Nuclear power plants: Bridging the gap to a clean energy economy

Nuclear power plants: Bridging the gap to a clean energy economy

On Jan. 12, the Wisconsin Assembly unanimously passed AB 384, a bill that would lift the prohibition against new nuclear power plants in the state.

The Wisconsin Assembly is the equivalent of the House of Representatives. The vote effectively overturned a ruling that states the Public Service Commission cannot authorize a new nuclear power plant until the federal government – or a country outside the United States – provides a place to store spent nuclear fuel.

However, as key AB 384 supporter John Macco (R-Ledgeview) notes, technology has vastly improved both nuclear power plant operation and fuel storage safety, so large-scale storage facilities like Yucca Mountain are no longer necessary.  

The next step is the Wisconsin Senate. Republican Governor Scott Walker has already given his blessing. The state’s five power companies - Alliant Energy Corporation (NYSE: LNT), Dairyland Power Cooperative, NextEra Energy Inc. (NYSE: NEE), Xcel Energy, Inc. (NYSE: XEL), and WEC Energy Group, Inc. (NYSE: WEC) – also support the measure, as do a number of unions. Of the power companies, NextEra owns eight nuclear plants (one in Wisconsin), Xcel owns two (none in Wisconsin), and WEC owns one, at Point Beach in Wisconsin.

Why Nuclear Energy?

The answer is apparent. Energy experts and policy experts from as far afield as France, China, Russia, and Japan (and, in the U.S., from Texas to Georgia) see nuclear power as the only way to transition from a fossil fuel economy to a “clean” energy economy. 

This transition, which Germany has already achieved, requires a clean, reliable energy source that meets most, or all, of a given region's continuous daily energy demand, and produces energy at an affordable, constant rate that does not fluctuate with local climactic weather conditions the way the two major clean energy sources, wind and solar, do.

In the United States, nuclear optimists like veteran North Dakota resident and nuclear submarine officer Duane Sand, Congressional hopeful, insist that the Red River Valley is an ideal site for a modern nuclear plant. In Upper New York state, a December 2015 report shows that the region’s three nuclear power plants contribute approximately $3.16 billion to the state’s gross domestic product and account for nearly 25,000 full-time jobs. In Waynesboro, Georgia, the Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant expansion – the first new nuclear plant in the U.S. in 30 years – has finally worked out an arrangement whereby Westinghouse will take over construction. Westinghouse Electric Company LLC,  the “powerhouse” of nuclear power technology (majority owned by Toshiba-OTCBB: TOSBF), is responsible for nearly 50 percent of operational nuclear energy around the globe. Vogtle was behind schedule as a result of contractor litigation rather than safety concerns.

And in California, the haven of all things green, a group dedicated to fighting climate change with nuclear power suggests that nuclear power plants can be designed so safely that they are “huggable”.

Defining Baseload

Large, reliable, 24/7 sources of electricity like nuclear energy are often referred to as “baseload” (or base load). Hydropower makes an excellent, renewable baseload energy supply in the regions where it is available, but its future is imperiled by climate change. Geothermal is tricky, and limited to specific regions. Biomass (and biogas) are considered renewable, but each requires large, reliable feedstocks, and biomass too often requires withdrawing acreage from agriculture. Neither solar thermal nor ocean thermal are sufficiently advanced. Wave energy, or ocean power (forms of kinetic), is also in early stages.

This leaves only coal, natural gas, and nuclear to fill the baseload bill, and coal is history – both literally and figuratively speaking. In fact, after a 100-year run for its money, coal has earned a seriously nasty reputation and the various ways proposed to clean it up (carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS; coal gasification, or IGCC) are complicated, expensive and unwieldy.

Natural gas is building a similar, unsavory reputation. Fracking and pipelines are unwelcome neighbors, and the final nail in natural gas’s coffin may be the recent glut in the global market which has driven prices to their lowest ($2.34 Henry Hub) since 1999. The backlash is a decline in production, with many wells idled.

The industry will likely recover, but there will always be the risk (or the perception of risk) that foreign production, a glut in the marketplace, increasing regulation, and the need for more technology-intensive extraction will drive natural gas prices into negative territory again. Liquid natural gas, or LNG, which JPMorgan sees as a buyer’s market until 2020, faces the same grim, public-perception risks – a risk that will rise if LNG pipelines like that proposed for pristine, B.C. Canada’s Howe Sound fail.

Enter Nuclear Energy 

Nuclear energy is a nonrenewable that is nonetheless a zero-carbon source like wind and sun, and highly sustainable as well. Moreover, American nuclear plants are among the safest in the world.

Sadly, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant disaster, or TMI (March 28, 1979) brought the industry to a grinding halt and cast a pall over future nuclear power plant plans at precisely the same time the U.S. was beginning to ramp up both industrial and building energy needs from 1950’s levels. As a result, more than 10 percent of the U.S.’s nuclear plants now face either retirement or extended relicensing.

