The nuclear option

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When Minnesotans think of nuclear power, any number of things might come to mind. They might think of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier patrolling the Persian Gulf, or the incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Others might conjure images of doughnut crumbs spilling from Homer Simpson’s mouth onto the reactor control panel at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

But as concern over the impact of climate change moves to the forefront of energy policy, advocates for nuclear energy hope to convey an entirely different picture of the technology: one that paints it green rather than glowing green.

“If you believe that greenhouse gasses are causing global climate change, nuclear is a great option,” said Rep. Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers).

In the past, proposals to expand nuclear power in the state have faced an uphill battle — and they still do. But the tide may be slowly turning.

Although heavily criticized by environmentalists for the radioactive waste it creates, nuclear power produces zero greenhouse gas emissions. Peppin is one of a growing number of legislators who see nuclear energy as a potential compromise between those concerned about global warming and those who worry that regulating greenhouse gasses will hamstring the state’s ability to supply electricity. In fact, Peppin doesn’t see very many other options.

“Some might argue that we should be consuming less, but in reality we’re not. So we need to meet our needs, and there’s only so many options. And nuclear is certainly a viable and safe alternative,” she said.

Peppin, a consistent and vocal supporter of nuclear power, isn’t sure whether she actually believes that greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change — and until recently, her arguments might’ve been ignored by those who do. But as the Legislature tries to grapple with the issue of global warming, all options are being put back on the table, including nuclear power.

On April 17, members of two House committees held a joint hearing on new nuclear plant designs and safety technologies. It was the first in what is expected to be an extensive series of discussions in coming years about the future of nuclear power in Minnesota. Although it wasn’t brought up directly at the meeting, the underlying issue was whether to lift the state’s 12-year-old moratorium on constructing any new nuclear plants.

“I think the movement to remove this ban is clearly gaining ground,” Peppin said.

Ed Garvey, director of the Office of Energy Security, recently came out on behalf of Gov. Tim Pawlenty in support of lifting the moratorium. The Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group recommended that the state consider adding more nuclear power to its energy portfolio to help reach its carbon reduction goals. The issue has also come up several times in recent floor debates, and key DFL committee chairs in the House have pledged their commitment to hold hearings on the issue.

While even supporters acknowledge that it could be decades before a new nuclear plant would be built in the state — even if the moratorium were lifted tomorrow — it’s clear that the issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

Baseload worries

When it comes to mitigating climate change, renewable energy technologies like solar and wind power are usually the preferred option; however, these technologies have a major drawback: they aren’t very good at supplying what’s called “baseload capacity.”

The term “baseload capacity” refers to the ability to supply electricity constantly, without interruption and regardless of external conditions. Since the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, solar and wind power don’t provide much baseload generation. As a result, most of our energy comes from coal power, which spews an enormous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In contrast, nuclear plants can generate electricity virtually free of emissions — and unlike most renewable sources, they do provide reliable baseload capacity.

There are currently 104 nuclear power plants operating in the United States. Minnesota has two: one in Monticello and one at Prairie Island, both of them built in the early-1970s and operated by Xcel Energy. Construction of nuclear plants declined rapidly in the 1980s, largely due to safety concerns and still-unresolved problem of what to do with the radioactive waste they produce. As a result, the country has an aging nuclear power industry. Unless more plants are built, nuclear generation in the United States is projected to begin dropping around 2030 and will virtually cease to exist by 2050.

While some might consider that a blessing, it does raise the question of how the United States will meet its growing need for baseload capacity — or even maintain its present levels.

“Baseload is essentially nuclear, hydro or coal. Hydro is tapped out. It’s very difficult to build a coal plant now in any of the states because of concerns over carbon emissions. So what you’re left with, really, is nuclear,” said Richard Reister, the program manager for the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Nuclear Power 2010” initiative.

Big plans, big problems

At the April 17 hearing, Reister and other testifiers described a new generation of nuclear plants that are cleaner, safer, and more efficient than previous power plants. New plant designs were showcased that minimize safety concerns while maximizing power output. But Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Mpls), an 18-term House member who has been around for many of the previous battles over nuclear energy in the Legislature, isn’t buying it.

“There are no greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power — that’s completely true. But the question is, ‘Is it better than conservation?’ We haven’t gone to the lengths of what we can do with conservation, so I’m not even interested in looking at that argument until we’ve dealt with the arguments that I’ve said need to be answered up front.”

The arguments against nuclear power, according to Kahn, are many. Above all is the issue of the waste. A plan to open a national spent fuel repository underneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been stalled for decades by political controversy and legal challenges, leaving the waste to be stored in various locations around the country. This has raised fears of catastrophic terrorist attacks or other disasters at waste storage sites.

“We never should’ve authorized the first plant until we were sure we could solve the waste problem,” Kahn said.

Moreover, the challenge of disposing of the waste may actually pale in comparison to the financial problems associated with nuclear power. One of the reasons that so few new nuclear plants have been proposed is simply that they’re incredibly expensive to build, and seen as risky investments.

Even with generous federal subsidies and government loans, the capital costs associated with nuclear power are astronomical compared with other energy technologies. Nuclear construction projects are notorious for cost overruns and for not being completed on time. On top of that, no one is certain how much it will cost to decommission and maintain the current generation of nuclear plants once their operational lives expire.

“The whole process from beginning to end really does have to be analyzed to ensure that we understand what all of the costs are, including all the externalities,” said Rep. Bill Hilty (DFL-Finlayson).

Hilty, who chairs the House Energy Finance and Policy Division, is committed to holding a series of legislative discussions on nuclear power in coming years. He remains skeptical, however, about the perceived benefits of nuclear energy, and even questions whether it helps reduce greenhouse gasses once you figure in emissions from uranium drilling and construction of the actual plants.

He also doubts the motives of some of nuclear energy’s supporters. He mentions one particularly vocal group called the Heartland Institute.

“They pretty consistently are publishing articles by people that are skeptical of the existence of, or at least human involvement in, climate change — and at the same time, that they’re promoting nuclear power based on the assumption that we need to curtail carbon emissions. It seems like there might be kind of a logical contradiction,” Hilty said.

James Taylor, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, was among the testifiers at the April 17 hearing. He expressed particular enthusiasm about a new reactor design by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, and Hilty noted that Taylor “sounded more like he was a representative from Westinghouse than from the Heartland Institute.”

“It didn’t sound too much different for me than selling a used car,” Hilty added.

In any case, Hilty said a thorough and earnest debate on the issue is needed before any action could be taken by the Legislature. He expects the Legislative Electric Energy Task Force and various House and Senate committees to discuss the issue more over the interim as well as future legislative sessions.

“I think it’s an issue that needs to be thoroughly vetted,” he said.