SINGAPORE--Jim Asselstine has an unparalleled pedigree to assess the nuclear energy industry. He has analyzed the industry for the past 23 years at Lehman Brothers and Barclays, was a Nuclear Regulatory Commission commissioner and punched his policy credential as a congressional staffer.
“My own personal view is that we should try to keep nuclear power, as the only zero-carbon, large-scale baseload generating source at about its current level of 19 or 20 percent of U.S. [electric] generation,” Asselstine said during a clear-eyed assessment of America’s nuclear energy industry. He was speaking at the World Nuclear Fuel Conference, a global symposium in Singapore sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute and World Nuclear Association.
Assuming modest electricity demand growth and with the closure of existing reactors after 60 years of production, Asselstine said meeting this goal would require building 30 to 35 reactors by 2030. Whether the industry builds advanced reactor technology at that pace, he said, depends on these factors:
- Electricity demand must increase with economic rejuvenation.
- Increases in natural gas prices, forecasted by Barclays to move to $3.70 per million Btu by the end of this year, up from $2.82 per million Btu in 2012.
- New Environmental Protection Agency regulations affecting coal-fired power plants, including the announced closure of 25,000 megawatts of coal capacity already and up to 50,000 to 60,000 megawatts of coal capacity by 2015.
- The focused response to the Fukushima accident in Japan both by industry and the NRC. “I regard the NRC requirements and industry initiatives as comprehensive and complementary,” he said.
- Industry and NRC must effectively carry out their responsibilities under a new regulatory framework for building new reactors.
“The industry enjoys broad access to financing at historically attractive rates,” he said. “As a defensive safe haven sector, the electric utilities—unlike many other industries—were able to access the debt capital markets during even the most difficult period in the recession in late 2008 and early 2009. This is an excellent time to finance significant capital investments in the industry.”
It’s appropriate that the industry’s fuel companies are gathering in Singapore. Seventy-one reactors are being built worldwide, with the majority of these projects located in Asia to meet fast-rising electricity demand.
The International Energy Agency predicts that electricity demand will expand by more than 70 percent by 2035, or 2.2 percent per year on average. More than 80 percent of that growth will be in non-OECD countries—more than half in China and India alone.
Growth in China’s electricity demand alone over that period is greater than the total current electricity demand in the United States and Japan combined. China has 26 reactors under construction and the country aims to quadruple its nuclear capacity from reactors now operating and under construction by 2020. India has seven reactors under construction; 20 others are planned. Asselstine said he expects the majority of these projects to be completed despite the 2011 accident in Japan.
On the U.S. response to the Fukushima accident, Asselstine said “the industry and NRC responses have been constructive and timely, and should prove effective in addressing the lessons learned for the industry. The review process helped set priorities for the various recommendations, focusing the agency’s and industry’s efforts on a set of changes that can be implemented relatively quickly to produce substantial near-term safety improvements.”