Various post-meltdown TMI studies suggest the increased cancer risk was nominal or entirely absent. Other sources described TMI as “the biggest string of lies ever told in U.S. industrial history”. The truth no doubt lies somewhere between. In 2010, the Nuclear Energy Agency published a global study showing 20,276 fatalities from coal operations, 20,218 fatalities from oil production, and only 31 from nuclear during the period 1969 and 2000.

Some energy experts suggest that widespread nuclear power plant retirement could make emissions goals under the CPP (Clean Power Plan) unattainable – a position supported by nuclear advocates who see the Plan as establishing a national policy “…under which Earth’s atmosphere will no longer be a free carbon sink”.

Ripe for a Renaissance or Eternally Damned?

Even advocates recognize that nuclear energy faces obstacles. Construction costs and timelines, a more rigid regulatory framework for operation, water usage, and the costs of decommissioning, make it a less attractive proposition than a field of solar panels. However, its ability to provide a steady supply of virtually uninterruptible power makes it shine.

Thanks to moves within the nuclear energy industry to make nuclear power generation cheaper and more competitive with natural gas, cost may no longer be a factor. In fact, the industry’s representative agency, the Nuclear Energy Institute, is already hard at work cutting costs by 30 percent by 2018, and recent installations of Westinghouse 900 MWe pressurized water reactors (PWRs) show “solid evidence of cost reductions and schedule improvements”.

The question for investors and governments alike is, can nuclear overcome the plethora of obstacles that continue to plague the industry?

The answer is yes. Even the regulatory framework, upgraded after Fukushima, has not been overwhelming. On Jan. 12, Nuclear Regulatory Commission head Stephen Burns announced that almost all U.S. nuclear reactors will complete safety modifications on schedule. In addition, Burns noted:

“We have not seen any evidence that operators facing challenging market conditions or closure are cutting corners on safety.”

Future water availability is an issue that will impact all steam cycle plants equally, whether coal, natural gas, or nuclear. Nuclear energy’s single advantage is that it can be sited almost anywhere, since fuel transportation issues are negligible. Large nuclear power plants (1,000 megawatt electric, or MWe) require 200 tons of fuel per year. The same sized coal plant burns 3.4 million short tons; oil-fired electricity generation uses 13.7 million barrels; even natural gas requires 65.8 billion cubic feet. 

The final issue, and one that has plagued the nuclear energy industry since day one – where to store spent fuel – has been resolved by Wisconsin energy experts and policy makers. As a consequence, the three scheduled U.S. nuclear power plants (totaling 6,263 MWe), the 17,364 MWe nuclear plants pending construction, and the 11,935 MWe plants suspended pre- and post-Fukushima, will have secure spent nuclear fuel storage, thanks to dry storage casks and other, more advanced, technological solutions.


Companies to Watch:

Curtiss-Wright Corp. (NYSE: CW), working with Westinghouse Electric Co. and State Nuclear Power Technology Corporation of China (SNPTC), recently completed successful testing of a nuclear reactor coolant pump (RCP). 

Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc. (NYSE: TMO) manufactures the world's only solid-state, radiation-hardened cameras that operate in gamma, neutrons, and protons. All are also available in RS-170, CCIR, progressive scan, and intensified, and are ideal for monitoring conditions inside the reactor core in the event of a malfunction.

Westinghouse Electric Company LLC (WEC), veteran nuclear power plant builder, now offers the AP1000, the “third generation” of a Pressurized Water Reactor, or PWR, that offers unequaled safety, economic viability, and improved efficiency of operation.

Cameco Corporation (NYSE: CCJ), a uranium producer. Seeking Alpha says: “Nuclear energy is the only solution to the future global electricity demand, uranium miners offer the best way to capitalize off the growth, and Cameco looks like the best pick”. 

Fluor Corporation (NYSE: FLR) Selected by Westinghouse to manage the construction workforce at the Vogtle expansion site, Fluor has three concurrent projects. Increased Q3 2015 earnings are the result of operational improvements and a focus on offering integrated solutions.

Jeanne Roberts is an award winning freelance writer covering the environment, sustainability, social justice, health, politics, and the natural world. She has roots in the corporate world as a California reporter and a communications specialist at a large public utility and has spent the past 10 years working as an editor for a small-cap stock site, and as an environmental/political/social justice blogger for The PanelistCelsias,Cooler PlanetDeSmogBlogEnergy, the Clean Tech Blog,EarthTechling, and various other online publications. Ms. Roberts has written a book on alternative energy sources, sustainable home building, and environmental initiatives for homeowners available on Amazon.

Originally published on January 27, 2016