state’s two nuclear plants by circulating a petition to place a resolution on the November ballot that would immediately shut them down if adopted – despite the fact that doing so would plunge the state into a massive series of blackouts.
Notwithstanding California’s historic difficulties with power supply, the curious part of this debate seems to be the ongoing ambivalence amongst the environmental community when it comes to nuclear energy. Just a few years ago, some environmentalists, including the founder of Greenpeace, embraced nuclear energy as a sound choice for low-carbon, efficient electricity.
Now, the pendulum has swung the other way with several environmental groups ramping up efforts to oppose nuclear energy. In propagating myths about the safety of nuclear power, these groups have chosen to ignore the unparalleled safety record of U.S. nuclear plants and the continuing strides to enhance and exceed safety and preparedness expectations.
U.S. nuclear operators and regulators have thoroughly evaluated the lessons learned from Fukushima. Even prior to the event, the industry had constructed and operated its facilities with design principles and practices that could withstand the worst natural – and man made – events ever recorded (including the earthquake and flooding that caused the Fukushima disaster). Even an F-4 Phantom jet impacting at 500 miles per hour could not compromise the containment structure over a nuclear reactor. Building upon layers of redundant safety and security protocols, American nuclear facilities’ dedication to continuous learning and transparency has earned the trust of most Americans. In a recent survey by Bisconti Research, nearly three-quarters of the American public trust that U.S. nuclear plants operate safely and securely.
While anti-nuclear activists will not likely succeed in their mission to close every U.S. plant, other ongoing battles jeopardize the long-term viability of our existing nuclear facilities. In particular, nuclear waste management remains a highly politicized and extremely costly issue.
The federal government has completely abdicated its responsibility for nuclear waste management in the thirty-years since Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and forced utilities to store nuclear waste in dry cask storage containers at their facilities.
As a political favor for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, President Obama has shut down development of the Yucca Mountain disposal facility in Nevada, leaving ratepayers and utilities to shoulder the expense of on site storage. All the while, utilities and ratepayers have paid nearly $30 billion in the Nuclear Waste Fund without any resolution. On top of that, as of 2010 the federal government (i.e. the taxpayer) had spent over $192 million in litigation expenses associated with the government’s failure to perform its obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
When President Obama took the Yucca Mountain option off the table, he formed the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future to recommend an alternative path forward. The Commission returned eight recommendations that focus on pragmatic, cost-effective solutions to overcome the waste-management dilemma within the next few years. The Commission advised the development of one or more consolidated storage facilities, which could be constructed and maintained utilizing the Nuclear Waste Fund. These storage facilities would allow utilities to safely transport dry casks to consolidated storage sites, easing the expense of maintaining the casks on site. A majority of the Commission’s recommendations do require Congressional action to move forward – a steep ask at a time of chronic inaction on Capitol Hill.
As we all wait eagerly for the nuclear renaissance to accelerate, we should focus on supporting the reactors that currently supply near 20 percent of our electricity, and on ensuring Congress recognizes the value of nuclear energy for our country’s energy and economic security. In doing so, we will pave the path to success for America’s nuclear energy future.