Why shouldn’t the US take the lead in nuclear power?

Posted Jan. 18, 2010, at 5:38 p.m.

The United Arab Emirates, a confederation of seven sheikdoms, is about the size of the Maine with four times the Maine population. Whereas we are mostly forest, they are mostly desert. Located on the Persian Gulf, they are major exporters of petroleum.

In spite of being awash in oil, the Emirates are now in the nuclear energy limelight, having signed a $20 billion contract with Korea Electric Power, or KEPCO, for the construction of four nuclear reactors. Another $20 billion is under negotiation to provide plant operation for the next 60 years.

The Emirates will energize their society with nuclear electricity and sell their oil. While negotiating similar deals with India, Jordan and Turkey, Kevin Kang of KEPCO announces: “We are cheap, durable, and dependable.”

The West, including the United States and France, has lost the lead in nuclear power.

On a C-SPAN interview on Nov. 29, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said the following, as reported in the Jan. 2 Science News: “This is our lead to lose. This transition to a clean energy is essentially a new, second, industrial revolution. We’ve got to get the energy we’ve gotten used to but in a much cleaner way. That’s going to require a rebuilding of ex-isting infrastructure, a creation of a whole new infrastructure. It requires incredible intellectual ingenuity and invention. It’s a high-technology issue, so the American innovation and R&D system is still the best in the world. So why shouldn’t we take the lead?”

What is Secretary Chu talking about? Is this “whole new infrastructure” made up of solar, wind, and biofuels? If so, an amazing array of high-voltage power lines will be required to move the energy from the deserts or mountaintops to the place where people use energy.

Or is it the nuclear lead we have already lost to South Korea? The infrastructure for nuclear option can be much smaller. The nuclear plant can be placed near the site where the energy is required. Everyone is for a “new infrastructure,” but no one knows what that means.

Having one foot in the technical arena and one foot in the political arena, Dr. Chu can call for “a rebuilding of the existing infrastructure” without offending anyone.

The Maine Yankee nuclear plant was constructed in the 1960s for about $250 million. It operated for many years with an on-site crew of about 100. Nuclear plants now under discussion in the U.S. will cost more than $6 billion with a crew of nearly 1,000.

Most technologies have a “learning curve.” The nuclear enterprise in the United States must have a “forgetting curve.” Or is it a case of regulation “rigor mortise”?

About 100 nuclear plants are now in operation in the U.S., and generate about 20 percent of the U.S. electricity. In addition to the much larger capital and operating costs required to comply with current U.S. regulation, these plants pay the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about $1 billion per year for regulatory oversight. (That’s about $10 million per year for each plant.)

The nuclear plant at Seabrook, N.H., will generate nearly 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electric energy per year, so the direct regulation cost is only about one-tenth of a cent per kilowatt-hour. However, the increased capital and operating costs mandated by regulation no doubt add several cents per kwh.

The next generation of American nuclear power is thwarted by uncertainty. Everything from the potential tax on carbon to limitations on site selection force designers and investors to hesitate. Dr. Chu, why can’t “the American innovation and R&D system” help with this?

Richard C. Hill of Old Town is a retired professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Maine.

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