The Bush Administration deserves praise for voicing support for
nuclear power in recent weeks at major international meetings.
President Bush recently spoke of the value of nuclear energy at the
Asian Pacific Economic Council forum. Shortly after, Secretary of
Energy Samuel Bodman delivered pro-nuclear remarks at the
International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference in Austria.
Such statements are vital as nations continue to grapple with
transforming their energy profiles to better reflect economic,
security, and environmental concerns while also striving to meet
energy demand, which is projected to skyrocket in the coming
The United States government predicts that domestic demand for
electricity will increase by 40 percent over the next 25 years. This
general increase must be met in an economically rational and
environmentally friendly way that does not increase America's
exposure to foreign vulnerabilities. Nuclear power can help do
The price of electricity produced by nuclear power plants is both
stable and affordable. Although the price of uranium has increased
in recent years, the monthly cost of producing electricity
from uranium-based fuel remains slightly less than coal and
substantially less than natural gas or oil. Electricity produced
by nuclear energy is minimally sensitive to uranium price swings,
because uranium accounts for only 5 to 13 percent of operating
costs for nuclear power plants. However, the increase in
uranium price does drive industry to invest in developing
additional natural uranium supplies. This is beneficial because it
lowers the demand for secondary uranium supplies, which include
national stockpiles and downblended uranium (obtained by turning
highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium into low-enriched, power
plant uranium). These supplies can then be set aside for other
The wider nuclear industry, like the uranium fuel market, is
currently in a transition period as nuclear power continues its
reemergence. One result is the spike in the value of some nuclear
goods and services. Demand has outstripped the ability of a largely
atrophied nuclear supplier base to respond. While some investments
are occurring, the nuclear industry must ultimately respond to
ensure adequate capability. Nonetheless, prices for
nuclear-produced electricity remain stable, and all indications are
that market forces will ensure that uranium supplies and other
nuclear services will meet demand.
These costs, however, are only associated with the current fleet
of power plants. The real question that remains about the long-term
affordability of nuclear power is the cost of new construction.
Industry leaders have assured the public that advances in
technology, streamlined regulation, and applying lessons learned
from the past will yield affordable nuclear power plants.
Environmental controls present perhaps the greatest regulatory
hurdle facing future energy supplies. Ironically, the push for
restrictions on CO2 presents an opportunity for nuclear power.
Carbon dioxide emissions are the latest anxiety driving
environmental activists. Their sophisticated public relations
campaign has convinced much of the world that CO2 and other
naturally occurring gases, such as methane, cause global warming
and must therefore be drastically reduced. The result is a plethora
of federal and international legislation under consideration to
restrict their release. States are also responding to CO2 fears. In
addition to numerous multi-state regional commitments, California
has enacted CO2 caps; seven other states are working on similar
mandates. Twenty other states are pursuing voluntary
restrictions. The likelihood is that some sort of CO2
caps will be put in place.
To avoid drastic consequences for the economy and for Americans'
lifestyles, an affordable energy source must be leveraged that can
meet their CO2 objectives. Because nuclear energy emits no
atmospheric pollutants, it is the best way to meet these
objectives. Ohio Governor Ted Strickland (D) recently acknowledged
the role for nuclear power by proposing that it be included as part
of its renewable energy portfolio.
Nuclear power is often maligned for its association with
"nuclear waste." This reputation is unfounded. In reality, nuclear
energy is extremely friendly to the environment because its
byproducts remain contained. Much of the byproduct, unlike that of
other power sources, is manageable and can be harnessed for future
While the anti-power environmentalists like to suggest that
wind, solar, biomass, and conservation are the answers to meeting
future energy demands, these sources are not as environmentally
friendly as they are often portrayed. Each option, even if it were
affordable and capable (which is questionable at best), would
require the development of huge swaths of land to accommodate
production. In addition to the unused cornfields of the Midwest,
using wind, solar, and biomass to meet future energy demand would
devour rainforests, mountain tops, and shorelines. According to a
1996 Nuclear Regulatory Commission document, producing 1000 MW
(electricity) would require up to150,000 acres using wind and
14,000 acres using solar, as opposed to 500-1000 acres using
nuclear. Brazil's reliance on biofuels is already
leading to fears of deforestation of the Amazon and other
biodiverse regions. However, it is worth noting that
although substantial terrain is required, activities such as
farming can coexist with wind turbines.
Decreasing American dependence on foreign energy has been at the
heart of the energy debate in recent years. However, dependence on
foreign sources of energy, per se, is not the problem. The problem
is that the United States has created economic and strategic
vulnerabilities by exposing itself to over-dependence on unstable
foreign energy sources. Expanding nuclear power in the United
States can help reduce this vulnerability.
Although America's current energy dependence is largely a
function of the petroleum-based transportation sector, trends
indicate that the larger energy sector is following suit. Most new
power plants brought online in recent years have been gas-fired.
While the United States is not currently dependent on natural gas
imports, greater mobility of natural gas in liquid form (LNG) makes
importing this resource in much higher quantities increasingly
likely. Indeed, America's imports of LNG have increased
approximately five-fold over the past decade. This trend
will likely accelerate, as most power plants now being planned will
be gas-fired as well.
While this should not deter the United States from developing
foreign sources of liquid natural gas and the domestic
infrastructure to support those imports, Americans should be alert
to the potential problems that these additional imports could
cause. Natural gas comes from many of the same regions where oil is
found, and public opposition to placing LNG terminals near
population centers has made infrastructure development difficult.
The potential result of greater reliance on natural gas will be an
expansion of America's economic and strategic vulnerabilities.
The President is right to continue to promote the important role
for nuclear energy in meeting future energy demand. While nuclear
power may not be an energy panacea, it has the potential to
alleviate many future concerns.
Jack Spencer is
Research Fellow for Nuclear Energy in the Thomas A. Roe
Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage
Department of Energy, Energy Information Agency, Annual Energy
Outlook 2007 with Projections to 2030
, February 2007, p.
U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Agency, Uranium
Marketing Annual Report, Table S1b, "Weighted-Average Price of
Uranium purchased by Owners and Operators of U.S. Civilian Nuclear
Power Reactors, 1994-2006," at www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/nuclear/umar/summarytable1.html
(September 19, 2007).
"Uranium Fuel Supply Adequate to Meet Present and Future Nuclear
Energy Demand," Nuclear Energy Institute Policy Brief,
January 2007, p. 3.
Estimates vary depending on source.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Generic Environmental Impact
Statement for License Renewal of Nuclear Plants, Division of
Regulatory Applications, (NUREG-1437 Vol. 1), May 1996. Other
sources estimate the acreage required for wind power can be
substantially less (but far more than other sources) under optimal