Nuclear energy will continue to play a role in meeting U.S. energy needs. But before the industry can see a major resurgence, it will need to overcome challenges of policy related to safety and cost. Illinois is ranked first in the nation for the amount of nuclear energy generated, but a state moratorium put in place in 1987 bans any new nuclear production.
Nuclear energy continues to play an important role in meeting U.S. energy needs, the source of 20 percent of the country's electricity.
Yet it will be 20 to 30 years before we can expect to see a major revival in the nuclear energy industry, according to Rober Rosner, director of the Energy Policy Institute at Chicago.
Current policy and the safety and cost of operations all present challenges to the future of nuclear energy, Rosner said at a recent nuclear energy program sponsored by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology.
Illinois generates nearly half of its electricity from nuclear power, ranked first in the nation for net nuclear generating capacity. But a state moratorium, put in place in 1987, bans the construction of any new nuclear reactors.
In the United States, the fundamental problem is with political issues that have stood in the way solving how we deal with nuclear waste. That's not a technical issue, Rosner said. "It is stunning that we actually do not have a nuclear waste strategy that's formal, that's agreed upon and that's funded."
In addition to the safety of waste management, the safety of plant operations is also a major concern as technology moves forward, Rosner said.
Rosner said he believes that the type of reactors that should be used in the future in the United States would have passive safety features, meaning the features are built-in. These reactors, such as Generation III reactors, rely less on manual human actions in the event of many emergencies, and rely more on specialized engineering. These reactors are in use in Japan but were not the kind in place at Fukushima when the tsunami hit.
It is important to note that really serious incidents are extremely rare, Rosner said. There have only been three major incidents since the beginning of commercial nuclear power - at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Chernobyl in Russia and Fukushima.
"When you look at, first, Three Mile Island, then Chernobyl and now Fukushima, the industry does show the ability to learn from these accidents. We're in the midst of learning from Fukushima," said Mark Peters, deputy laboratory director for programs at Argonne National Laboratory.
With regard to the threat of proliferation as a result of reactor programs, Rosner said that nuclear technology is knowledge, and "it's a mistake to think that we can really segregate knowledge at this time."
The cost of building new plants is enormous and essentially unaffordable for utilities. Construction of two new reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, which are slated for commercial operation by 2017, carries a $14 billion price tag and they are part of an existing plant, according to Atlanta-based Southern Co., the energy company behind the construction plans.
The reactors are the first to be approved for new construction in the U.S. since the Three Mile Island accident.
One option for lowering costs would be building small modular reactors, Rosner said. They have a new smaller electricity output, but can be built more cheaply than larger reactors. The idea is that a single workforce could build them through mass production.
Despite challenges of safety and cost, Peters has no doubt that nuclear energy will continue to help meet our energy needs.
"The question is: How are we going to meet our future energy demand?" Peters said. "You can't do all that by efficiency. You can't do all that by renewables. Nuclear will play a role."
Currently in the United States, about 20 percent of our electricity is generated by nuclear power, Peters said. That percentage is significantly lower than other countries, including France, which derives about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
There are a total of 104 reactors at several plants across multiple states, but no new plants have been built in over 35 years, Rosner said. Nine of those reactors are no longer producing electricity, but store spent fuel on site.
Currently, utilities are making an effort to up-rate nuclear plants, Peters said. Rather than building new plants, they are driving up power in existing plants. To do this, plants must appeal to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to determine whether it is safe to increase the amount of power a plant can produce.
"We've gained about the equivalent of four new plants just by up-rating existing plants," Peters said.
There is also active work going on to extend the life of nuclear plants, Peters said. Currently plants can operate for about 40 years, but there is conversation now that, as long as safety standards are met, plants could increase their licensing for up to 60 or more years.
But new technology will eventually need to come in and replace old operations.
Peters said, "From Argonne's perspective, it's important.to continue to develop the advanced technologies as we solve the policy issues so that there are some technology options as we go forward."