If coal has to go, followed by natural gas, and solar and wind power are faulted for presumed inability to respond to demand for electricity at the slip of a switch, that would seem to favor future reliance on nuclear power. But Americans have been reluctant to embrace that option primarily due to recurring radiation contamination disasters involving the nuclear fuel cycle: Kyshtym, Russia (1957), Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania (1979), Chernobyl, Ukraine (1986) and Fukushima, Japan (2011).
Initially, as U.S. officials argued for rapid de-carbonization of energy production in this country, there was scarcely any mention of nuclear power as a replacement. During the 2015 negotiations leading to the Paris Accord on climate change, U.S. officials generally steered clear of advancing that option, and that avoidance continued until recently.
Perhaps that was because the watchword was “renewables,” primarily referring to electrical generation using the sun and wind, and the use of finite uranium as a fuel source did not conform to the terminology.
At any rate, the Biden administration’s proposal to combat climate change under consideration in Congress included subsidies for nuclear power in a $300 billion spending package.
Currently, the United States has 55 commercial nuclear power plants, mostly east of the Mississippi River. But the largest is the Palo Verde plant in Arizona which has helped generate electricity for New Mexico as well.
The newest began selling power in October 2016; two more nuclear plant reactors are under construction in Georgia.
So far, commercial nuclear plants generate about 20 percent of U.S. electricity consumption, and about 55 percent of its carbon-free production.
In total, the United States is the world’s biggest producer of nuclear power, accounting for more than 30 percent. But few new plants have been added during the past 30 years.
The World Nuclear Association explains why construction of new nuclear power plants in this country had virtually stopped. “Almost all the U.S. nuclear generating capacity comes from reactors built between 1967 and 1990. Until 2013, there had been no new construction starts since 1977, largely because for a number of years, gas generation was considered more economically attractive and because construction schedules during the 1970s and 1980s had frequently been extended by opposition and compounded by heightened safety fears following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.”
Ongoing opposition to nuclear power in this country, as elsewhere, comes partly from uncertainty over how to dispose of the plants’ extremely long-lived waste —tens of thousands of years if not hundreds of thousands.
New Mexico is front and center for that controversy. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) opened in 1999 near Carlsbad, but only for radioactive materials discarded after weapons production. No disposal site has been designated for spent fuel rods from power plants.
For that reason, a new controversy has arisen over plans to open a site in southeastern New Mexico for interim storage of power plant waste. That proposal continues under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
But that need to keep waste fuel rods out of the accessible environment for at least 10,000 years—some experts say the period of isolation should be tens of millions of years— has not deterred officials in other countries increasingly dependent on nuclear power.
France relies on nuclear power for 76 percent of its electricity, and still has no final disposal site.
Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a plan to expand his nation’s commitment to nuclear power. He would spend the equivalent of $34.6 billion on that over the next five years. Even so, his government has made commitments to substantially reduce the country’s reliance on nuclear power. That is supposed to drop to 50 percent by 2035. Under the plan presented in 2018, 14 of France’s nuclear power reactors would shut down by 2035, with as many as six closing in 2030.
About 17 percent of that nation’s power is generated using recycled (re-processed) nuclear fuel, according to the World Nuclear Association.
In France, there seems to be little if any resistance to nuclear power.
A French physicist who lives in Corrales, Remi Dingreville, explained why that’s the case.
“When I was a kid at school, we were taught that we were one of the leading nations that developed and maintained safe and secure nuclear power, and that 75 percent of the nation’s electricity at the time came from nuclear. That started with Charles DeGaulle, right after World War II basically. He said as a nation we need energy independence, and therefore we’re going to develop nuclear power. Since then France has been a key player in terms of the science and technology for nuclear power.”
He said development of nuclear power is a cornerstone of DeGaulle’s popular legacy.
Dingreville has lived in the United States for the past 20 years and pointed out he is not an expert on nuclear power in France or here. Acceptance of the nuclear option for electrical generation is also based on the fact that France has scant other options: little oil and gas and little remaining coal. Much of the country’s non-nuclear power comes from hydroelectric generators.
Another reason is French citizens’ trust in the industry’s expertise and governmental infrastructure. “I believe that every reactor in France is exactly the same design, and whenever there is an issue at one specific reactor, the Electricite de France (Electricity of France authority) sees to it that the correction is propagated to all the other reactors in France.”
For that reason, despite France’s heavy reliance on nuclear power, it has experienced no large-scale accidents like those in Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Dingreville noted that President Macron’s recently announced energy policies for 2030 included a major commitment to developing, building and marketing small modular reactors. “A big part of that strategy was to make France a leader in using and selling small modular reactors,” which are expected to further reduce risks.
He said the future mini-nuclear plants might be sized and deployed to power a small town in de-centralized locations. An advantage of one of the designs in development is that the crucial need for cooling is resolved by combining the uranium fuel with a molten salt coolant. “It becomes a closed loop. Because the units are smaller and because the fuel is in the coolant, it is safer.”
Even so, the physicist conceded, solutions must eventually be found to dispose of nuclear waste from large or small power plants.
“I understand people’s concerns when it comes to accidents and to waste disposal.”
More than a quarter-million metric tons of highly radioactive waste are in storage near nuclear power plants and weapons production facilities around the world. More than 90,000 metric tons of that are in the United States. Some of it has been awaiting permanent disposal since the 1940s.
The United States and China lead the world in using nuclear plants to generate electricity, but France produces more nuclear waste per capita than any other country —approximately two kilos of radioactive waste per person per year.
The French government’s current attempts to dispose of toxic waste from power plants focus on burial within clay near the town of Bure. Until that is available, much of the fuel waste is stored in pools of water near the reactors where it was produced.
In the early 1960s, France buried radioactive wastes at secret sites in Algeria’s Sahara Desert.