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Does Nuclear Energy Still Have a Future? You Better Believe It Does.

Ever since last week's announcement of the closure of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, we've been seeing a spate of stories in the press questioning whether or not nuclear energy has a future as part of the nation's energy mix. Here at NEI, the answer is a resounding yes, and part of the confidence springs from the fact that we've passed this way before. Back in the 1990s, we saw 10 reactors shut down for a variety of different reasons, and it wasn't uncommon for the press to wonder if the only growth part of the business was in decommissioning reactors.

So what happened? Well, the industry got back to work figuring out how to do our jobs better than before. Over the course of a decade or so, the industry's average capacity factor rose from the high 70s to near 90% across the entire fleet. And thanks to a number of companies performing plant uprates, the U.S. nuclear fleet actually produces more electricity today from fewer reactors.

So reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated before. So what's the good news today? How about five reactors currently under construction in the U.S. with plenty more planned or on order overseas? How about small reactors? And, as we've recently seen, there's growing realization on the part of many environmentalists that keeping the lights on while constraining carbon emissions means that nuclear energy must be part of the world's energy mix going forward.

NEI's Scott Peterson and Monica Trauzzi of E&E TV
But that doesn't mean folks aren't entitled to ask tough questions, which is exactly what Monica Trauzzi of E&E TV did earlier this week when she had NEI Senior Vice President Scott Peterson in the studio to talk about recent items in the news, including the San Onofre shutdown. Here are some highlights from the transcript:
Monica Trauzzi: How big of a hit is this to the industry, and is it in some ways a sign of surrender on some of the sticky safety issues that surround nuclear energy?

Scott Peterson: Absolutely not. The nuclear industry will continue to play a vital role in the electricity system for hundreds of millions of people in this country. San Onofre is an unfortunate situation for the consumers of Southern California, who relied on that plant for reliable power, for grid stability particularly in the hot summer months. And it'll be interesting to see how they survive this coming summer. But we believe that nuclear energy certainly has a role to play in this country. San Onofre is a unique situation, to the replacement of those steam generators, but when you look at the prospects of our industry, we're building five reactors today in this country. We just finished a major uprate at, FPL's plant's putting on another 500 megawatts. We're renewing licenses, and we're developing new reactor designs for the future. So we feel very good about nuclear energy's role in the electricity system going forward.
And on the progress in Georgia and South Carolina at Plant Vogtle and V.C. Summer:
Monica Trauzzi: The nuclear industry has seemingly taken hit after hit recently. What - how are investments looking in your sector? Is it difficult to secure investments?

Scott Peterson: Not at all. When you look at the new projects that we're putting in in Georgia and South Carolina, both projects are getting the financing they need. In fact, they're over-subscribed in the financing as they go into the markets to get financing for building those four AP1000 reactors. So there is a, very much the financial support for the industry. As we're putting new technologies online, we want to make sure there's an equal commitment with a cost-shared program to develop small modular reactors at the Department of Energy and through the appropriations that Congress provides for that program, as another part of moving our industry future. So there is investment happening today. There is still a strong support for nuclear energy, certainly a strong role to play, particularly when you're looking at meeting 28 percent electricity growth by 2040, and doing it in a way that really reduces greenhouse gasses as a whole.
Bottom line: not dead yet. Not by a long shot.


FRE said…
That's was a good article. However, it did not adequately cover the need to develop better nuclear technologies which would circumvent some of the problems associated with our present nuclear reactor technology.

The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) seems especially promising; it was successfully tested many years ago in prototype form, but unfortunately, funding was canceled before it could be developed to the point of implementation.

By doing a google search on "thoriuim reactor", you can learn more about it. Although it is not ready for implementation and some challenges remain, it certainly looks sufficiently promising that R & D should resume.

The integral fast reactor (IFR) may also have possibilities which should be explored.

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