In This Issue
The Future of Nuclear Energy
September 1, 2001 Volume 31 Issue 3

The Future of Nuclear Energy (editorial)

Saturday, September 1, 2001

Author: John F. Ahearne

In the past few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in nuclear power in the United States. Once advocated by very few, nuclear power is now being endorsed in the political arena, the marketplace, and the public-policy community. In the political arena, Senator Pete Domenici has long been a supporter of nuclear energy. Beginning with his speech at Harvard in 1997, he has laid out a clear program for research and development that could lead to the development of new and improved reactors and address the nagging problem of radioactive waste. Three clear signals indicate that nuclear power is being seen more favorably in the marketplace. First, not long ago, many were predicting that nuclear power plants would be shut down before their lifetimes had ended. Today, however, so many plants are being proposed for relicensing, which would extend their lifetimes for 20 years, that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in danger of accumulating a backlog. Second, whereas several years ago nuclear plants were being sold at fire-sale prices (e.g., for the cost of the fresh nuclear fuel committed to that plant), plants being auctioned now are bringing prices of many hundreds of millions of dollars. And finally, until very recently anyone who proposed that a new nuclear power plant be built in the United States was dismissed as blindly optimistic; today, utilities are discussing joining together to build a nuclear plant. The most aggressive industry advocate for building new nuclear plants, Corbin McNeill of Exelon, advocates a design that has several significant safety features, including fuel resistant to melting, the use of helium as the working fluid, and technologies with passive safety features. Several designs have features that could have significant advantages, the advanced boiling-water reactor, for example, which has already been built in Japan.

In the past three years, the U.S. Department of Energy, supported by Congress, has developed several programs for research on nuclear technologies. These include: NERI,1 a broad-based program for research on a wide variety of nuclear-energy-related topics; NEPO,2 a program to improve the operation of current plants; and Generation IV, a program to develop new reactor designs for use by 2030. The goal of the latter program, as explained by Gail Marcus, is to develop designs acceptable to the public with improved safety and proliferation resistance and reduced costs.

The focus on 2030 is a sign in and of itself of the resurgence of interest in nuclear power. Another indication is the energy program of the current administration put forth by Vice President Cheney’s task force, which is far more supportive of nuclear power than programs by the previous administration. In addition, many pragmatists in the scientific public-policy community, exemplified by John Holdren of Harvard, recognize that the United States will require a balanced portfolio of energy options to meet the challenges posed by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. He and others now recognize that nuclear power is a necessary element in a balanced energy portfolio. All of the authors in this issue have been involved for many years in making sure that the United States has a balanced energy portfolio and that safe, economical nuclear power is part of that portfolio.

1. Nuclear Energy Research Initiative.
2. Nuclear Energy Plant Optimization.

About the Author:John F. Ahearne is director of the Ethics Program at Sigma Xi.