Nuclear energy provides almost 20% of all electricity in the United States. It is available 24 hours a day, emits no greenhouse gasses or criteria pollutants, and once built is extremely inexpensive to operate. To date, the hurdles for nuclear have been high capital costs and concerns over waste management. But today, over one hundred nuclear reactors operate domestically,1 have a strong record of safety,2 and provide clean energy in areas of the country, especially the South and parts of the Midwest,3 with growing demand and limited access to other clean energy sources. Every new nuclear reactor could create up to 3,500 new construction jobs per plant and up to 700 permanent jobs.4 Given its benefits and manageable challenges, nuclear energy should be treated by the federal government as a critical energy resource.
Record-low natural gas prices in the U.S., the high cost of building new light water reactors, and continued concerns about waste security and disposal have made development of new nuclear facilities very difficult. Today, only two nuclear reactors are under construction, both at the Vogtle plant in Georgia. The current loan guarantee authority of $18.5 billion5 should be sufficient to generate private capital interest in four new reactors. Yet, the private capital markets have made clear that at least two to three plants or 4 reactors need to be built on time and on budget in order to provide some certainty to the private capital markets.6 Without those plants and the federal investment to jump start them, private financing of large nuclear projects will be difficult.
A previously bipartisan-supported expansion of the loan guarantee program to $54.5 billion7 would help fund the rollout of 7-10 new reactors8 and add roughly 9 gigawatts of generation capacity.9 This would create enough electricity to power 5.9 million homes,10 more than in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama combined.11 Assuming the additional capacity replaced coal, 9 GW of nuclear power would eliminate as much as 68 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.12 Furthermore, deploying this much needed capacity could remove as many conventional air pollutants every year as produced by about 23 average-size coal plants.13
An increase in the loan guarantee authority and Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) funding levels, as well as important reforms to the NRC, are necessary steps to maintain the highest standard of safety through the most cost-effective means possible. This would further encourage greater nuclear adoption, even if natural gas is priced at $5.14
Reform and Expand the Loan Guarantee Program
Congress should fund the nuclear loan guarantee program at the $54.5 billion level requested by President Obama in his Fiscal 2011 budget request15 which received bipartisan support.16 In conjunction with this increase, the revolving program should include a sunset that eventually transfers the risk of default to newly constructed plant owners. While the optimal number required for this consortium to adequately spread the risk still needs to be determined,17 the effect of this transfer would be to move these expensive reactors off the books of the federal government and allow private industry to be self-sufficient.
Reform and Fund the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Application Process
Congress should reduce the time it takes for the NRC to certify reactor design and review applications by increasing NRC funding to hire more full-time employees. The design certification process currently takes 36-60 months to complete.18 It is critical that NRC maintains its independence and rigor, yet this regulatory delay contributes to the burgeoning costs of borrowing capital from private-capital markets. Increasing funding and staff could reduce roadblocks within the NRC that drive up the costs of license renewals and new deployment.19 This would ensure that nuclear generation remains safe and the gold standard of the NRC is maintained, while at the same time facilitating the rollout of safe nuclear plants.
Improve the Permitting Process
The NRC should make small, simple changes to make the process for permitting the construction and operation of nuclear power plants more efficient and transparent.20 Suggested changes include holding the final hearing in the format of a one- to two-week legislative hearing, rather than as a yearlong judicial process. Applicants should also be allowed to use the same environmental impact statement for early site permits, construction, and operating applications. Finally, the NRC should update a project’s licensing schedule every six months.21
Expedite Export Controls Review for Nuclear Information
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) should reduce the length of time it takes to get a license to export nuclear services to three months. This does not affect the export controls processes for nuclear fuel and reactor components or dual-use technologies, as they are separately regulated by the NRC and Department of Commerce.22 The NNSA has said it would reduce the time it takes to grant a license for exporting nuclear information. It’s currently often longer than a year.23 The NNSA must follow through on this promise to help put the U.S. on par with major nuclear exporters worldwide, many of whom grant similar requests in two to twelve weeks.24 Services are an increasing component of nuclear exports.25 Moreover, a license to export nuclear information is often a prerequisite to bid for an overseas nuclear reactor construction project, which could be a significant boon to U.S. industries and the domestic economy.26
Include Nuclear Generation in the Quadrennial Energy Review
The next Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) should include a roadmap for nuclear power generation in the U.S. The QER will advance a long term energy plan and as such is an appropriate place to affirm a strong federal commitment to nuclear power.
Analysts argue that to overcome a history of delays and stoppages in nuclear reactor development, at least two plants must be built on time and on budget to encourage private markets to become open to financing large reactors. See Joel Kirkland and Peter Behr, “Obama Ups Administration’s Ante for Nuclear Power Plant Incentives,” Climatewire, February 1, 2010. Accessed April 2, 2013. Available at: http://www.eenews.net/climatewire/2010/02/01/archive/5?terms=nuclear. Yet, if natural gas prices remain near $3.00 it will be difficult to encourage private investment in anything other than natural gas projects, barring clean energy mandates either at the state or federal level.
Mathematical analysis based on data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) on average home energy use and the likely energy generated by 8 GW of geothermal at its capacity factor of 91% from EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2012. See United States, Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “Frequently Asked Questions: How Much Electricity Does an American Home Use?” Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=97&t=3; See also United States, Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, “Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2012,” July 12, 2012. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/electricity_generation.cfm.
Housing unit figures based on 2010 census data. See United States, Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, “State & County QuickFacts,” Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html.
Calculations based on data from the Energy Information Administration on capacity factor of energy, and peer reviewed analysis of GHG output by energy source. See “Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources in the Annual Energy Outlook 2012,” Table 1; See also, Benjamin Sovacool, “Valuing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Nuclear Power: A Critical Survey,” Article, Energy Policy, June 2, 2008, p. 2950. Print.
Analysis based on conventional pollutants of a 550 MW subcritical bituminous pulverized coal plant, assumed to be average sized for the PowerBook. See United States, Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory, “Subcritical Pulverized Bituminous Coal Plant,” Report. Accessed March 4, 2013. Available at: http://www.netl.doe.gov/KMD/cds/disk50/PC%20Plant%20Case_Subcritical_051507.pdf.
Based on initial conversations with nuclear industry officials, we anticipate this number to be around 20 reactors. See New Millennium Nuclear Energy Partnership, “A Strategy for the Future of Nuclear Energy: The Consolidated Working Group Report,” Report, June 2012, p. 12. Accessed April 2, 2013. Available at: http://www.thirdway.org/subjects/9/publications/540.
Dual-use (or multi-use) items can be used both for nuclear power generation and nuclear weapons manufacturing. To see how regulatory responsibilities break down See United States, Export.gov, “Civil Nuclear Guide to Exporting,” Accessed April 4, 2014. Available at: http://export.gov/civilnuclear/index.asp.
This includes Japan, South Korea, and Russia. See James Glasgow, Elina Teplinsky and Stephen Markus, “Nuclear Export Controls: A Comparative Analysis of National Regimes for the Control of Nuclear Materials, Components and Technology,” October 2012, p. 12. Accessed September 23, 2014. Available at: http://www.pillsburylaw.com/publications/nuclear-export-controls.
United States, Government Accountability Office, “Government-wide Strategy Could Help Increase Commercial Benefits from U.S. Nuclear Cooperation Agreements with Other Countries,” Nuclear Commerce, November 2010, pp. 11-12. Accessed September 23, 2014. Available at: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-36.