A Nuclear Silver Bullet?

By Scott Kriner, Green Metal Consulting

The Building sector of our economy consumes 41% of our nation’s total energy and almost three quarters of our nation’s electricity. That is higher than the transportation sector and the industrial sector. The way in which that energy is generated has been hotly debated over the years. The growing concern over greenhouse gas emissions has clearly put the fossil fuel-generated energy installations in the cross hairs of environmentalists. Our current fuel mix according to the DOE is 50% coal, 19% natural gas and 19% nuclear. Renewables make up a small percentage of the nation’s energy.

Solar, wind, hydroelectric, fuel cells, etc. make up the renewable energy portfolio. There have been incredible improvements in technology and installation practice to reduce cost while boosting efficiency of renewable energy. Yet the Energy Information Administration estimates this sector comprises less than 3% of our energy, excluding hydroelectric generation. Currently, there are 30 states that have some form of renewable mandates to grow that source of energy.

Solar energy has been propped up with incentives, such as the federal production tax credit for several years. But that incentive expired on December 31, 2013, along with incentives to other alternative energy industries. The federal tax incentive offered 2.3 cents per KwH of generation to wind, geothermal, and closed loop biomass energy companies. It also provided 1.1 cents per KwH to municipal solid waste and alternative power firms.

While most of that industry is watching Congress closely to see if the incentives will be extended in a new energy bill, some are calling for the end to incentives for these types of energy generation. They cite the cost to taxpayers over the years and accuse the renewable energy sector of being inefficient compared to the more traditional sources of energy.

But renewable energy is not the only source under attack. The coal industry is hampered by ever-increasing air quality regulations which result in higher cost of production. There are over 615 coal fired power plants in the United States, with 25 under construction but over 150 awaiting permits. Recently, major power companies in the Midwest have announced agreements with the EPA to cease burning coal and replace it with natural gas. Plans for major coal fired plants in Florida and Texas were scrubbed due to the burden placed on these projects by the EPA regulations.

Natural gas is another fossil fuel that is used for generating electricity. The DOE estimates that of the next 1000 power plants built in the US, 900 of them will use natural gas. This fuel has become very popular due to its attractive cost and growing availability. Even though it burns cleaner than coal, it too is not without its protesters from emissions and concerns of the environmental impact of fracking practices.

And that brings us to the nuclear power industry. There are 104 operating nuclear reactors in the US. But no new reactors have been built over the past 30 year. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 legislation created incentives for the nuclear power industry. Since 2007 over 25 new applications for licenses have been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). But just when it looked like the industry would be coming back, many of those hopes were dashed when several projects were shut down or delayed due to regulatory issues and/or financing. Peter Bradford, a former member of the US NRC believes that our nation’s nuclear output reached a peak a few years ago and it will not attain that level again in our lifetime. To support that belief, licenses are being rejected, and some large nuclear energy providers are suspending their applications due to lowering demand for electricity. A plant owned by Dominion was permanently shuttered recently citing that it was “unable to take advantage of economies of scale “ as their power purchase agreements were ending at a time when electricity prices were low.

Despite the problems being encountered by the nuclear industry, there are proponents of that type of energy. There are environmentalists and climate change supporters who say that safe nuclear energy must be used to fight the environmental harm being caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Last year, a journalist from the New York Times suggested that environmentalists should embrace nuclear to save the planet. There are environmentalists that question whether renewable energy production can scale-up fast enough to deliver energy that is both affordable and reliable all days and at all times of day. Experts remind us that today’s nuclear technology is safer and carries lower risks than what was used over 30 years ago. However opponents cite health and safety issues, high costs of construction, and the lack of a long-term plan for nuclear waste. Some accuse the nuclear energy industry of using the earth as its waste dump instead of the atmosphere where other energy industries put their waste.

The two words - “Nuclear Waste” remind us of the social concerns surrounding nuclear energy. The negative public perception was bolstered in the aftermath of the tsunami that crippled Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. Over four decades of nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for thousands of years has been stored in underground areas in the US. But no long-term storage solutions have been suggested to-date.

Experts in the nuclear industry are working on technologies that could indeed reduce the risk and environmental impact of nuclear energy and its by-products. According to the winter 2014 issue of the journal Corporate Knights, the following developments hold out hope for a nuclear silver bullet for our energy situation:

• Fast neutron reactors – these safely burn plutonium directly as a fuel, resulting in less waste and a shorter half-life of the waste.

• Modular reactors – smaller reactors that are built using modular construction practices are shipped to the site with minimal construction required, which keeps costs down.

• New fuel sources – Using Thorium as a fuel, instead of uranium, improves the efficiency, is more common to mine, and results in waste that can be stabilized in under 100 years.

• Fusion – Efforts are underway in Japan, China, Korea and France with targeted commercial production being predicted by 2040. The waste from fusion is helium and tritium which can be reused as a fuel in the process.

The federal government often talks of the “all of the above” approach to our energy needs rather than focusing on one silver bullet. Clearly, however, there are favorite technologies, more acceptable sources and those that remain controversial. With no clear energy policy being touted, it will be interesting to watch the winners and losers of energy production technologies. It will be even more interesting to see if our civilization can live with a safe nuclear silver bullet.

Nuclear By The Numbers*
434      Nuclear reactors operating worldwide
119   Nuclear reactors operating in North America
69   Nuclear reactors under construction worldwide
2300   Tons of used fuel waste the US nuclear power industry produces annually
19   Percentage of the fuel mix in the U.S. that is nuclear
75   Percentage of the fuel mix in France that is nuclear
12.3   Percentage of the world’s total generated power that is nuclear

* According to the World Nuclear Association and Nuclear Energy Institute


Scott Kriner is the president and founder of Green Metal Consulting Inc. He is a LEED Accredited Professional who began his career in the metal construction industry in 1981. His company is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, the California Association of Building Energy Consultants and the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET).

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