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Nuclear renaissance? More like nuclear standstill

A power-hungry world needs clean, reliable energy sources, but the cost of nuclear, and heightened safety concerns from Fukushima, have stalled nuclear's expansion.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read
The modular reactor proposed by Babcock & Wilcox, one of a new generation of designs meant to address safety and cost. The slideshow below shows how it would be placed vertically and underground in a plant. Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Energy

Modern nuclear power designs are safer, but that isn't enough to rekindle the long-sought nuclear renaissance.

One year after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, nuclear power is either slogging ahead or at the end of the road, depending on which country you live in. How nuclear grows in the years ahead largely depends on whether new designs can demonstrate better safety and, more importantly, compete on price.

Rather than freeze nuclear's progress, Fukushima simply made it harder to make the case for building new plants, experts say. Indeed, one of the primary barriers to a nuclear renaissance is cheap natural gas, not public opinion.

"The nuclear renaissance was a very optimistic view that many new nuclear plants would be built, but the slowdown was largely triggered by events that occurred before Fukushima," said Andrew Kadak, a former professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because of new drilling techniques, natural gas prices have plummeted in the last few years, making it more attractive.

New designs recast nuclear power (images)

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"If natural gas is currently where it is, it's difficult to justify the large capital investment for electricity production for the long term. Nuclear is a 30- or 60-year commitment," Kadak said. Also stacked against nuclear are rising construction costs and regulatory delays, he said.

At the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been busier than ever in advancing new nuclear plants.

Late last year, it approved the Westinghouse AP1000, a plant type chosen by utilities in the U.S. and China. Last month, the NRC issued construction and operation permits--the first since 1978--for two reactors near Augusta, Ga., with expected price tags of $7 billion each. The intention is to have one running in 2016 and another in 2017.

From a financial point of view, the utilities involved at the Vogtle complex in Georgia are able to pay for the reactors because state regulators approved a fee that ratepayers are now paying on their bills. The project also gained a conditional loan guarantee of $8 billion from the Department of Energy.

Uneven global response
In other countries, the response to Fukushima has been lopsided, with some countries pulling back dramatically and others, like the U.S., only pausing to consider new safety standards.

After relying on nuclear for more than 20 percent of its electricity, Japan has stopped operation of all but two of its plants, which are expected to be unplugged, too. To replace nuclear plants, the country is relying on natural gas and renewable energy such as solar.

In another dramatic shift, Germany is phasing out its nuclear plants, which provide about one-quarter of its electricity. Switzerland stopped the advance of three planned plants while keeping its existing five operating, and Italy recently voted against nuclear expansion, according to Ann MacLachland, the European bureau chief for Platts Nuclear.

Elsewhere, though, nuclear is growing. In power-hungry China, there are more than 26 power plants already under construction, with 10 planned for Russia, and seven in India, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. There are more than 200 new reactors under construction or planned worldwide.

Inside a nuclear power plant (photos)

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What takes place in fast-growing countries with climbing electricity demand will set the direction for nuclear power's future, MacLachland said. "The key is what happens in Asia. Despite all the publicity given to nuclear phase-outs, what those two Asian countries--China and India--do in the wake of Fukushima is crucial to the shape of the world nuclear industry going forward," she said during a Webinar this week.

Many companies are working to make nuclear power safer and cheaper, but whether new technologies can achieve that is still an open question.

The AP1000 has "passive safety" features, which use gravity and convection to provide coolant for three days in the case of plant shutdown and loss of power. The European Pressurized Reactor design, now being constructed at four plants in Finland and France, also has improved safety compared with plants in operation today. Nuclear advocates say today's designs would have been able to withstand a Fukushima-like earthquake and tsunami.

There are also fourth-generation designs with underground containment, passive safety, and the ability to store 60 years worth of spent fuel. These latest designs are a "step change" in safety across the life cycle of fuel, reducing chance of accidents and proliferation, according to Forrest Rudin, the vice president of business operations at nuclear startup Hyperion. "Fukushima refocused attention to safety, which is always good," Rudin said.

To lower the cost of new nuclear, companies including startup NuScale Power and Babcock & Wilcox propose modular plants that would lower the upfront cost of construction and let utilities bring reactors into operation quicker. NuScale Power, for example, intends to build 45-megawatt reactors, an alternative to the giant 1,000-megawatt power plants which supply about 1 million U.S. homes.

Advocates say advanced nuclear technology is critical to lowering carbon emissions because the combination of renewable energy with storage can't cost-effectively replace the baseload power supplied by nuclear and fossil fuel plants.

Bill Gates, who is funding fourth-generation nuclear startup TerraPower, said earlier this month that there's no inherent reason why nuclear can't be safer than other sources of energy, but it still takes many years to demonstrate their market viability.

"There are nuclear designs, including ours, that on paper can compete on that basis," he said at the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. "But getting a new nuclear design (licensed), totally figuring out the safety, and getting a demo plant--that's very hard."

One year after Fukushima, the nuclear power industry faces two different challenges. One is showing nuclear critics that industry and regulators can improve the safety of existing plants following the Fukushima disaster. The other is making a case that nuclear power should provide more energy in the future.